With Shoaib Mansoor’s big and important Khuda Kay Liye along with Mehreen Jabbar’s humanist Ramchand Pakistani, Omar Khan’s Zibahkhana rounded up 2008 as a fruitful year for Pakistani cinema. Unfortunately, rather than continuing the trend, the subsequent year has been overshadowed by fundamentalist experiments in Swat, monumentally insipid performance by an elected government and uncertainty coming to fore as the defining Pakistani adjective. Nonetheless, Zibahkhana made a significant impression in niche circles here, there and everywhere.
The greatest strength of Omar Khan’s Zibahkhana is that it follows an oft-used template for a genre zombie horror film and then scrupulously molds it in a thoroughly indigenous Pakistani artwork. But then again, according to some self appointed custodians of culture, artwork per se is required to be looked up to, to be appreciated in aesthetical detail, demanding to join ranks with the sublime. Zibahkhana doesn’t make any pretence to masquerade as high-art. Omar Khan has for sometime been establishing himself as a connoisseur of ‘lowbrow’ cinema, be it the Western grade Z genre flicks, displaying a wholesome familiarity with cinematic wonders scooped out from the lowest depths of camp. He broadens his horizon of charting the depravity of camp by dwelling on Pakistan’s own indigenous film culture – blemishes, warts and all. Blood-soaked gandasa flicks from Punjab and smut-peddled Pushto fare has been given full recognition by Omar Khan that always eluded a critical eye.
Zibahkhana being his first feature, it was only natural for Omar Khan to fuse the two disparate influences and show to us all how seamless the results are. The basic premise might be awfully familiar to those who ever chanced upon witnessing a generic slasher/horror film. A group of teenagers hit the road into wilderness, and fall victim to all sorts of zombies and slashers. Right from the opening credits, the film promises to be a vehemently Pakistani feature with successive shots of street vendors and inner-city market hustlebustle played to a spunky Naheed Akhtar filmi song. Four of the young protagonists are introduced in separate scenes that establish their background, affirming to the slasher movie archetypes they will subsequently embody. Tagging along, in a ramshackle van to a rock concert, the crowd comprises Roxy, the in-the-moment “chilled” girl; Ayesha, the restrained, cautious girl; OJ, the token stoner; Vicky the older dude, and finally Simon, the sensitive one. On their way to the destination, they take a detour in the wilderness which brings them in contact with sordid characters and a series of grisly events.
The mayhem-laden scenes, replete with mucho gore and blood and guts and splattering lend credence to the warning supplied to us by Z grade horror films on local exhibition in the 80s: “kamzor dil hazraat na tashreef layein” (The faint-hearted need not attend). The unprecedented use of all manners of gore is tweaked through unique Pakistani shadings of zombies ambling in shalwar kameez (the dwarf zombie is a hoot) and a shuttle-cock burqa-clad flail-wielding slasher ‘Baby’ (more reminiscent of the masked John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man).
The mannerisms of the central clique are authentic in the initial scenes in the observation of how young Pakistanis from privileged backgrounds interact amongst themselves and others. Indeed, a subtextual Marxist reading of the film would suggest how the move the carefree and young protagonists make out of their comfort zones, built upon the cozy familiarity of luxurious living in affluent neighborhoods, flows into subsequent horror upon confronting head-on with the unfamiliar and the strange. The trek through the unknown, a misguided endeavor elicited by the impulsive need for the quick and fast concludes with blood and carnage. The marauding zombies just as well may stand for age-old conventions that have gone stale and alienating for the central Generation Now protagonists.
Another interpretaive layer is introduced by the inclusion of the crazed faqir, played by Salim Mairaj, that channels the anxiety directed at hard liner religious elements insistent upon showing the wayward the “right path”. Sacrifice and rigid unquestionable devotion is demanded to ensure the journey, which the youngsters are simply not prepared for. This leads to a violent struggle which sees the crazed faqir fatally overpowered, inviting retribution by a significantly more ferocious threat.
This is articulated through the burqa-clad slasher, brandishing medieval weaponry, denoting the utter terror that extremist and uncompromising elements invoke amongst those who are unprepared to encounter it. Such subtextual readings add topical layers and subversive pleasure into viewing a genre film that is dismissed as visceral fun at surface. At the same time it is peculiar to note the coherency between the formulaic narrative of the film and the passage of events that just may have reached a tipping point in our turbulent history.
Apart from reading between the lines, the film gives representation to a select crowd (colloquially known as the mummy-daddy/English-medium sorts) that was previously depicted in a patronizing and laughingly manipulated manner in Pakistan. This is a worthy effort to lure back a sizable audience along with the rest who crave for the new and the different who had turned away from local films a long, long time ago. Surely they are thrilled in identifying themselves on screen even at the cost of seeing their cinematic surrogates getting hacked and diced by our burqa-clad Baby.