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MOVIE REVIEW: Chambaili (Jasmine)

First Published in Daily Times (Pakistan) / 11 May 2013 (Election Day)

Published under the Title: Lights, Camera, Action, Vote

"Let no man imagine that he has no influence. Whoever he may be and whereever he may be placed, the man who ‘thinks’ becomes a light and power” — Henry George.

The city has been overrun by campaign slogans; the cinema, on the other hand, was adorned by Chambaili banners. Everyone knows this is not a real party. But it symbolises real change.

Those who have been to the fictional land not that far away, with gateways guarded by giant statues of Pharaohs and where a man named Musa (Moses) is the face of its modern day resistance movement will understand the significance of Chambaili. Falakabad comes with a ruling class, a package deal of tyrants and their inept progenies, its institutions in need of immediate rebooting and the landscape marred by a dreadful state of status quo. The oppressed occupants of this Godforsaken land count the days when they cut their losses and leave for greener pastures.

The film has been conceived by Shahzad Nawaz, who juggles many (many) hats as its writer, actor, lyricist, art director, production designer, publicist, designer and producer. Ismail Jilani gets the only hat left, and is listed as the director. A galaxy of old timers like Salman Peerzada, Ghulam Moheyuddin, Khalid Ahmed and Shafqat Cheema join a gifted cast of actors like Maira Khan, Umair Rana, Ehteshamuddin and Humayun bin Rather.

The plot draws its momentum from Pakistan’s enervating political climate. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is clearly intentional, and delightful. The symbolism of Musa vs Pharaoh is explored but the concept of a messiah is offset by the power of the people. Though it uses broad strokes to craft the horror, one does not have to look very hard to see the parallels. Little has been changed, and it is incredible what the people continue to put up with in Falakabad/Pakistan.

For once there are no filters and the message gets through. Every barb comes with the ability to penetrate the canvas and hit its mark. The filmmakers do not mince their words and use wrenching imagery to crucify the keepers of their personal fiefdoms and settle the question of ownership. In one scene, Musa calls out his friends for their apathy, right in the middle of a cosy little café. The audience cheered (or wept) at his impassioned plea along with the surprised group of customers.

Chambaili, which is also the national flower of Pakistan, is a lovely spoof and a tragic indictment that finds its rallying cry of change in sync with the current environment. By harnessing the prevalent mood it helps checks off options, and indifference is not one of them.

The film has tried to make characters relatable and uses composites of our friendly neighbourhood politicians to drive the point home. Though it is a low budget production, it is far superior to the usual fare. Instead of lavish sets, it scouts for imaginative locations, convoluted storylines are replaced by simple themes. Also, the melodrama, needless gore and general absurdity that have come to define Pakistani cinema have been toned down. There will be a dramatic eagle screeching in the background to make the villain doubly villainous. The script could demand more from a female character whose sole purpose it seems is to harangue her fiancé with a ‘Dubai chalo’ rant. In time, sharper editing and a better special effects team will be able to match the slick message.

The Chambaili process began two years ago. The filmmakers had limited space to deliver their vision and managed to cover a lot of ground. This film is to be judged on plot, construction, acting as well as timing and delivery since its agenda, besides striking down false idols and doling out some inspiration to a starved nation is reportedly to influence voter turnout. The timing is perfect. Elections are round the corner, democracy just completed its tenure (a first), hope is in the air and expectations are high (another first). The social media is doing its bit issuing vote-tiquettes — what to do in case of polling irregularity, how to fold the vote, etc. The fire brigade is on a flag march two days prior to May 11, 2013 to demonstrate its operational readiness. Restaurants/coffee houses are offering free beverage service or discounts to entice those on the fence to utilise their vote. A celebrity is endorsing an up and coming youngster, an independent from Karachi who raises his voice for the minorities and gathers everyone under the banner of humanity, a rare bird given the ongoing strain of intolerance. A Hindu lady and a former landlord’s serf have joined the race. Signs of an awakening are everywhere.

At the same time, the electoral process has been marred by blatant attacks against select parties who continued to campaign under a hail of bullets, threats of bomb attacks, and recently, the kidnapping of a former prime minister’s son from the midst of a rally. Even those not directly in the extremist crosshairs have had their share of troubles and a popular leader was badly injured in what looks like a freak accident a few days before polls are due to open.

It is not just fear of rigging that overshadows the day but actual danger lurks in the form of terrorists who have declared war on the state. People who have heeded the movie’s heartening message will be braving far more than crazed goons or ‘namaloom afraad’ protecting their party interests. Since the Taliban factor is missing from the Falakabad equation, the Chambaili tehreek can inspire a movement without triggering any ‘war — ours, theirs?’ minefields.

The final decision is a tad easier in Falakabad but the need to exercise our voting rights is absolutely imperative in Pakistan. The film has the luxury of tying up its story with a neat little bow but leaves a hopeful message in its wake. The power to change the nation’s destiny and take back the custody of our land does not have to remain a pipe dream. May 11, 2013 is a crucial moment in Pakistan’s history. And Chambaili has the potential to act as the spark needed to ignite a nation’s imagination.

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