Zinda Bhaag: A Review

Zinda Bhaag – Dir: Meenu Gaur & Farjad Nabi; *ing: Khurram Patras, Zohaib Asghar, Salman Ahmad Khan, Amna Ilyas, Naseerudin Shah.


And then there were none…

A full fifty years after the last time Pakistan submitted an entry to the Oscars Best Foreign Language Film category (Khurshid Anwar’s Ghunghat), Zinda Bhaag has entered the Academy Awards race on behalf of the country’s beleaguered (some would say comatose) film industry, and also faces the daunting task of helping to put Pakistani cinema’s fortunes back on track. Perhaps not unexpectedly, this centrestage position that ZB finds itself in is a bit of a double-edged sword, for being in the spotlight also means being under the microscope, to be scrutinised, dissected, and often, tarred and feathered. And so it is that the film has (again, quite predictably) polarised opinions to a great degree, its champions matched in as big a number by its detractors. While it’s not difficult to see why it hasn’t found universal appeal (and more on that later), there is a lot more to the material which does work, and works rather well, not least of which is its mise-en-scène, which makes enthralling use of the sights and sounds of the city of Lahore, often hidden in plain sight.

Immigration is not a subject that hasn’t been tackled before by Pakistani cinema – Dubai Chalo addressed it to comic effect more than thirty years ago; but ZB is not your idealistic 70’s view of the prosperous migrant worker made good, it isn’t even about immigration (illegal, in this case) per se. Rather, it takes a look at the kinds of individual circumstances as well as overall social conditions that compel so many to put life and limb at risk in order to reach for that dream of a better life in foreign lands, a dream that more often than not turns out to be a nightmare, or, at least, a mirage. And so we are introduced to Khaaldi (Patras), Taambi (Asghar), and Chitta (Khan), three twentysomething working-class friends, each in search of elusive prospects of upward mobility, but also plagued by the ennui and inertia that seem to be the lot of the post-Zia generation who have come of age in an era where money and rhetoric talk the loudest and ideals have become antiquated. While Taambi has already tried and been burned in his bid for escape to greener pastures, Khaaldi and Chitta aren’t deterred by the lesson of their friend’s failure; “it couldn’t be worse than what we have here (or don’t have, rather)”, they seem to be thinking. Both have families to support, financial goals to achieve, and also, one suspects, a yearning for some degree of self-actualisation. Khaaldi, especially, feels the heat of society’s dictates as to what it means to be ‘a man’, a struggle compounded by his relationship with feisty Rubina (Ilyas). One-man Greek chorus Pehlwan (Shah), who looms out of the shadows of the underworld to observe and advise our protagonists, cuts an enigmatic figure, and just as well, for when we see him for what he really is, we also finally get a glimpse of the darkness that pervades the world of the young men, a world that leaves little to hope for.

In marrying elements of neo-realism (such as casting non-professional actors in the three lead roles) with more conventional, mainstream devices (such as the use of fantasy song sequences) Zinda Bhaag is doing something that is akin to playing with fire in a cinematic context, and one of the major reasons, one can conjecture, why some have had a negative response to it. By straddling two very disparate modes of filmmaking, ZB is resolutely refusing to commit itself fully to either one, and one can certainly see that ruffling quite a few feathers. Movie audiences generally like the comfort of knowing in advance what they’re bargaining for, and then receiving exactly that. But directors Gaur and Nabi aren’t necessarily interested in making you comfortable, and so they will keep throwing you curveballs, some of which work better than others, but all of which are audacious enough that they prevent you from shoving the film into one cosy box. So where a surreal song n’ dance performed by waiters in an upscale kitchen is quirky and charming, a similar rom-comical sequence between Khaaldi and Rubina is less effective. But the contexts in which both sequences occur are equally compelling. Elsewhere, Pehlwan’s mental memorabilia plays out like a series of mini-movies, almost Almodovar-like in their deliberately kitschy stylisation, while at the opposite end of the spectrum, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s qawwali ‘Pata yaar da’ provides the soundtrack to an extended sequence that is as sparse as it is haunting.

The performances on display too are not so easily or neatly described. The three main actors, all from the kind of background their characters belong to, have similar strengths and weaknesses: they may not quite have command over the craft of line reading, but the physical aspect of their respective performances is polished. Veteran actor Shah, obviously a casting coup for the filmmakers, often struggles with his Punjabi diction, but other than that, brings a brilliant mix of warmth and menace to his part, making Pehlwan a frighteningly mercurial character.

One could go on playing devil’s advocate for either side of the Zinda Bhaag debate, but let’s leave it at this: it is a film unafraid to put itself out there and let its seams show, for it’s more concerned with the people at the heart of the story, than with how cautiously that story is told. As such, it is no mean achievement that by the end of the film, the joke which inspired the title – Pakistan se zinda bhaag! – feels more poignant than funny.


Cult: Dubai Chalo (1979) – Haider Chaudhry directed comedy legends Ali Ejaz and Nanha in this satirical blockbuster.

Current: Main Hoon Shahid Afridi – The financial success of MHSA bodes well for Lollywood, the unevenness of the work notwithstanding.

Tamanna – Hopefully this local adaptation of Sleuth will get to see the light of day before the year is out.

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