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Friday, September 20, 2013

Zinda Bhaag: This deserves an Oscar nod

In one scene of the film, an illegal ‘immigration expert’ is surgically recreating a passport for a man who is desperate to get out. He meticulously uses tweezers to peel off one passport picture and then replaces it with another. His hands are steady; after all, the consequences of getting caught are too frightening. This single act encapsulates the theme of Zinda Bhaag — a depiction of the essence of the ‘Pakistani dream’ as we know it today.

In the heart of a lower-middle class neighbourhood in Lahore, friends Khaldi (Khurram Patras), Taambi (Zohib) and Chitta (Salman Ahmed Khan) are living life to the fullest; they eat, drink and make merry. They look for love, get their hearts broken, and tease each other like any tightly-knit group of old friends would. Naseerudin Shah as Pehlvan is less of the mohalla’s ‘social worker’, and more the Godfather figure. He is introduced to us when he walks into the funeral of Booba, one of the residents of the area, who had managed to escape to France by hiding in a container. He eventually started his own restaurant called La Booba, so he became an inspiration to youngsters in the mohalla. The scene shows the obsession the residents of the neighbourhood have with finding success in foreign lands.

In Zinda Bhaag, the film’s directors Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi manage to create a culturally accurate story world, while taking a limited amount of screen time. The naturally raw Lahori accent; the corny humour; a family’s obsession with Urdu soaps and the yearning of the boys to make an appearance at a funeral just to get a taste of free mutton qorma are examples of an apt cultural representation that Pakistani films fail to achieve.

A pleasant combination of traditional cinema shots and snappy cinematography captures both, the soul of Lahore and the essence of a neorealist saga.

The visuals are supported by a light hearted yet unsettling story with back to back powerful one-liners that keep you glued to your seats and leave you craving for more.

Shah as Pehlvan has a larger-than-life persona, but also relates the ghosts of his past. Despite donning funky pink kurtas and wearing multi-coloured rings, there is a menacing darkness to Pehlvan, without whose blessings, it seems you cannot make it big in the mohalla. His proficiency in Punjabi is as immaculate as his fluency in Urdu. Khaldi, Taambi and Chitta are newcomers turned method actors. Their comfort in the atmosphere created by ZB plays a seminal role in making them believable. Bringing in non-actors was a smart choice, and an even smarter one to edit their shots well-enough to prevent their naivety from being translated on screen. That shouldn’t, however, take away from the well-performed long takes. Editing is the backbone of any film but very few (especially in Pakistan) have used it effectively, and it’s the clever cutting of the shots, along with tight pacing that keeps the audience of ZB wanting more.

The songs are good, but they sometimes become a needless deviation from a very precise plot, preventing Zinda Bhaag from being considered perfect. One wonders whether the powerful words penned by Mohammad Hanif in Dekhainge deserved something better than a half-hearted retaliation and a whole-hearted celebratory dance by a bunch of socially suppressed waiters.

The problems for Zinda Bhaag start as soon as Khaldi meets his love interest Rubina (Amna Ilyas), a petite, animated girl who sells a homemade soap called Facelook. While the humour surrounding her character is refreshing, it has hardly any contribution to the narrative. She doesn’t serve the purpose of eye candy, nor is she a good actor. More than that, her dialogue delivery is monotonous and she has a limited range of expressions on screen. Shoots and the ramp, it seems, are better places for Amna.

All in all, Zinda Bhaag stylistically highlights one of the most central social issues faced by Pakistanis — the issue of survival. Those who can run away will, but only after accumulating adequate resources. Others dream of running away, even if it means putting all their resources at stake.

Verdict: Zinda Bhaag is a must watch. In its modest, yet ingenious approach towards storytelling, Zinda Bhaag easily becomes the best film to have come out of modern day Pakistani cinema.

Score: 4/5

Published in The Express Tribune, September 20th, 2013.

The Lamha arrives, grainy but strong

 It makes for a sad story; Lamha director’s involvement in a murder case, the tragedy that befalls its lead characters and the audio-visual quality of the film itself are all unfortunate. But amidst the darkness, there are moments that can take your breath away.

Photographer Raza (Mohib Mirza) and painter Maliha (Aaminah Sheikh) are a husband and wife fraught by the difficulties of dealing with a disaster — the death of their seven-year-old boy. In the course of recovery, the two abandon their careers and become estranged. On the other end of the spectrum, is the culprit, rickshaw driver Anil (Gohar Rasheed), who looks for better financial opportunities to support his pregnant wife.

Tackling complicated psychological issues amidst a rather anti-climatic narrative is not easy. It is even tougher when a Pandora’s Box of narrative threads is unraveled. But as a debutant director, Mujahid shows a lot of promise by bringing forward one of the sharpest and most immaculately-performed illustrations of story-telling.

While the movie’s foremost aim is to focus on the overwhelming feeling of failure to get over a major loss, the loss itself ends up taking dominance over the complexities of psychological issues at hand. This is where a rather traditional and risk-free approach by cinematographer Faraz Iqbal comes in handy. He creates a cathartic experience, by using better-framed TV shots in film, for an audience that is accustomed to TV. The closing shot, where the camera tracks out of a garden, is by far one of the most consequential closing shots we have seen in Pakistani cinema, as you actually feel the process of being relieved from a rather discomforting life of a wounded couple. The multiple narratives may seem unresolved at places, but are joined together well on the editing table. The pace of the film, as a whole, is disturbingly bumpy and things do happen against your expectations but there is no shock value to them. That is probably the reason why a predictable story like Lamha appears flatter as time passes by. If we had watched the film before Bollywood’s Talaash, which has a similar story base, the impact would have been much greater.

Aaminah Sheikh’s performance is her best in cinema thus far.  As Maliha, she is so powerful that she often overshadows her husband. The other characters, too, add to Maliha’s agony. As Anil, the talented Gohar Rasheed, who we recently saw in Main Hoon Shahid Afridi, is consistent, raw and plays his character inside out. He is by far the only actor who balances out Aaminah’s strength when he shares limited screen time with her. Hira Tareen, sadly, is not the right choice for her character. Despite the fact that her role was small, she was unable to expose the depth given to her character.

Apart from these performances, the appropriate use of a ghazal is another win for Lamha. Mehdi Hasan’s Gulon Mein Rang Bhare comes near the end of the film and enhances the overall grand and piercing sound design of the film.

Having said this, your Lamha experience may be interrupted the poor quality of the film with respect to audio-visuals. It is a flaw that could have been easily avoided, but powerful and moving scenes are undermined by occasional grainy visuals (especially in night scenes) and awkward sound balancing.

Still, the beauty of Lamha, unlike contemporary narratives, is that it doesn’t set very high ambitions for change. It’s a film that goes for a controlled psychological study of two people instead of a larger-than-life story. What is even more refreshing is that for the first time, a Pakistani movie is not solely about the country and its done-to-death challenges.

Verdict: With powerful story-telling and a relatable story line, the film beautifully depicts the anguish and suffering of the lead characters. If only it were not marred by technical glitches.

Score: 3.5/5

Published in The Express Tribune, September 19th, 2013.