With Laal Kabootar Will Pakistani Cinema Finally Embrace the Dark?

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Lest someone gets it twisted, the trailer of Laal Kabootar did not escape my radar when it was released. On the contrary, I was among the legion of pearl-clutching cinephiles who were genuinely awestruck by its verisimilitude. It was gritty, raw and exciting, and I had hoped to gush about it in the days that followed.

But around the same time, the turbulent relations between Pakistan and India segued into near-escalation territory. If you haven’t read my dirge about how terrifyingly surreal this real-world situation became, please do. If you don’t want to, I’ll say this; it was an amalgamation of misguided agendas and failed attempts at strong-arming. And, all of us deserve better.

But in a way, the grim global situation just punctuated what about this film stood out for me.

Laal Kabootar: A Very Pakistani Crime Story

Set in Karachi’s crime circles, Laal Kabootar recounts the story of two people on the wrong side of luck. Akbar Ali Khan stars as a cabbie trying to escape the city. Mansha Pasha plays a strongminded, affluent young woman, whose life takes a turn for the worst. Together, they are the duo at the heart of this obviously intense crime-thriller. Working to escape a ferociously tangled web, which threatens their lives at every turn.

And before you go on, I have to warn you that this is not a review. Sadly, as I am not in Pakistan, I won’t be able to watch the movie. We hope to bring you guys a review, as soon as Nusair watches the film. But today, I want to take a few minutes and ponder over what Laal Kabootar means for Pakistani cinema.

When the trailer was released, a lot of us were, as I mentioned, awestruck. I don’t remember the last time a Pakistani film’s trailer started with a maturity disclaimer.

The hook seemed to be that the movie would pull no punches. It didn’t just promise a crime drama. It promised as real a look at Karachi’s best kept secrets as cinematically palatable.

The visuals were violent, bordering on gory. The everyday politics and corruption was laid bare. I was particularly taken aback by a scene which highlighted some of Pakistani society’s strangest biases.

It seemed to be a break from convention, and deliberately so. The dialogues, cinematography, even the infectious score (I see you Danyal Hayat, I see you) created a darkly tantalising landscape. And for an audience sick of mundane romantic comedies, Karachi’s dark underbelly was a breath of fresh air.

Strange, I know. But not as strange as the fact that more filmmakers haven’t explored said underbelly.

To Pakistan, With Love

Pakistan is such an obvious backdrop for dark themes. From organised crime, to our position in global politics and what this has meant for us, to personal troubles. We really do, have it all.

In Hyderabad and then Karachi, I grew up with all of this. My formative years were spent in the company of mafias with rumored political backing, policy debates. And once, a literal bomb blast outside my house.

When local cinema went through the now frankly infamous ‘revival’, its version of life in Pakistan was pretty dark. We were given many melancholy movies. It gave us the Shoaib Mansoor films of yore (seriously, why were people so surprised by Verna)? And a genuinely compelling slasher film. And, it also gave me one of my favourite Pakistani films to date.

Convoluted and Delectable: Jalaibee

If you haven’t seen Jalaibee, I highly recommend it. The whole movie is available on ARY Films’ official YouTube channel. So there really is no excuse to not watch it.

I loved this film, because it was so clearly inspired by Quintin Tarantino’s cinematic signature. With its penchant for stylized violence, parallel storylines, witty dialogues and highly choreographed fight scenes.

But, it was also uniquely honest. On the one hand, it was deemed to be fictitious. But at the same time, it put taboo subjects on full display (during a scene in a brothel, quite literally). Criminal elements had political connections. Prostitution was a booming business. Even elite culture made its way into the narrative. And strangely, the film did not make a big deal out of any of this. In hindsight, maybe the flat tone helped them avoid the outrage of the morality brigade.

But around the same time, there was a growing affinity towards comedic films. Because of their light-hearted nature, these could draw in the crowds, and proved to be lucrative. In terms of content, they covered a broad spectrum. From the nauseatingly chirpy (Karachi se Lahore) to the playfully intelligent (Na Maloom Afrad).

A trend emerged, where while Pakistani movies still didn’t shy away from poignant topics, the treatment became more comedic. A number of Pakistani films, even many recent releases, include socio-political subjects, but adopt a humorous tone.

