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Dark burden of the death-gamble

on October 12 | in Encore | by | with No Comments

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In ‘Zinda Bhaag’, what the story ‘is’ isn’t necessarily what the story does. So what is it that gets you to think about the film once it is over and want to talk about it?

By Sarah Humayun

It’s a revival of story-telling, said the directors of ‘Zinda Bhaag’ about the film in an interview with this paper. They’d been asked if ‘Zinda Bhaag’ (which hadn’t then been released) was a revival of cinema.

‘Revival of story-telling’ is an intriguing assertion. Without rejecting the word ‘revival’, the filmmakers had detached it from cinema, which has been in dire straits, and re-attached it to something whose demise had not been noticed. It sounded as if there was at least a semi-serious claim here, that an important event had been missed. While we thought we went about telling and hearing stories — from each other, from newspapers, on the telly, sometimes even as written-down fiction — ‘story-telling’ had quietly died.

Is it good for a film to start out by making such a paradoxical claim? Were the filmmakers raising expectations or lowering them?

Once, co-director Farjad Nabi and producer Mazhar Zaidi had both been journalists. Journalist friends who had been their colleagues, and who are in the habit of calling everything ‘stories’, say there was something different about their stories. Something creative. The twin poles of the ‘creative’ and the ‘academic’ are objects of avoidance and fascination in journalistic rhetoric, if not in its practice. They are shunned and compulsively reproduced in journalistic work, sometimes inventively and sometimes in caricature.

Is this fear of and attraction towards the ‘creative’, that they must have encountered, relevant to the film the former-journalists had made? Perhaps making a film was their way of drawing a line between story and story. Two possibilities of the same thing.

Every third person these days seems to want to make a film; every fourth person is doing something that counts as making one. The long absence of middlebrow or highbrow cinema from Pakistani cultural life has, by now, whetted people’s appetite for the rediscovery of the ‘audience’. One story about the audience is that it cannot be jolted too far from its habits and expectations, even if these expectations conform only to formula films from across the border than to any home-grown varieties. Another story that can be picked up is that the proliferation of narrative forms — videoclips, blogs, downloadable films and tv shows, real time news coverage — make a case for tastes that cannot be comfortably located within mainstream and alternative, and cinema is ready to tap into them.

Whether or not any film can effect a revival, the ‘deadness’ of Pakistani cinema is now a condition that provokes not melancholy or indifference, but curiosity and excitement. Where, after dying, do dead cinemas go? What can they become?

It is hard to watch ‘Zinda Bhaag’ without all this on one’s mind. Perhaps it is unfair for a film to have so many questions and meanings read into it, but perhaps there is no film (or any other creative form) that has the power to appeal without its own particular context of questions and meanings. They connect the story to the story’s echo and transformation in the elsewhere of our lives.

I enjoyed the film, though not every bit of it. There were some false notes. Most of the songs didn’t work for me in the film itself, though the soundtrack was a catchy one. The female lead, not bad on her own terms, could be easily located in a world different from the leading male protagonists, which did not seem to serve her role well. The film doubtless owes a huge debt to Naseeruddin Shah, but a better-cast actor would have done his role a favour. The Pehlvan’s flashbacks, which looked like allusions to older Pakistani cinema, were unfocused. Perhaps their point in the story was to tell us that the memories of this inveterate moraliser might themselves be fictive, made of the stuff of badly-made films.

But still. What the story ‘is’ isn’t necessarily what the story does.

Every viewer will have a private list of things that worked or didn’t work for her. That is why we go to see films, to pick them apart and put them back together again, sometimes many times over. Dissatisfactions side, I did find myself thinking about ‘Zinda Bhaag’ once the film was over, and wanting to talk about it.

One of the things that worked really well was the central cast of ‘fresh talent’, the young men at the heart of the film. All the pre-release discussion of the film drew attention to their having been cast from the same places and the same kind of lives that they were rendering in the film, cast from their own lives into a fiction about lives like their own. The co-director stated that it is a Lahori film.

One couldn’t escape the feeling that the thing that worked best in the film was people and places playing themselves. And it takes some art to pull that off. But will this start, boringly, a trend? Without wishing this one to be a different film, we can wonder what this means for other filmic fictions of Lahore, and for the careers of the talented new actors when they are cast as not-themselves.

‘Zinda Bhaag’ came across as a film about men. About being ‘men’. By which I don’t mean that it is sexist. The central relationship between Khaldi and Rubina is remarkably sunny, free of jealousy or threat, from overt hints of dominance; physically expressive even if wrapped in gestures of coy restraint. But the film makes a sketchy, half-hearted job of it. We do not see what happens to bring the lovers together. The best scene about the love theme is not between the lovers, but has Khaldi and Tambi talking about how to woo the masculine-sounding mashooq.

And when we come to the one brutal scene where Khaldi’s reckless desperation finds a target in Rubina’s apparent lack of it, when the overlooked questions of ‘why’ she is free to love him and please herself, of what she is doing with him — and with it, the question of ‘who’ she is — is suddenly before us, that we realise that it had been studiously avoided in most of the film.

What convinces in the film is the theme of escape, the gamble on men and the gamble of being a man. ‘Masculinity’ here is an entitlement, or is it obligation, to get away. There are barely enough hints of economic imperatives to explain the fixed obsession with escaping abroad, by legal or illegal means. Khaldi, Chitta and Tambi are not the poorest of the poor. They have jobs, low-paying ones in the service industry. Their lives have room for lighthearted fun, romance, and friendship. They have drinking parties and dance the night away. The one scene that belabours the money-and-status angle is a little clumsy, in which a grotesquely anglicised babu-type gets waiters at his dinner-party body-searched on suspicion of stealing a blackberry. The sting of injustice isn’t sharp enough (in the film) to carry the dark burden of the death-gamble which is the film’s central preoccupation.

It lends the men’s bids for escape a definite inscrutability. The bodies of dead friends who failed to make it are sent back home; surely they are betting on their lives against probability? The costs of giving up are unclear, but grave nevertheless.

It is not just the men themselves who are gamblers; other people are betting on their manly escapes, their ability to face death in a bid to reach the other shore. Fathers and mothers are in on the game; a daughter is sacrificed, seemingly needlessly, to Khaldi’s chance of getting away (and there is no suggestion of possible escape for her). And the ending captures brilliantly the tiny interval between Khaldi’s grief at loss and obsession with the chance of death, and the chance, remote if vivid, of revival elsewhere.

Luck is what is being bet on, if anything; luck proves that you have luck, and a man is not afraid of putting his luck to the final test. The title of the film can have two meanings: ‘run alive’ or ‘living luck’. The opposite of chancing it is represented in the film by Pehlvan, an extortionist and racketeer, who takes Tambi the survivor into his care after his return from escape. In the film he personifies arrest: staying with him means staying in the prison of fixity, without challenging either time or fate.

Chance and excess signify menace in his world, which feels curiously free of danger compared with what the young men and their families are daring to risk. Perhaps that is why Pehlvan comes across as curiously effeminate. There is a woman hanging about him, but he shows no hint of lasciviousness; a few scenes open with him getting his eyebrows threaded.

And the story of the story? From what I can make out, story here means the opposite of narrative, something whose absence is much-lamented these days. We don’t have a national narrative, an alternative narrative, a radical narrative, a hegemonic narrative — and so on. Zinda Bhaag has no ‘narrative’ in this sense. The story, not always well-plotted, links one thing to another without spelling out the meaning of the link. It leaves us with something less than the chain of analysis and more than the absence of relation.

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