Musical conquest

Print edition : May 23, 2008

Naseeruddin Shah in "Khuda Ke Liye".-

The first Pakistani film released in India in decades grips audiences in the country.

THE film Khuda Ke Liye (In the Name of God), directed by Shoaib Mansoor, is playing in packed houses in Delhi. It is the first Pakistani film to be released in India in living memory. Made in 2007, it made waves in Pakistan not only for its content but also for its mature presentation.

That Shoaib Mansoor understands film technique was proved all over again in Delhi when mixed audiences, that is, from varied age groups and not just the older generation overwhelmed by nostalgia associated with the 1947 Partition, appreciated the film wholeheartedly. To be able to hold an audience for three hours without resorting to a single cheap trick is no mean feat.

The fundamentalists in Pakistan had wanted the film banned, but the young stood firm. But why this hullabaloo over a film? No doubt because of its content, which glorifies music as a great unifier in a world torn apart by religious fundamentalism and in which the happenings of September 11, 2001, play a pivotal role.

Two brothers, Mansoor (played by Shaan) and Sarmad (Fawad Khan), are gifted young singers from Lahore and belong to a caring and enlightened family. They are celebrated for their ability to forge out of tradition songs that grip the modern imagination because of their judicious blending of melody and rhythm. The poetic quality of their lyrics, taken directly from or inspired by the Sufi tradition, also contributes to their success considerably.

Shoaib Mansoor's script is taut and evocative.-

The younger brother, Sarmad, finds himself drawn to Maulana Tahiri (Rasheed Naaz), a diehard cleric whose personality acts as a magnet for young men from poor backgrounds. Tahiri is a great supporter of a war against the (white) infidel who has ruined Afghanistan and Iraq and is poised to take over the entire Islamic world. Sarmads parents and elder brother Mansoor are appalled at his decision to abandon music in favour of orthodox religion.

Meanwhile, in faraway England, their uncle, a restaurateur, sees them on television and decides on the spur of the moment to kill two birds with one stone: get his daughter Mary (Iman Ali) by a former English wife away from her boyfriend Dave (Alex Edwards), also English, and make a trip to Pakistan after 30 years to meet his elder brother and his family. The rest of the story is about the destinies of individuals pitted against the cruelty of blind history.

Shoaib Mansoors scripting and direction is taut and evocative. He works in broad strokes, bold and swift, and knows that the essential function of cinema is to depict the passage of time in which people connect (or do not) with their environment to resolve (usually) the anxieties, enigmas and, maybe, problems that trouble them.

His eye for detail is commendable. The pathos of migration forced by hardship is brought home when Mansoor and Sarmads uncle sees them singing on a British TV channel and is surprised and moved. The trouble is he has never met them and does not even know their first names. And yet they are his brothers sons.

How this discovery is dovetailed into fulfilling another diabolic agenda is a marvel of screenplay writing. Marys father, threatened with boycott by the local Muslim community because she has a British boyfriend, takes her on a vacation in Pakistan. His real intention is to marry her off to her cousin Sarmad, the foolish young man who has abandoned his music to follow Maulana Tahiri.

Austin Marie Sayre and Shaan as Janie and Mansoor.-

The storys movement in time is handled in a dynamic manner. Mansoor has already gone to study music in America. His first composition based on a Radha-Krishna theme is greatly appreciated by his classmates, who participate in its presentation to give it a truly international colour. Janie (Austin Marie Sayre), a white American fellow student and a talented cellist, falls in love with him.

The story of how Mary is tricked into marriage with Sarmad after she goes with him and her father on a little trip to Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold where Maulana Tahiris writ runs, and of Mansoors progress in his musical and romantic life (with Janie) in America is dealt with in admirable audio-visual shorthand. The passage of time is compressed with grace and economy, without blurring the contours of the narrative and without any abruptness. Music often serves as a bridge to smoothen out rough edges.

