Pakistan loves and hates Shoaib Mansoor. The Karachi-based director of Bol who calls himself ShoMan—he is known for the garishly produced Supreme Ishq series of music videos in Pakistan and for having been a patron of Pakistani pop bands—has a keen, unflinching eye for prejudices against and within Islamic society.
In 2008, his film Khuda Kay Liye irked the religious orthodoxy. In some cities the film was banned. Hooligans vandalized posters and burnt effigies. Hate blogs about Mansoor proliferated. But it was a favourite in the film festival circuits of Asia and Europe.
This year, our neighbours hailed him. The country known to love Bollywood and idolize our superstars gave Bol a hearty thumbs-up; it now holds the record of being the highest-grossing film in Pakistan.
Bol looks inward, into a milieu in Lahore which is immersed in false patriarchal supremacy and nostalgia, but which is economically weak—not necessarily a milieu which exists only in Pakistan; it’s a burden common in families in many parts of India. In this world, women are repressed and physically abused; eunuchs are killed and for money, the same man who inflicts these atrocities sells himself at the legendary Heera Mandi because in the eyes of a pimp, this misogynist has one skill: He can impregnate a woman with a girl child. It is a relentlessly dark film, with no redemption for its female protagonists.
We meet Zainab inside a prison cell when she is about to be escorted to her execution. Women in the prison wail as she is taken away. Her death wish is to tell the world why she did what she did and why it should not be considered a crime.
She is one of the daughters of Hakim Saab (Manzar Sehbai), who has seven daughters he abhors. His eighth, Saifi, is born a eunuch. The women of the house protect him from hostility, but only to an extent. One of the daughters is in love with Mustafa (Atif Aslam), the son of a doctor, the Hakim family’s liberal neighbour. He sings in a local rock band and his girlfriend Ayesha (Mahira Khan) secretly escapes her home with him. Mansoor shows how popular music and rock music is entrenched in Pakistani society—how it is a leveller as well as a symbol of liberation. The film’s music score has splashes of brilliance, true to the country’s tradition of complex and evolved music-making.
He comments on the modern Pakistani’s attitude towards an India-Pakistan cricket match. The old zealot blames a Pakistani defeat on Allah, and two sisters, one a fan of Shahid Afridi and the other of Sachin Tendulkar, blame it on their quibbling over who is better.
So Mansoor’s world in Bol (the film is written, directed and produced by him) is weighed by prejudices, hostility, grief and pathos. But it also has some hope. It is a world view that unintentionally reiterates the worst the world associates with Islamic societies, but the director ultimately says that even at the cost of a gruesome sacrifice, the ugly can be conquered. The film’s end validates a new Pakistan where economic affluence can be equated with women’s emancipation. The escape is sudden, and complete. I wonder if that has something to do with the film’s success at the box office.
Like Khuda Kay Liye, Bol is a shoddy production. It is made with a small budget, and the lack of resources is obvious. But more importantly, Mansoor, more so than in Khuda Kay Liye, is unable to control his material. Most scenes have the imprint of a bad Bollywood film from the 1970s—unnecessarily elongated, with literal dialogues and lapses into cheap histrionics. Most situations are absurd. The writing is loose, and the film largely looks and sounds like a bad soap opera.
So Bol is an important film, but it is not the most competent. The only really abiding reason to watch it is the lead performance by Malik. From a South Asian actor, this is one of the most convincingly powerful performances in recent times. Her silences and dramatic moments have depth and energy.
Even so, at the end, I came away from the theatre unmoved.
Bol releases in theatres on Wednesday.