Director: Shoaib Mansoor
Actors: Manzar Sehbai, Humaima Malick
"Waah, kya baat hai." I hear those words not from the screen. But from some of the fellows sitting around at my theatre. It happens quite often. Fine Urdu has that effect, even if a lot of the words aren't easy to access. Such is the command the filmmakers have over dialogue writing, it almost feels like being at a mushaira.
This was the case with Mansoor's directorial debut Khuda Kay Liye (2007) as well. Most would remember that film for Naseeruddin Shah's grand finale speech: "Deen mein daadhi hai. Daadhi mein deen nahin (Beard is in religion, rather than the religion in beard)."
"Waah kya baat hai," goes the gentleman next to me in the theatre again. This is for the last time. Thankfully. It relates to the picture's concluding point: "Maarna hi zulm hai, paida karna zulm kyun nahin?" Killing's a crime. Why isn't (indiscriminate, mindless) birthing criminal too? True.
Look at the haggard old man from Lahore in this film. His ancestors are from Lucknow. Which is where he's identified with. This can only happen in Pakistan. Where settlers of Partition, from a time as old as the nation itself, are still separately referred to as mohajirs (migrants, in Arabic).
Anyway, the old man before us is hakeem by an outdated profession. He prescribes time honoured, home made medicines. He has too few patients, and too many children to feed: "Kamanewala ek. Khanewale dus." All his children are girls: by now, grown up, uneducated, forcibly domesticated, helpless. Half dead, he's still hopeful of a male child.
Hakeem saab's medieval intellect, worldview, compassion, or lack thereof, is limited by blind faith in his religion alone: "Takhleeq se nafrat karte hain. Khuda ko khalid maante hain (He abhors man's inventions, considers God immortal)." He is without doubt a despicable old man. Still, there's something about this character that makes it rise above any that you've seen lately in films. You know what that something is. It's the lead actor, Manzar Sehbai, who brings such earnestness, innate nobility, full-bodied empathy to this role, it's hard to imagine any Indian, barring Naseer perhaps, who could.
Hakim saab doesn't talk much, preserves a certain aura around himself: "Bolte nahin, khamosh ho jaate hain. Kabhi apni izzat ke liye, kabhi kisi aur ke." Another notable feature: his "hands are not in control." He's a mard (a man, violent by nature) after all: "Jahan lajawab hue, haath chalne lagi." The only person with guts to take him on, show him the mirror, is his own eldest daughter (Humaima Malick, stunning).
He hasn't raised eight children, he's killed them all, she tells him. The metaphor is factually correct, at least for one of his kids. Hakeem kills his own child, an adult by then, out of sheer shame. The kid was born, raised a eunuch. You'd think this is the film's central conflict. It is. But that's only until the first half. Life never stops. Neither does the movie. With each tragedy appears a fresh opportunity to explore, engage. In that sense, the screenplay is structured more loosely, like an expansive novel, a literary tour de force. Once in a while a film acquaints you with possibilities of a film itself. This is one of those.
It may have a lot to do with the movie's place of origin. For most Indians, the apolitical side of contemporary Pakistan is a running mystery. After independence, Lahore unfortunately lost its filmmaking talents and industry entirely to Bombay. This is a rare, A-grade filmic window to that country. You look closely at the state of its lower middle-class women. Which seems more like Saudi Arabia's, to be honest. That's the tragedy of the trajectory the nation took after independence (or at any rate, after the late '70s), I guess.
You still sense a culture that's somewhat in common with ours, if for nothing else, but Bollywood alone. A tawaif (nautch girl) changes her name from Safeena to Meena, for Meena Kumari. Teasing the doddering old Hakeem, a filmy Lucknowi nawab himself, she quotes the immortal line from Pakeezah, " Aapke payr bahut khoobsurat hain, inhe zameen par mat rakhiyega, maile ho jaayenge ". Incidentally, given the astounding success rate at fathering girls all his life, something he could do without, Hakeem saab's been paid a precious sum, hired to sleep with the hot woman in the local kotha (nautch girls' home). This is ironic. Hilarious.
Mansoor's story isn't merely a sad hook to hang his nation's miseries on. It is sad all right, but highly engrossing, entertaining at the same time. It comes just as highly recommended, for sure.