I still have no idea how Bol, a Pakistani movie by director Shoaib Mansoor, even got distribution in Toronto. Heck, Anurag Kashyap has trouble bringing his films to the big screens here sometimes! But imagine my surprise when, while looking for screening times for Bodyguard, I found this little gem playing all over the city. Sometimes the Gods of Filmistan just smile upon Toronto and it seems that September is that magical month of the year when They give in abundance. Lucky us!
So off I went, despite the late hour and despite the length of the film (2:45), and most importantly despite being terrified of seeing a film by the director of Khuda Kay Liye alone in a theatre. And good thing I went. Because as hard hitting as Bol is, it's no Khuda Kay Liye. Mercifully! Though it does complement Khuda Kay Liye in many ways and it resolves all the issues I had with Shoaib Mansoor's first film.
If most of the acting in Khuda Kay Liye was forced and cringe-worthy, there are no more traces of that in Bol where every single character, no matter how small, lingers in your thoughts long after the movie is done. If Khuda Kay Liye was depressing beyond tears, Bol brings a ray of hope at the end of the long gutting journey. If Khuda Kay Liye was excessively explicit visually (and I do understand why that was needed, I can't even disagree, but still had a hard time erasing some of the images from my memory for months), Bol shows almost no violence, even though the characters go through many ugly, terrifying experiences. It's almost like the director made this movie to create the perfect pair for Khuda Kay Liye. All while keeping, just like the yin and yang symbols, a thread of darkness in Bol and a glitter of lightheartedness in Khuda Kay Liye (pretty much summed up by the fantastic Bandya).
The one thing that stayed the same for both films was the brilliant direction and the remarkable script.
After seeing both films, I have to say I am trully impressed with Shoaib Mansoor's campaign for gender equality, a theme that has been given prime time in both of his films. If Khuda Kay Liye deals with a father's right over his daughter and how the Quoran can be twisted and distorted to make that power seem boundless, Bol takes up a different angle: a woman's right to say no to pregnancy (and to make any decisions for herself for that matter). A very delicate issue still, even in Western countries where families can afford to feed all their offsprings, unlike Hakim Khan, the father figure in Bol, whose profession (traditional medicine) is steadily declining while his family grows incontrollably. All his fault of course, because he is blinded not only by his desire to have a son instead of 7 daughters, but also by his faith that says every pregnancy coming from Allah should be accepted (a belief that will turn out to be nothing more than a convenient disguise when the family is "blessed" with a hermaphrodite son).
Needless to say, my admiration for the director only increased after reading the following words from him on the film's website:
"Having been so blessed in life, I often think of the things that I should be grateful for. The list always seems to be never ending, but invariably it ends at one thing... that I was born as a MAN.
Nothing in the world scares me more than the thought of being born a woman or a eunuch in a country like Pakistan, where obscurantism has deep roots. It is very unfortunate that we make tall claims, full of pride, about the rights of woman granted by our religion and yet when I look around in underdeveloped Muslim countries in general and Pakistan in particular I find things totally the opposite. Tragically, our interpretation and application of religion seems to begin and end with woman. Leave the 5% urban educated elite aside, women seem to be the playground (battleground) where we practice a medieval form of religion."
Such a disarmingly candid statement of facts, and at the same time such an unlikely base to build movies like "Khuda Kay Liye" and "Bol" on. I suppose it's precisely this type of honesty that gives birth to such powerful female characters in his films. Perhaps sometimes one must be on the outside to better understand what is happening behind closed doors? Some could look at these words and call them almost offensive, but I can only think of what balls it takes to make a movie like Bol while admitting your worst fear is to have been one of the film's characters.
The trailer hardly touches on any of the issues that the film brings forward: hermaphrodites, honour killings, gang male rape, prostitution, birth control, and instead focuses on the action and the suspense. That's what sells I suppose, but I for one was very happy to find out that most of the violence and the action in the film was already shown in the trailer and there was not much left to shock me in the theatre.
It's entirely unexpected in fact that this seems like such a dark film judging by the trailers, but while watching you spend some of the most tense scenes smiling, whether it's at the little moments shared between the sisters, or at the sweet nothings shared by the lovers. But most of all you smile at the irony of the world of prostitutes and pimps mirroring the orthodox world of Hakim Khan: if in the latter a house full of daughters is a cross one must bear in the name of Allah, in the former, a house full of working girls would be a blessing and a gift from God. The events that have the two worlds gallop towards each other for the first 2 hours are certainly compelling and fascinating to watch, but it's this final battle of virtues and ethics that makes this movie such a gem. Add to that the mindblowing performance of Shafqat Cheema, the head pimp and Iman Ali's glowing presence as the alluring Meena, and... let's just say you'll never think of Umrao Jaan quite the same.
I must admit, I was disappointed by the fact that Atif Aslam's role is not as big as I would have wanted it to be, though he does get to be a through and through hero, which makes him even more crushable for Dolce's fragile heart. I was a little nervous about how he would do in his first film, but he had no problems winning my heart as the open-minded young urban professional (and literally boy next door) Mustafa. And wait, he sings too! Aye haye!...
Of course, despite my love for Atif Aslam, I must (reluctantly) admit, this is not his film. This film belongs to Manzar Sehbai (who plays Hakim, the father of the family) and to Humaima Malik (the daughter who recounts the story of her family and the events that lead to the death sentence she is about to face). Not only is this lady strikingly beautiful, but she truly makes the character of Zainub a part of your life for 2 hours. Her voice in particular bleeds with so much grief and such sadness that you're almost afraid to hear her speak further.
But of course she does and as she tells her story, the many questions that the movie will leave you with arise. Even if none of them get resolved (and how could they?) the doubt alone and the ability to question the status quo are enough to consider the film's purpose achieved.
The only part of the movie that I am still torn on is the ending. On the one side I really needed it to end this way, but on the other, I have to question the credibility of such an epilogue. Then again, like I said in the beginning, if Bol is the yin to Khuda Kay Liye's yang, then it's absolutely the perfect ending.
Either way, a movie well worth travelling at late hours for and a great preview (even if unrelated) for my Toronto Film Festival week which starts in some... 40 hours. Not that anyone's counting of course.
14 hours ago