When you watch films such as Majid Majidi's Baran (Iranian) or Siddiq Barmak's Osama (Persian), you get a haunting picture of how things work behind the veil in the Islamic world. It's one of those bitter pills that hit you at the gut, so grim and offering very little hope.
And then, in complete contrast is Hindi cinema's take on the arthouse — the multiplex movie which still wants to end on a positive note because films without any feel good rarely find takers at the box office. Maybe it's also the effect of mainstream Bollywood on the arthouse that films end with hope.
Shoaib Mansoor's new film (he had earlier made the critically acclaimed Khuda Kay Liye) takes us into the household of a hakim's family in Lahore to give us a hard-hitting film on the state of affairs, treatment of women and transgenders in Pakistan, but the impact of this punch is rather watered down because of its Hindi cinema influences — the need to end with feel good.
So the film begins quite dramatically with a woman facing a death sentence, granted permission to call for a press conference, straight from the very spot she's about to be hanged. Once you suspend your disbelief and ignore the filmi acting by its leading lady Humaima Malik in these opening portions, the film comes into its own in the flashback.
Considering that what the film wants to say is in the flashback and that it does it so effectively without holding back any punches, the very setting for the story to unfold seems unwarranted.
The narrator of the film was among the seven sisters born to an orthodox Hakim in Lahore on the brink of poverty with the advent of private clinics. After repeated efforts to yield a boy, the eighth attempt results in the birth of a transgender much to the frustration of the father, whose initial instinct is to kill the baby.
It's a fantastic premise for the story to unfold as the family spirals further down into poverty, the father unwilling to let any of the girls work or step out of the house. It's quite commendable how the filmmaker Shoaib Mansoor has managed to bring out the hypocrisy of the patriarch and his convenient interpretation of the Koran to justify everything he does. The laughs in this otherwise serious film come our way as his hypocrisy is further exposed when he's asked to produce a girl child for a courtesan Meena (Iman Ali plays a Pakeezah fan) to pull himself out of financial trouble. Now this is a man so staunch in his beliefs and value systems that he threw a fit when his daughters playfully told him that they had crushes on Tendulkar and Afridi.
There's surely a gem of a film somewhere in there in between all that Hindi cinema packaging, one that's so bleak and yet offers a little hope through its Atif Aslam-Mahir Khan romance track. Given the entire gamut of issues relating to gender, religion and social norms, it is tragic that the filmmaker ends the film, choosing to spell out just one moral, the least interesting of them — “Why make babies if you can't raise them?”
Bol has a lot more that's interesting to say and show us than that issue. Despite its failings (in its first five minutes and the last five), it's a brave voice from Pakistan that deserves to be heard. Surely the pick of the week among the Hindi releases.
Director: Shoaib Mansoor
Cast: Humaima Malik, Mahira Khan, Iman Ali, Atif Aslam
Storyline: A girl about to be hanged tells her story and of Pakistan's population woes
Bottomline: World cinema corrupted by Bollywood