My review of Pakistan's Oscar-hopeful:
“Jis Lahore nai dekhya woh jamyai nai,” goes the famous title line from the Asghar Wajahat play – whoever hasn’t seen Lahore hasn’t been born yet. But what of those who see Lahore every day, but can only dream of other places?
Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi’s debut feature, Zinda Bhaag, centres round three such young men, Khaldi (Khurram Patras), Taambi (Zohib) and Chitta (Salman Ahmed Khan), friends from Lahore’s lower middle class ‘c’lonies’. One works in a cable internet company, another in the kitchen of a club. But their hearts aren’t in it. All their energies are focused on somehow going abroad. In the meanwhile, they get hilariously drunk, bemoan betrayals by girls, and keep an eye out for free food – even if it’s mutton korma at a funeral. That’s when they aren’t offering obeisance at the court of Pehlvaan — Naseeruddin Shah as the mehndi-haired local don, with a nazar as sharp as his perfectly-threaded eyebrows.
It is Pehlvaan’s rhetorical question with which the film opens: why does everyone (including the young trio of Zinda Bhaag) want to leave a sona sheher like Lahore, when it has everything life has to offer? And it is Pehlvaan’s stories, delivered in resonant, guttural Punjabi, that create the mythical matrix of hope and tragedy within which that question echoes.
The first story Pehlvaan tells is at the funeral of his old friend Booba, whose body has just returned to Lahore, some forty years after Booba left the city by doing a 'dunky', an illegal border crossing into Europe. That imagined Technicolour flashback is the first sign of the film’s sense of fun. When Booba and his illegal companions are apprehended by Turkish officials, the sprightly young Lahori lets loose all the English words he’s garnered over the years. Dressed in a flashy three piece suit (which, Pehlvaan tells us, cost Booba a ton of money), Booba channels a 1980s Amitabh Bachchan and succeeds in dazzling the Turks. He walks out of the frame and into France, where Pehlvaan’s mythic retelling has him establish a glitzy, tacky restaurant with the brilliant name of La Booba.
Pehlvaan’s qissas, though playfully shot as visual departures from the central narrative, don’t so much punctuate the film as create its moral universe. The tales are about great gamblers he once knew: Younus Powderi, who was in too much of a hurry to make a fortune and is now a drug addict, or Billa Kashmiri, who was unjust to his clerk and ended up a beggar. Our nodding young protagonists lap up Pehlvaan’s fund of unsolicited authoritative advice, stepping all too eagerly into a world filled with steep climbs and even steeper falls.
Gambling is at the core of this worldview: there are horse races, cricket betting, and all kinds of card games. But the biggest gamble is the dunky. The power and dangers of risk-taking are served up with a side of masculinist philosophy. “Paisa de kismat saaliyan hain beta. Asal cheez hai sabar,” declares Pehlvaan in a largely untranslatable South Asian joke that valorises patience. “If you marry patience, the other two come free.”
By tracing the lives of the three young men, Gaur and Nabi’s script taps into a rich vein of desperate imaginings, a dream-life in which the vision of Europe or a winning racehorse provides an appealing alternative to the backbreaking labour and terribly low odds of actually pulling oneself out of poverty by more regular means.
In contrast to the boys, each of whom gets sucked into a descending spiral of impossible chances, the film presents us with the sparkly, ever-optimistic Rubina (Amna Ilyas). She roams the city with her home-made bars of ‘Facelook’ soap in the hope of placing them in some mall. Her dreams aren’t smaller, the film seems to say, but she’s working hard to fulfil them rather than waiting for them to just come true.
Originally commissioned as part of a series of films on masculinities, the Let’s Talk Men project, Zinda Bhaag does seem to offer up a too-easy contrast here, but to its credit, it never stoops to lecturing its audience. Khaldi’s dipping self-esteem and increasing insecurity are etched acutely, especially as they begin to cut away at his relationship with Rubina, but we thankfully never hear Rubina turn around and offer a feminist lecture.
The three young men’s roles are played by non-actors. They’re locals of the Lahori neighbourhoods in which the filmmakers set their story. Though they’re certainly not very good actors, their rawness grows on you. But other characters and situations — Khaldi’s mother trying to marry his sister off to a terminally ill man for money, or Taambi’s showdown with his father — retain an unsatisfactory, jerky feel that stops them from being as moving as they could be.
Despite an interesting script and a boisterous sense of fun, Zinda Bhaag remains an uneven ride. Most glaring are the songs. The über-bright dream sequence song, or even the situationally apt Rahat Fateh Ali Khan number, distract from the narrative rather than aiding its flow. They’re clearly meant to make this whacky film more mainstream, thus giving it a greater chance of reaching out to the audience whose lives it addresses. But while the music might be robust enough to work as an independent album, the song picturisations don’t match up.
Zinda Bhaag is by no means a perfect film, but it takes risks and is immensely watchable. It’s a film about serious things that refuses to take itself too seriously. That deserves applause.
Published in Firstpost.