Serious critics of Pakistani films are justified in giving those films a wide berth which gravitate towards clichéd themes of marriage, unrequited love and the inevitable romantic triangle and end up as uninspiring, predictable and repetitive; as if they had all been tarred by the same brush. But though the press coverage of the controversial film Bol has been stoked by both high praise and joyous malevolence, it certainly is thought provoking. It is, in fact, an extraordinary visual experience, the most disturbing Pakistani film since Jamil Dehlavi broke new ground in Pakistani cinema with his Towers of Silence, produced in 1975 — a surreal impression of a young boy’s ritualistic obsession with death.
Shoaib Mansoor, who wrote the story and directed the film Bol, didn’t go in for any trick shots like Kurasawa’s swinging cameras, or Kiarostami’s flashbacks frozen in time. He just tried to tell a story as it is, and ended up with a bit of neo-realism. The story revolves around the struggle of the rebellious eldest daughter of a traditional family living in the heart of Lahore, who is caught up in a web of tense family relationships. As the story unfolds it touches on a number of themes — homosexuality, birth control, obscurantism, retrogression, police corruption, the suppression of women, bureaucratic insensitivity and, finally, the breaking down of a firm resolve in the face of impending disgrace. Each vignette is embarked upon as if it was a self-contained truism, as part of the inevitable facts of life in a repressive and testosterone fuelled society.
To start with, the acting was consistently good. While a critic would quite naturally concentrate on the performance of the better known stars, this writer was impressed by the way Zaib Rehman handled her role as wife and mother. Totally subservient, she came across as the typical lower middle class Pakistani urban mother fraught with insoluble problems.
Humaima Malick, the rebellious daughter who tries to bring a touch of reality and sanity into a rather bizarre setting is, of course, the central character in this unhappy family tale of repression and unfulfilled dreams. To say she is an accomplished actress would be an understatement. Nevertheless, the actor who really stole the show was Shafqat Cheema, whose girls entertained patrons in Lahore’s red light area.
Now a word about the photography. The way the cameraman captured the lush mustard fields of the Punjab, the interiors of the hulking old gimcrack brick houses in soft focus sunlight, the affection of the sisters for their handicapped brother and the final scene when the beautiful courtesan Iman Ali, by sheer serendipity locates the daughter she had given up in a fit of remorse, were quite riveting.
Nevertheless, there were a few incongruous episodes in the movie which were somewhat out of character, like the talented daughter with a golden voice sneaking off with her cousin to a rock concert where screaming teenagers gyrated to pulsating rhythms. And the mother, who is apparently a gifted cook, ending up with a string of fast food restaurants after the death of her husband. One can understand that Shoaib Mansoor, after putting the audience through 90 minutes of relentless drudgery, felt a happy ending was called for. But in doing so he spoiled things somewhat because he ended by adding a touch of unrealism.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th, 2011.