By Zia Ahmad
A good fifteen years ago, in a previous century, there was this little talk of a film that made tall claims of revitalizing Pakistani cinema and provide a much needed breakaway point from the atrocious and tedious exercise which goes into defining Lollywood. Salmaan Peerzada, the then reclusive elder of the Peerzada clan, had returned to Pakistan after a lifetime of appearing on British television and odd feature films. Lesser known in Pakistan as his younger Peer brothers, his debut directorial feature, Zar Gul, nevertheless garnered media attention in the mid 90s.
The film was unable to obtain a clearance from the government for a wider distribution throughout Pakistan, reasons for which were rather mundane than political or ideological. Furthermore, owing to the subsequent virtue of not being seen by many, over the last fifteen years, Zar Gul has achieved somewhat of a mythical status amongst knowing circles. The mythical aura was furthermore complimented by the participation of acting talent such as Imran Peerzada, Feryal Gauhar and Talat Hussain. The film was pitched as the story of a modern day folk hero set against the sweeping landscape of rural Punjab and the northern areas.
The handful of reviews for the film found online gush along every sentence about the magnificence of the film. Upon seeing the fabled Zar Gul at the National College of Arts earlier in the summer, it is my unfortunate job to inform the readers that the film is hardly the mythical beast that it was thought to be.
Let’s begin with the technical merits of the film. It boasts of competent photography and editing and pays attention to sound (a remarkable feat when considering Lollywood films) while also showing us images of Lahore on film as no one else has. Having said that, one should also bear in mind that all the right gadgets, techniques and money shots don’t necessarily make for a good film.
Zar Gul, a noble effort it may be, falter on multiple accounts. Salmaan Peerzada attempted to make a film he describes as, “Zar Gul is different because it deals with politics, corruption, repression and fundamentalism. It reflects the reality of life in Pakistan.”
The reality on screen is weaved through broad and shallow brush strokes. Of course, in comparison to say any Syed Noor film, reality in Zar Gul may be of an observational bent. On the other hand if you take the display of reality within Zar Gul’s frameworks and level it up against any other credible representation of reality as demonstrated in any good, serious minded film, Zar Gul may find itself lagging considerably. It is true that much of the issues the director tackles in Zar Gul does not guarantee profitable returns and thus is always ignored by mainstream Pakistani filmmakers. Yet the same issues; politics, corruption, repression, intolerance and illiteracy are handled in a naïve sort of a manner. The villains are the darkest shade of black whereas the good guys are portrayed as the epitome of heroism. The paper thin plot, that incredibly takes more than three hours of screen time, sees the eponymous hero, as played by Imran Peerzada (younger brother of the director), witnessing his father’s death as a kid (younger Zar Gul played by the director’s son) and grows up to be a Robin Hood character stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
While the murder of Zar Gul’s father is shown earlier on in the film (part of the several flashbacks that recur through the film without rhyme and reason) it takes a bit of time to establish Zar Gul’s Robin Hood status. Apart from the privileged opening shot, the character’s introduction is shown amongst the truck driver culture of Pakistan. The authenticity of the truck culture is though soon enough the truck references are dropped altogether and the next appearance of Zar Gul sees him brandishing a gun in a road side restaurant. Such inconsistencies gradually prove to be the hallmark of the 180 minute plus film.
The schizophrenic tendency to cram in multiple and diversified traits in the characters seems incredulous. By the same account Zar Gul plays the role of an orphan, wronged boy sold into slavery who grows up to be a vigilante/folk hero/truck driver/an English speaking playboy/ amateur Sufi sage/part time stalker. More about the stalker bit later.
The flimsy cause and effect chain of events soon pits Zar Gul against an antagonist in the shape of a corrupt politician, played by Jamil Malik. Talat Hussain plays a radio DJ /investigative journalist /classical music connoisseur, who trails Zar Gul and publishes his exploits, essentially turning him into a folk hero of sorts. The basic premise takes its time in resolving to its logical and predictable conclusion. Along the way an obligatory love interest is introduced which is played by Feryal Gauhar. Staying true to Pakistani film conventions, she plays a character much younger than her age. The actress playing her mother scarcely looks older than her. There are significant parts of the film that has Zar Gul chasing, practically stalking Feryal Gauhar’s Yasmin through the willowy narrow alleys of walled Lahore. Salmaan Peerzada’s sense of absurd takes the better of his judgment when he chooses to set the first romantic scene between his two screen lovers in a circus. Yet at the same time he films another love scene shot in the midst of green field with remarkable restraint and sensitivity.
The film makes use of a lot of extraneous narrative and visual elements in lieu of giving it substance and complexity though only making the proceedings more thin and confusing. The film features shots and scenes that look incredible yet go nowhere and are never alluded to again.
Towards the end of the film when Zar Gul sees his antagonist meet his inevitable fate and marrying Yasmin, Salmaan Peerzada sends off his film on a sensationalist and long winded conclusion. An unnecessary concluding sequence sees Zar Gul in a gun battle with a battalion of policemen (incredibly (and recklessly) filmed with live ammunition) and have him killed off. The director’s decision to inject his hero with a dash of pointless fatalistic high point ends up appearing like a cheap sensationalist gimmick to give his film an ill conceived sense of closure or a melodramatic bid to win his audiences sympathy with Zar Gul.
Overall, the one-dimensional characters are unable to make use of the similarly flat story line and less than stellar performances by the high profile actors. Imran Peerzada is given a twitched moustache and handful of facial expressions coupled with body gestures to transmit his acting prowess. Feryal Gauhar is given a thankless role and doesn’t do much than looking pretty. They say villains get the juiciest parts and Zar Gul is no exception. Jamil Malik remarkably stays away from scenery chewing and succeeds in portraying a chain smoking charismatic politician who has more than his share of skeletons in his closet. Talat Hussain essentially plays himself and maybe the only trained thespian in the entire cast. There are parts played by a couple of Americans that don’t seem to gel with the rest of the film. Their limited acting skills don’t help the film much.
On the other hand, the lack of song and dance routine is welcome though the excessive running time balances the otherwise pleasant omission. Zar Gul could have been a much better film had the director gotten rid of the abundant irrelevant sequences and brought the running time to a little more than an hour. Despite the film’s shortcomings it does display a capable grip over filmmaking conventions that are grossly overlooked in our Lollywood landscape. Zar Gul may not be a compelling piece of storytelling yet offers a time capsule of a not so distant Pakistan. From old, familiar faces of PTV actors to images of Lahore and the northern areas on celluloid, the film surprisingly invites affectionate sentiments.
Something has to be said about a film where the action on the margins is more interesting than the central scene itself. Such instances are spread throughout the film where the background action looks more fascinating than the main narrative. More telling are the scenes shot in a film studio or a truck workshop or something as commonplace as a ride in a bus in the mountains in their observational detail.
Since there have been other films that came after Zar Gul and claimed to revive Pakistani cinema maybe it is time to cut down praising films for following the adequate rules of filmmaking and strive towards a cinema that is meaningful and contend with cinemas of the world.
(published in The Friday Times)