A secret online romance, a conservative family, a woman battling with mental illness, and the thralls of religious conventions. These are the pillars holding up the new Hamza Bangash short. At a time when most movies are attempting escapism, you can rely on Pakistan’s indie film scene to churn out something raw, and unfiltered. Dia is perhaps one of the most topical films to come out of Pakistan recently. Dealing with aspects of life in the country, that most would like to forget.
It does not paint a pretty picture. But, as I end my exceptionally long, and unplanned online hiatus, I can’t think of a better movie to write about.
Dia recounts the story of young Mariam, who lives with her mother and younger brother in typical middle-class-Pakistani-family fashion. She is a shy law student, preparing for her exams. Her mother is at once overbearing, and insistent that she knows what is best for her daughter. And underneath this everyday monotony, there is brimming tension. As a form of escape, Mariam begins an online romance. Simultaneously, her mother is pushing her towards an arranged marriage. And amidst the chaos, Mariam battles with mental health issues that threaten to undo her.
The Millennial Dilemma
While we have seen many renditions of the Pakistani millennial of late, Dia’s take on this character is incredibly fraught. Mariam is teetering on a knife’s edge. Her life mimics the claustrophobic charade that plays out in many Pakistani neighbourhoods, right down to her demons. From the mother-daughter dynamic that would give Freud nightmares, to the allure of online escapism, this is a girl we have all met.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this character, is that she has been nipped from reality. As has been admitted by Hamza Bangash himself, Dia is based on a true story. The harrowing possibilities that it conjures up, are also real. According to the writer/director, the case that inspired this film was dismal. Where someone struggling with mental illness was, to use his words, “smothered by family expectations and pseudo religious beliefs.” These social dogmas, which Bangash weaves into the narrative of his short, are also amongst the greatest tragedies facing Pakistan’s youth.
Albeit boasting a young, and vibrant population, we neglect the realities of being young and alive in this turbulent country. Media directed at anyone in the age bracket, either lectures or titillates. There are very few attempts to reflect. Dia is one of those rare diamonds.
But, while it is honest, Dia cannot be seen as easy watching. The trailer itself inculcates the queasiness that Hamza Bangash has squeezed into every minute of the film. There is beauty, which finds a way to shine through, via the cinematography and the stunning lead Nida Khan.
But, this is also a window to the unfiltered. It is an attempt to encapsulate the debilitating experiences of mental illness, and how our society exacerbates them.
But the dichotomy within the film must be seen as deliberate. It has been co-produced by Mina Hussain of the Pakistan Institute of Living and Learning. An organisation that puts the promotion of mental health at the core of its mission. Thus, the grim aspects of the movie are not coincidental. They are an attempt to make us own up to what we are all a part of.
The Hamza Bangash Brand of Cinema
And ultimately, I suppose, Dia is another piece in the Hamza Bangash puzzle. Given his resume, this project is not surprising. Everything that the young director has attached his name to has been experimental, poignant and sensitive.
His Rang Raaz, which put an inter-faith romance at its crux, made the news last year. Shot over an short period of time, and funded by a Kickstarter campaign, the film also showcased Bangash’s rebellious ethos. Dia is another notch in that direction. Apart from the subject-matter, the film is also unorthodox in that nearly half of it was shot on an IPhone. Combined with the focus on social media’s pervading influence, this adds an interesting element to the film.
It also helps gage the kind of films that we can now expect from Hamza Bangash. Films that break the rules, push the boundaries, and speak the truth.
(Dia premiered at the Locarno Film Festival earlier this month.)