When I reviewed Cake, I said that you can now consider the Pakistani Film Industry completely revived. By that, I meant that modern Pakistani features now have their voice, their identity. They no longer need to be Bollywood knock-offs. Their story no longer needs to be diluted by juxtaposing songs and dream sequences. Nor do they need melodramatics, culminating in a loud ‘nahin’.
They can be subtle dramas, rich with emotion and nuances. They can have deep, thought-provoking messages. Which may or may not aim for societal change, and they can favour realism over the melodramatic. And audiences are (mostly) ready for this change.
It would be folly to think that everyone will readily accept a paradigm shift, especially if it threatens the comforts one has grown accustomed too. However, if Cake’s box office prowess is any indication, the paradigm has shifted. The trick now is, for filmmakers to adapt to it too. I haven’t seen Adnan Sarwar’s debut, Shah, so I cannot judge if he has always been adept at this new metric for Pakistani Cinema. Motorcycle Girl however, despite a few bumps in the road, lands on this mark squarely. My score:7/10.
Before I continue, I want to point out that my reviews have been spoiler-free off late, this is no exception, so don’t hesitate to read on.
The Long (And Slow) Journey Home
Before I get into what worked for the film, and there’s a lot, let’s touch on what didn’t. There isn’t a lot but you also can’t ignore it. This film suffers from probably the worst pacing that can be found in a good film. The most important reason why Motorcycle Girl isn’t a great film, is because of how sluggishly it chugs along.
I am a person that is, unfortunately, married to my phone. I am incapable of spending long periods of time, without at least glancing at my screen from the corner of my eye. Unless, I am utterly engrossed in something. I glanced at my phone no less than twenty times during this movie. I browsed Twitter, checked some emails and then turned back to the screen. There are moments and sequences, where the story is just progressing with nothing vaguely interesting happening.
But to be fair, I did glance back twenty to thirty times, because something amazing and slow-clap worthy did happen. More on that later.
Another major issue lies with much of the supporting cast. Ironically the two people who were the strongest supporters of the real life Zenith Irfan, are the weakest links in the movie.
Samina Peerzada is a veteran, a legend, a powerful actor. And here, she’s reduced to a one-note sob story of a mother. She is given next to nothing to do. I get that mothers in Pakistani society, especially single mothers, are more often some of its most oppressed members. But that doesn’t mean you give her a total of five lines, repeat them a few times, and call it a day.
The same can be said about Hadi Arshad’s Sultan, Zenith’s brother.
He is supposed to be her teacher, her greatest advocate and best friend. You see that a total of two times. Their relationship isn’t built up much in any way, nor does it come to any sort of climactic conclusion.
The rest of the supporting cast is much better though, both in terms of writing and acting. There are four male roles which, together, encompass all that is wrong with men in our society. To a tee.
There’s the discriminating a**hole of a boss, played exceedingly well by Sarmad Khoosat. The narcissistic, opportunistic, testosterone-loving co-worker played by Daniyal Raheel. A sleaze ball and obviously sexist van driver. And the domineering, borderline abusive and overly self-confident fiancé played by Ali Kazmi.
Not only do they play the parts well, but are effective in highlighting Zenith’s growth. Going from not being able to stand up to the oppressive forces in her life, to not only standing up to them but admonishing them, while seizing control of her own story.
The other characters are with note as well. Mehar Bano players the perfect bestie, Shamim Hilaly the perfect oppressive grandmother, and Hani Taha and Wajahat Malik the perfect ‘goals’ couple. Though I wish those two got more screen time as well.
Where’s The Girl?
Now let’s talk about the motorcycle girl herself; Sohai Ali Abro. We’ve seen her in several television serials and movies, and yet at times, she fails to deliver. It’s a weird mix. At times, she portrays beautiful earnestness. Where you truly feel Zenith’s drive to fulfill her father’s dreams to bike to Khunjerab Pass.
Other times, she reduces to weird puttee in moments of outrage. There are also several clap-worthy scenes; Where Zenith finally takes a stand. And finally, there are moments that I can only describe as expressionless yet pensive.
But, her performance, in spite of being wildly inconsistent, does touch you in the end. She shines in the comedic sequences, and is able to go from demure to powerful very believably. I talk about the many such moments, so I guess she does her job well.
The Written Word
Now let’s get back to the writing. I’ve said that the pacing in incredibly bad, for a good movie. What I mean by this is that, there are sequences that have been brilliantly written. The movie shows us two parallel storylines. One consisting of the events leading up to the bike trip to Khunjerab, and the other detailing the events of the trip. One outlines the events that lead to Zenith’s decisions and her personal growth. While the other is more reflective of her growth, while also building up to a climactic twist.
Though I have to admit, the twist, while well executed, was as incredibly filmy and cheesy, as it was effective.
I also admired writer/director Adnan Sarwar’s attention to detail. I appreciate that the film takes the route of showing rather than, in-your-face, telling. And the abandonment of tropes like ‘nach gana’ and intervals. Adnan focuses on endearment throughout this film, whether it be with the characters, humour or story. And in the end, he delivers just that.
Though, I do wonder why he felt the need to act in this one as well. In Shah, he played the title role while here, he acts in support (can’t tell you the role without giving away the twist) of the hero. It does make me somewhat sceptical. However this may just be the other end of the spectrum. It may aid the case for actors directing their own films, or directors acting in their own films. That is largely due to the fact that this isn’t a bad film; it is very enjoyable. Nor is it an ego boost for the actor/director. The other extremes being travesties like Arth 2.
The sparkling humour, good character development and clap-worthy scenes all made the movie enjoyable. But, I also loved how they handled the inevitable and shameless brand plug. If they sponsor the film, it’s a given that you’ll see them represented. There have been horrible ones in the past, like Coke Studio becoming a central theme. And Coke itself appearing in almost every scene in Ho Man Jahan. Others have been more fleeting, like a random name drop.
Here however, the brand endorsement, this time for Telenor, actually facilitates character growth. While also being somewhat fourth wall breaking. Essentially, Zenith uses the lovely ‘Jo main Chahoon’ campaign to finally show her boss what she’s capable of. While that doesn’t go as planned, it does positively contribute to the plot of the film. And, it wasn’t something completely unnecessary and inevitable.
Less Than Perfect
I get it. And I know by now you get it too. Motorcycle Girl is a flawed film. But the flaws, thankfully don’t completely stop it from touching the audience.
It doesn’t turn the biopic of the real life Zenith Irfan into a filmy, dramatic mess. As was the norm in the past. It tells a largely endearing tale, with mostly endearing characters and a message that isn’t lost in translation. Though I don’t know how much was dramatized, the entire tale seems as if it could have actually happen. Which I believe is a biopic’s greatest success.