Darkness, My Old Friend

To be fair, there is a ton of quality cinema among this trove. I love many of them.

But I was beginning to feel that the over-bright visuals and narratives were becoming trite.  Audiences often connect with cinema that speaks to them. Cinema that turns a blind eye towards their reality cannot achieve effective communication. This was, for instance, my main gripe with Karachi Se Lahore. That it wanted me to like a protagonist who complained about a life that most Karachi dwellers would relish. (For a complete dirge, watch my video essay about anti-heroes).

This is also why I became obsessed with the indie scene. Indie filmmakers, even during the brightest commercial ventures, were plunging into the abyss. Many of them put forth some genuinely enticing projects. And hands down, my favourite from this lot is ‘The Dessert Journey’.

This little number was such a fantastic showcase of creative talent. In particular, the experimental filmmaking techniques won many people over. I was among them.

Apart from a really intriguing music video, this was a showcase of how compelling unconventional narratives could be. If dark themes were coupled with sombre tonality and effective storytelling, the result had the potential to inspire.

A Long Time Coming

Now, I did not single out Jalaibee and ‘The Dessert Journey’ just because I love them. I do love them, but they were also early showcases of the minds that put Laal Kabootar together.

Mo Azmi has been really prominent in Pakistan’s entertainment scene for many years now. Among his early cinematography credits were 021, Jalaibee and even ‘The Dessert Journey’. I am spotting a bit of a pattern with his craft. He seems to love projects that are delightfully twisted; which of course means that I love him.

And now let’s talk about the filmmaker himself. Kamal Khan was the force behind ‘The Dessert Journey’. And in interviews he’s stated that his feature length debut will follow the same path. This affirmation only confirms what fans of his early work, already guessed by way of the trailer of Laal Kabootar.

But moreover, they have stuck to stories that called out to them. And this also hints at something. In an interview, Kamal Khan spoke about the “next generation” of Pakistani filmmakers. Claiming that “there’s a bunch of us and we’re different.”

I can see that. I would also group brother sister duo Hania and Kamil Chima, alongside him. These two are spearheading the budding production house Nehr Ghar. And it says a lot about their vision that they would take a chance on a film like Laal Kabootar.

In fact, team Laal Kabootar as a whole represents the ‘we’re different’ arm of Pakistani cinema. For a long time, I was convinced that there were local talents that wanted to break the mould. Filmmakers who cared more about the story, than the profit margins. And, if given a chance, they’d showcase their cinema alongside the mainstream. Laal Kabootar is the manifestation of that pipe-dream.

Has the Tide Turned?

But, as much as I want to, I cannot make predictions about what the future holds. I would love it if Laal Kabootar encouraged a plethora of filmmakers to opt for untapped themes. But truthfully, I don’t know for sure what this movie will signify.

What I will say is that a promising box-office performance could shift the trend. After-all, nobody coveted romantic comedies so strongly until Jawani Phir Nahi Ani set a benchmark.

And in the case of Laal Kabootar, there are obvious risks.

I applaud a film that isn’t the quintessential ‘family movie’. To me, this means that that it is prioritizing the story. But, this may alienate a chunk of the audience. There is after-all, a reason why so many Pakistani movies go the sugar dusted claptrap route. They deliberately aim to offend no one and please everyone; because money.

But, there may also be a flip side to this coin. As this looks like unconventional, quality cinema, Laal Kabootar may tap into a largely disappointed and hence dormant audience. The cinephiles who genuinely want good cinema.

Conventional rhetoric claims that for a movie to be successful, it has to be ‘entertaining’. And, far too many people have a warped sense of what entertainment is. To them, entertainment is melodrama, spectacle and watching a mindless, repetitive array of shiny things with zero logic.

But, in his seminal book about screen writing, Robert McKee offered a counter definition for the word. “To be entertained,” he argued, “is to be immersed in the ceremony of story to an intellectually and emotionally satisfying end.” And I’m sensing that this is what Laal Kabootar will offer all of us.

Personally, after a plethora of melodrama with no substance, I am hoping that this will be welcome change.

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