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OP-ED: What’s In A Name(sake)?

First Published in Daily Times / 2 Sep 2013

A beloved cricketer’s name adorns the billboards but this is not a biopic. The cricketing world it allegedly represents provides a compelling front but it will not be a return to his old stomping grounds. Main Hoon Shahid Afridi (MHSA) draws upon a living legend’s legacy to leverage the passion and throws in a cameo or two, but that is the extent of Afridi’s involvement. Meanwhile, somewhere in a small little village, a disgraced cricketer turned coach who trains a rag tag team will be moved centre-field. And the one thing that binds the nation together and provides the soulful soundtrack will become the anchor.

The newly minted flight is bound for cricket-ville and in some parts of the world that is reason enough to join in the festivities. Humayun Saeed, seen at the helm wearing a number of hats as the producer/actor enlists the classic underdog formula to launch his ambitious vision. The village club is in danger of being shut down, and must pin its hopes on a motley crew of dreamers, drifters and down on their luck celebrity cricketers including Afridi’s namesake, played by Noman Habib.

The filmmakers who work in contrasting colours of Pakistani society ensure that viewers stay invested in the journey by harnessing that energy native to the region. At times they can go a little overboard and scenes, however brief, designed for global consumption will leave many bewildered. They can be forgiven for summoning elements of escapist fantasy but not for setting the oldies in frat party mode, which will the rest cold.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons to root for this maiden venture. The way it tries to bring inter-faith harmony into the fold using the rivalry between a lovable Pathan fast bowler (Hamza Abbasi) and Michael Magnet (Ainan Arif), the brave Christian wicket keeper, for instance. The way it enlists a simple premise to explore the uneven terrain or make an ordinary carnival dazzle. And, the way it calls upon the land of sporting goods to hone in on the echoes of greatness in the mean streets of Sialkot.

The outlines, while not exactly cerebral, are striking and cultural markers have been liberally used to stock the stage with colourful banners and uplifting messages. Veterans like Javed Sheikh, Nadeem, Seemi Raheel and Shafqat Cheema occasionally loom in view and Summer Nicks — writer/producer of Seedlings, an award winning film — makes an appearance as the Islamabad coach. Ismail Tara outshines most as the club owner because there is no distracting camera work or ghostly chants of “Seeth Sahib Seeth Sahib” to mar his performance.

Sentimentality powers the core and sporting movie tropes merrily line its shores. With its engaging storyline (credit: Vasay Chaudhry) and careful casting, MHSA does its best to honour the game, and bar a few melodramatic missteps, stays on track. Its true appeal lies not within the gleaming citadels that lie beyond the reach of many but in the beautiful alliances forged on the field of dreams. The stereotypes are inescapable but have been gracefully handled for the most part.

That said, a black and white palette has been dusted off painting villains blacker than night and heroes with a touch of ‘man of steel’, invoking that suspension of disbelief. Also, wrapping our man Magnet in rosaries or surrounding him with crosses when his religion has already been established is uncalled for. As are the breaks in momentum with those flash sideways to the sick mother, disapproving father, or delirious sister. Granted these back-stories are needed to establish the stakes along with the challenges faced by these heroic youngsters but these side trips in the midst of a nail-biting clash of the desi Titans adversely affects the pacing. Fortunately for them, the gaming bits make up for these missed cues.

MHSA has been filmed on location and offers some breathtaking scenery. None-too-subtle messages of unity, faith, discipline beckon from every corner but a land darkened by conflict could always do with a reminder. Then there are song and dance sequences considered a staple for Pakistani film industry that have been used sparingly. With such a powerful core, the movie does not need to conjure the usual line up of suspects to keep interest from flagging. Nor should it be compelled to test the perimeters of good taste merely to generate publicity for that matter.

That a few characters get short changed is inevitable given the narrow scope. Neither the sister nor the wife is allowed to emerge from the shadows. One patiently waits to be rescued from her circumstances and lets her disability define her, not exactly a role model. Viewers can imagine the purgatory coach Akbar lived in for 15 years after losing his wife and child to the scandal that ended his career but how his estranged wife spent that time and if she made something of her life — join the family business perhaps — is not clear. All this could have been covered in one revelatory flashback instead of a revealing vignette.

A few technical glitches aside, a series of well crafted shots manage to send a jolt of life through a parched landscape and encourage misty eyed viewers to cheer on the Sialkot Shaheens anytime they stumble into the frame. Which they do often since Cricket season hits theatres from August 2013 onwards.

This is an ARY Films and Mandviwalla Entertainment presentation, directed by S Ali Raza Usama.

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