Review: 'Umro Ayyar' spells a new beginning for Pakistani sci-fi and fantasy

Usman Mukhtar's bumbling yet charming superhero can revitalise the genre in mainstream cinema


Manahil Tahira June 19, 2024
KARACHI:

The true promise of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) lies in its capacity to absorb paradoxes. As a genre, these ambitions unfold in varying degrees. There is the time-bending multiverse of Everything Everywhere All At Once. The techno dystopia of Black Mirror. Then there are the superhero films of the Marvel and DC universes. Whereas Batman has his mechanical trickeries and lifelong stealth, Superman defies gravity in his shoddy disguise. 

What’s exploratory and what’s nonsensical is a ratio never set in stone in fiction but especially in SFF. Over the years, the way Clark Kent evades recognition from his lover and peers with the power of common spectacles has come to amuse many. Or the elevator that is always conveniently empty for his last-minute change of clothes. Most importantly, Superman does not need a cape but Umro Ayyar needs his armour. 

As the story goes

In Azfar Jafri’s directorial Umro Ayyar - A New Beginning, armour is many things. It is the heritage of Ayyars, a class of warriors with superpowers who go all the way to medieval Persianate empires. It is certainly generational wealth, what Amar reclaims as his late father’s keepsake. Armour is also a way for a persecuted community to feel like one.

Usman plays the awkward prodigy Amar, a college professor who teaches quantum physics during the day and indulges his scientific curiosities as a pastime. Earlier seen in the cop thriller Chikkar, the 38-year-old actor seems intent on driving Pakistan’s budding affair with newer genres. As Umro Ayyar, he stumbles through conversations and battles alike, yet there's an irresistible charm in his bumbling mannerisms.   

A staunch advocate of science, his world is turned upside down when one fateful night at the library transforms into an adrenaline-fueled escapade involving jinns and ayyars. Amar learns that like his great father (Adnan Siddiqui), he is the Umro Ayyar of his time. Under the tutelage of legendary Manzar Sehbai's ‘Guru’, he must train to harness his superpowers to defeat the rising evil forces led by Laqqa (Faran Tahir), who is both comical and ruthless.

Sanam Saeed shines as Meena, a ‘knower’ with the ability to access knowledge from other dimensions. As one of Amar’s greatest champions, Meena's character is refreshing, standing as a major figure without being reduced to a romantic interest. Sana Fakhar's portrayal of the sorceress Cheno sends chills down the spine with a restrained yet impactful performance. 

Ali Kazmi dazzles as Maaz, a courageous warrior, alongside a supporting cast of Simi Raheel as Amar’s aunt Farhana, Daniyal Raheel as Babar, and Salman Shaukat as Azam. In a much-anticipated cameo, Hamza Ali Abbasi dons the cap of Idrees, a waggish guardian of Koh e Kaf.

Promising new start

Umro Ayyar brings many great tidings. Finally, local cinema has reached the point where a decent production design can be taken for granted. Where good acting performances are not always a cause for exaggerated praise. The cinematography does the needful as does the sound design. 

The cast of Jafri’s film is likely not running for the Academy soon but at last, Pakistani cinema seems to know how to keep a good show running without disconcerting theatrics. Same goes for the VFX team that is able to infuse Amar and Laqqa’s world with an immersive sense of doom and foreboding. Swirling towers of smoke, clinker-brick flesh and Amar’s tunnel vision upon tapping into his powers uphold the required subtlety. 

However, Umro Ayyar’s biggest trump cards are the script and a crisp edit. Usman plays his Amar to perfection, a character already well-written. While there are many templates to consult for the transition of an ordinary man into a formidable superhero, Usman fills his own shoes. His comedic timing is perfect and for the most part, delivered with a natural readiness. Until the very end of the film, his heroism is a work in progress - his fear and confusion terminal. 

Making this all the more enjoyable is how the film flows like it knows where to go - a rarity for Pakistani films. The ending hints at a greater battle, setting the stage for a sequel. The result is a fast-paced story that seldom lags, has well-executed action and shows no mercy in depicting Laqqa’s terror.

Down the memory lane

Parallels between Umro Ayyar and the usual host of Hollywood superheroes are not unwarranted. From popular reception to critic reviews, Jafri’s film is being credited for giving Pakistani cinema a much-awaited superhero. On that front, those who enjoy Marvel and/or DC would find Jafri’s film enjoyable but any similarities beyond these are trying too hard.

It does not take an endorsement from Martin Scorsese, who excommunicated Marvel films from cinema, to lament their limits of imagination. In fact, even a critique of mainstream superhero films is quite frankly boring and redundant at this point, labels one would think are impossible to associate with science fiction and fantasy. 

It is no empty adulation but a fact that SFF affords infinite possibilities of worldbuilding, which is why Pakistan’s neglect of the genre has been especially regrettable. This is not to say that Jafri’s Umro Ayyar materialised out of thin air. Tilism e Hoshruba, the Urdu retelling of the Persian epic Hamzanama is still well known but the readability of Amar and Laqqa’s epic battle is preceded by various overlapping texts. At least one generation of readers is familiar with Begum Rokeya’s inversion of patriarchy as dystopia in Sultana’s Dream or Qurratulain Hyder’s time-traveling rocket in Raushni Ki Raftar.

However, fewer will recall the jinn of Koh e Kaf in Saqalain Razvi’s 1966 film Husn Ka Chor whom Habib must defeat to claim haseena e Yemen, Deeba, as his love. Or how Mohammad Ali essays the valiant sword-brandishing hero who saves Neelo from the samri jadoogar in 1968’s Paristan

Heroes in the local cinemas have sporadically rescued fair maidens from the clutches of jinns and other beings all along to a welcome reception. One hopes that Umro Ayyar will truly herald a new beginning and rekindle the magic of science fiction and fantasy on Pakistan's big screen.

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