The viewer might frown for a moment when Mary, while in captivity, manages to write a letter to her boyfriend Dave in London and gets one of the girls in her retrograde hosts family to post it. Purists may see it as a scriptwriting lapse, asking how Mary got hold of stationery to write the letter. And why would a girl from such a restrictive background risk life and limb to help a guest?

But there is another way of looking at the short scene. The Western media are inclined to portray the tribal people of Waziristan as a barbaric lot bent on setting back the clock by several hundred years. In this film they come across as ordinary folk, conservative, yes, but not without the finer human sentiments.

The three-hour film never allows the audiences attention to slip. Shoaib Mansoor is an experienced television producer-director with a long stint with the Karachi division of GEO, an internationally renowned television production company. He successfully averts the usual pitfall of television productions and does not interrupt the flow of time in his narrative by inserting one image after another in an attempt to grab the viewers attention. Khuda Ke Liye moves gracefully between the stories of its protagonists to its ultimate humanist finale.

The issues raised in this seemingly simple story are not just about the clash of tradition and modernity. It is about ethical value systems. When Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents whisk away an innocent Mansoor into the night soon after 9/11 as his new bride Janie sleeps chloroformed, one is filled with revulsion. The arrogance of a godless, commercial civilisation that wishes to subjugate the world becomes apparent as FBI agents repeatedly humiliate and torture Mansoor, who is denounced by a drunken Sikh neighbour recently thrashed by whites, and a panic-stricken white woman living in an apartment on the floor above.

The torture scenes are suggestive rather than explicit, except for one instance in which Mansoors head is banged on the wall to inflict brain injury. Cumulatively, they convey the fear and distortions in the psyche of the Anglo-Saxon male who cannot believe that his domination of the non-Christian world can ever be challenged.

Through the attempted annihilation of Mansoor by the FBI, the director captures racial hatred at its worst.

Iman Ali as Mary in the film.-

Meanwhile, Mary has become a mother. The timid Sarmad forced himself on her when she tried to escape, in Waziristan. When she appears in court, backed by the British government, to take on her captors who try to prevent her from taking her baby daughter back to England because the father is Pakistani, there is an uproar. Maulana Tahiris wiles crumble before the magisterial logic of Maulana Wali (played by Naseeruddin Shah in an absolutely riveting cameo). Sarmad, ashamed of himself, withdraws the case against Mary and is attacked by Tahiris band of ruffians. In a dramatic turnaround at the airport, Mary decides to stay on in Pakistan with her baby.

Mansoor returns home a slobbering cripple in a wheelchair. The only ray of hope in this distressing situation is the family. The mother and father sing one of Mansoors compositions, and as his mother caresses Mansoors bandaged forehead, one of his inert fingers comes to life suddenly to mark the beat in a snatch of the song.

Occasionally, Shoaib Mansoor resorts to populist clichs, but he also has a way of subverting them. Marys decision to stay on with the changed Sarmad may at first glance appear to be a concession to sentimentality, but it is also an act that requires a lot of courage. On the other hand, Mansoors letter to Janie, just before his breakdown in prison, saying that despite their love for each other their journey through life must be alone and separate, is heart-breaking. But given the cultural context, it has a ring of truth. One can only blame politics and its attendant callousness for what has happened. But then, what is politics but a reflection of the culture that fosters it?

The camera team of Ali Mohammad, David Le May and Ken Seng handles the large screen format with aplomb. The decision to shoot most of the scenes in Lahore in a dusty red-brown tint is a correct one. The original music by Javed Bashir, Shuja Haider, Ahmad Jahanzeb, Khawar Jawad and Lagan Band give credence to the claims of brilliance made on behalf of Mansoor and Sarmad in the film.

It is a matter of pride for the entire subcontinent that such an overt political film could be made with so much compassion and intelligence. That it should come from Pakistan, a country not particularly known for its cinema, is a reason for celebration.

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