Nothing scares film-maker Shoaib Mansoor more than the thought of being born a woman or a eunuch in a country like Pakistan. “Women seem to be a playground (battleground) where we practise a medieval form of religion,” he writes in the director’s statement. Mansoor’s second film Bol, which he has written, directed and produced, takes on incendiary subjects such as women’s rights, family planning and sexual identity within the framework of Islamic fundamentalism. It is Pakistan’s highest-grossing film till date.
Mansoor, who calls himself ShoMan, is something of an entertainment impresario in his home country, with a long career in television and music production. In 2007, he garnered critical acclaim for his debut feature Khuda Kay Liye (In the Name of God), a film that addressed the divide between liberal and dogmatic notions of Islam post-September 11.
Bol, Urdu for “speak up”, was produced on a modest budget of Pakistani rupees (PKR) 10 million (around Rs 5.24 lakh). The movie—shot in 45 days—opened to roaring box-office success when it released in Pakistan in late June. According to figures by the film’s distribution house Geo Films, Bol made PKR 22 million in its first week in Pakistan, earning more in ticket sales than My Name is Khan, a 2010 Bollywood movie that was the record holder till now.
Set in the walled city of Lahore, the film follows the story of a Pakistani father, Hakim Sahab (played by Manzar Sehbai), and his struggle to reconcile his religious conservatism with the aspirations of his five daughters. The strict patriarch also has an intersex child, Saifullah. The narrative draws from the clashes between Sahab and his headstrong daughter Zainub (Humaima Malik) over Saifullah, whose uncertain sexuality particularly draws Sahab’s wrath. In the course of the film, the teenage Saifullah is raped by truck drivers, and then murdered by his father.
Big-ticket: (left) A poster of Bol in Lahore; and Humaima Malik.
Mansoor has worked with a cast of debutants. Bol stars Pakistani pop sensation Atif Aslam in his first acting role: a young doctor who falls in love with one of Sahab’s daughters.
Malik, 25, a model and the face of beauty soap Lux in Pakistan, believes her character Zainub is a potential role model for women in her country. In the film, Zainub is married, but divorces her husband after she refuses to have a child owing to the poor state of his finances. She also prompts her own mother to get a tubectomy against the wishes of her father. Malik’s character required she wear minimal make-up and her critical scenes in the film have led to comparisons in the local media with actors Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. “Ten song-and-dance roles couldn’t have done this for me,” says Malik over the phone from Lahore. It is her character, with her outrageous dialogues, that gives the film its title; and lines from the film are now popular as mobile phone ringtones in Pakistan. “Zainub’s character shows that you don’t need permission to speak up, but courage,” says Malik.
According to Usman Ghafoor, a production and casting assistant for the film, Mansoor was keen to cast Naseeruddin Shah—whom he’d worked with for Khuda Kay Liye—as Sahab, but the actor’s dates didn’t work out. Ghafoor, a journalist with the Pakistani daily The News International, says the team was also in talks with Irrfan Khan. The Indian actor opted out because of continuity issues with other projects.
Some critics have panned the film’s production values. A review in the leading Pakistani daily, The Express Tribune, calls the characters “a chronic implausibility” and the film processing so bad “that at times it seemed like a film being aired on Filmazia (a local Pakistani channel).”
But Mansoor has a cult status among Pakistan’s intelligentsia. Bol is being seen as a glimmer of hope in Lollywood—Lahore’s film industry, which is otherwise plagued with simplistic good versus evil themes and poor production values. It is promising that there have been no serious protests against the film’s screening; and the Central Board of Film Censors in Lahore is said to have cleared the film within a day.
Mansoor has kept a low profile since Bol released, declining requests from both local and international media. Ghafoor, one of the few journalists to have interviewed Mansoor in the past, describes him as a man of few words. With media conglomerate Geo Entertainment watching his back and Aslam standing in for star appeal, Mansoor is on safe ground where the film’s imminent international distribution is concerned. And his film is doing all the talking.
Bol is still playing in Pakistan and is scheduled for release in theatres across India, the US, UK, Australia and Dubai on 31 August.