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Watching our neighbour on Netflix

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on June 21, 2019 Published on June 21, 2019

Borderline celebrity: Fawad Khan-starrers Zindagi Gulzar Hai and Humsafar were briefly aired on a Zee channel   -  The Hindu

Catch a rich haul of contemporary Pakistani films and shows — from spy thrillers and slapstick to richly produced and acted family sagas

As an Indian, watching the 2013 Pakistani spy/war thriller Waar on Netflix was a fascinating experience in more ways than one. Thanks to Bollywood, we are very familiar with this genre — the chest-thumping military thriller: we even have a chap devoted to this kind of cinema (JP Dutta, maker of Border, LOC et al). Waar has all the ingredients set down by Dutta and company — with the Good and Bad nations flipped for Pakistani audiences. It has a dapper leading man who’s basically a one-man army (Shaan Shahid). It has The Enemy (India, of course) using its dastardly spies (led by Shamoon Abbasi, who plays an R&AW agent) to spread unrest and plan multiple, coordinated terrorist attacks. It has plenty of decently shot action scenes involving landmines and other assorted explosives. It even has a little Rang DeBasanti-like mini-speech about nation-building. Watching Waar confirmed for me that films like these made anywhere in the world are, essentially, the same product with different packaging.

Besides Waar, Netflix India currently brings home a whole lot of contemporary Pakistani films and shows across genres.

The Danish Taimoor-starrer Wrong No. is a kind of latter-day David Dhawan caper, only better because Punjabi-inflected invective always beats Hindi hands down. There’s the rather sweet, well-intentioned 2017 romantic comedy Balu Mahi (oppressed girl runs away with gatecrasher at her own wedding, road trip/romantic hijinks follow).

Zinda Bhaag (2013), a fascinating migration drama, sees our very own Naseeruddin Shah in a sutradhar-like role, as his character (Puhlwan) helps the three protagonists escape Pakistan, regaling them with his always-interesting stories along the way (Zinda Bhaag was the first Pakistani film in 30 years to be sent to the Oscars).

For lovers of soap opera, there’s always the Fawad Khan-starrers Zindagi Gulzar Hai and Humsafar (which aired on Indian TV until the Zee Zindagi channel was shut down following an outrage over a terrorist attack at an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot), as well as shows such as Sadqay Tumharay, with Mahira Khan (who starred opposite Shah Rukh Khan in Raees) in the lead role. Sadqay Tumharay is a love story with an intriguing premise — but I could not persist beyond three episodes, alas. Briefly, it is about a girl who has always believed in child marriage and is besotted with her first cousin. Sadly, after a while it starts to resemble a run-of-the-mill soap opera and loses its novelty value.

Easily the most impressive among these offerings is Cake, a 2018 film directed by Asim Abbasi, and starring Sanam Saeed and Aamina Sheikh. It belongs to the dysfunctional-family drama genre, which has given us some of the most memorable and tonally diverse films of the 21st century so far — Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), Revolutionary Road (2008), and so on. The recent Netflix series Umbrella Academy puts a superhero spin on the same. Closer home, Kapoor & Sons made a mark with both critics and audiences, especially for the ensemble cast’s performances (except you, Sidharth Malhotra).

Cake has the same basic ingredients as Kapoor & Sons. Two siblings, one of whom is the long-suffering one. A patriarch who avoids confrontation like the plague. A rambunctious senior citizen. And, of course, whispers, insinuations, hints of a family secret well kept.

But beyond the surface similarity, Cake is as far removed from Bollywood melodrama as possible — beautifully shot and even more impressively acted, this is a story where it takes a lot for a character to raise their voice, no matter the stakes. Saeed and Sheikh play off each other expertly. The latter plays Zareen, the older sister who takes care of her aged parents, the family estate and basically everything about their lives. All the while, she is engaged in a taboo, letters-only romance with Romeo, the son of the family’s household help. Sheikh’s wounded eyes and her expertly calibrated stoicism are spot on, and she carries the film on her shoulders for the most part.

Through Romeo’s character, and the film’s entire second half in general, shot in the Sindh countryside, we gain stark insights into the feudal master-servant equation in modern-day Pakistan. This is reminiscent of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s masterful short story cycle In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, in which every story revealed a different aspect of this phenomenon.

If you’re intrigued by one or more of these films/shows, be sure to watch them as soon as possible. As the Zindagi Gulzar Hai episode taught us, good things from across the border may not last forever here.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

Published on June 21, 2019
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