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Pakistan’s Oscar entry ‘Laal Kabootar’ is Karachi noir par excellence

Kamal Khan’s heady concoction of crime and class ties up well with South Korean actioners

February 21, 2020 02:51 pm | Updated December 05, 2021 08:54 am IST

A still from ‘Laal Kabootar’.

A still from ‘Laal Kabootar’.

There is a sense of verticality that stands out in the evocation of class divides in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite . A sprawling, rich home and its hidden basement and a suffocating semi-basement at a distance become spatial attributes of the incipient hierarchies. Then there are the staircases that constantly take the characters, and in turn the viewer, up and down the high and low life, seemingly offering mobility that eventually proves to be nothing more than an illusion.

Like the Seoul of Bong, class conflicts define the Karachi of Kamal Khan’s Laal Kabootar, Pakistan’s official entry for the Oscars this year. Only, here the societal cracks are spread horizontally, like a blanket across the city’s expanse. It becomes the defining backdrop against which characters and their stories intersect and link up or collide and disconnect.

There is the upper crust, for whom going to the U.S. is as easy as picking up vegetables in the market. Juxtaposed against them are those unable to make it in life, for whom Dubai is the promised land where their dreams could turn real. “ Aukaat kabhi ek jaisi nahin rehti (Stature doesn’t always stay the same),” says a character. As in Parasite , hope lies in the possibility of mobility but what truly binds the extremes together is the precariousness underlying their lives, a shared thirst for revenge and money and materialism.

The working title of the crime thriller was Signal , Khan tells me on a WhatsApp call: “Because it’s at the red light that people from all strata of life seem to come together.” Just like in Mumbai, I tell him, leading him to rue that co-existence is becoming more and more rare in urban societies. “We are in each other’s spaces yet not together, we have stopped sympathising, the divides are getting wider and wider, leading to crime,” he says.

A still from ‘Laal Kabootar’.

A still from ‘Laal Kabootar’.


His film kicks off with one such transgression at the traffic signal — a journalist digging out the dirt on a builder is shot in broad daylight. Meanwhile, other petty crimes carry on unabated. Passengers get robbed of their mobile phones by thieves on bikes as they wait in cabs for the light to turn green. The cops have copped out. There is no rule of law, rather the upholders of law have become the law-breakers. It’s the wild, wild west. “It’s what Karachi used to be when we were growing up. We were paranoid about getting stuck at the red light. But it’s not so any more. The builder, water mafia might still be there, but things have watered down a lot,” he says.

Mumbai connection

Khan’s heady concoction of crime and class ties up well with South Korean actioners. He professes to be a huge fan, reeling out names — Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser , Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess , Lee Jeong-beom’s The Man from Nowhere... “They are so relatable for us — the severely flawed protagonists, the amazing arcs,” he says.


But it’s Bollywood he grew up watching — the Govinda, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan films picked up from the video store — and he even doffs a hat to it, playing Major Saab ’s ‘Pyaar Kiya Toh Nibhana’ in the background in one scene. What truly drives his ‘Karachi noir’ is ‘Mumbai noir’, Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya and Company but most of all, Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly, which, he feels, deserved more plaudits than it got.

Back in India, even if one has identified Pakistan for its well-crafted television serials, films haven’t quite made the cut. Even within Pakistan, Lollywood has played second fiddle to Bollywood. After Asim Abbasi’s understated, measured, women-centric family drama, Cake , set a new bar in 2018, Laal Kabootar comes across as a surprisingly slick and gripping thriller. It’s a good mix of swag, stunts and sentiments with a great soundtrack to boot, with Taha Malik’s music, and Danial Hyatt, son of music composer and producer Rohail Hyatt, providing the background score. A consummate set of actors keeps one engrossed, most so Rashid Farooqui, who swings effortlessly between a corrupt cop at work and a loving father and family man at home. And towering above them all is the gritty and spirited Karachi itself, the most significant of all the characters.

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