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Friday, 9 May 2014

Bol (2011)

As far as I know there is not much of a film industry in Pakistan nowadays, and although I have seen numerous Indian movies over the years, I can't think of another Pakistani one besides the one under review today -- the third film from writer-director Shoaib Mansoor. And contrary to expectations, the film is terrific -- very, very long, but powerful, moving, and devastating.

The title translates as "Speak up" and that is what our heroine Zainub, an emotional performance from actress Humaima Sehbai does. Sentenced to be hanged after murdering her father, she made no attempt to defend herself during her trial. Her petition for a stay of execution has been rejected by the President, but her request to record a statement for the press is allowed. It is in this brief period before her 4 a.m. execution that we learn her story. It is her last chance to 'speak up'.

With the partition of India her family only moved as far as Lucknow where her grandfather established a herbal medicine shop, eventually taken over by her father (Manzai Sehbai). With the rise of more accessible medical care by trained doctors, he barely ekes out a living and his very large family is close to starvation. He believes that Allah will provide, but his religious faith includes no mercy or compassion. His poor wife has given birth regularly and he has seven surviving daughters -- Zainub being the eldest. From his point of view, women are completely useless, except to prepare his meals and to provide sons who can look after him in his old age. When his worn-out wife finally produces a male-child, the midwife promptly tells him that the infant will never mature into a man. (How she can tell a new-born's sexual make-up is a mystery to me). His first reaction is to kill the baby, but he accepts his wife's pleas and agrees that the boy will be kept indoors away from the world and raised as yet another hated daughter!

Zainub is married off to another poor family, but is thrown out when she refuses to follow her mother's fate with a series of unwanted pregnancies. She returns to the family home where her outspoken words and modern ideas make her as objectionable in her father's eyes as her very effeminate younger brother. She even arranges for her mother to be sterilized. Her father screams that she is the cause of all their troubles and that her husband should have killed her rather than dumping her back on him. You get the gist -- a really nice fellow and loving Dad! In his own opinion, he is a righteous man who goes to the mosque daily and who has been asked to act as treasurer for the imam, but his outlook is so bigoted that he would rather everyone in his family suffered than to betray his high-flown 'religious' ideals. It is even his daughters' fault when Pakistan loses at cricket since they have not prayed sufficiently well for the team.

He is full of his own self-importance and makes life a misery for everyone in the household. When one of his loyal customers learns of his financial woes, he is offered good money for teaching the Koran to the children of that household; however he refuses this opportunity when he learns that the man is a pimp in a notorious red-light district. He decides that he must get the local matchmaker to marry off his other daughters, but has no money for dowries. When told that he should be grateful if she can find anyone 'with their own teeth' to marry them, he protests that they should line up to marry his stock since "my ancestors owned an elephant in Delhi". The man is a monster!

The crunch comes when Zainub asks their close neighbour Mustafa (who is in love with one of her sisters) to take the naive boy, a talented artist, to work each day at a nearby artists' commune. It seems that he may have found a way to make a living, but several of his licentious co-workers view him as easy young flesh and he is soon gagged, raped, and left in a field. When a eunuch finds him and brings him home, his mother and sisters fawn over him, but his father is so consumed with visions of his becoming a dancing freak, he promptly suffocates him to save the family's so-called honour.

He would like to see the matter hushed up but the local police chief suspects the worse and says that it is not an 'honour killing' and the only way out would be for a bribe to be paid to his station ("not for me of course"). There goes the mosque's building fund! When he is asked to account for the missing money, nobody wants to help, and in desperation he goes to the pimp. The latter is happy to provide the funds in exchange for our 'holy' man impregnating his courtesan grand-daughter, since he is so good at producing girl children -- an important commodity in that particular community. He insists on marrying her first (still of course wed to his long-suffering wife) and when a baby girl is duly born, the pimp offers him increasingly large sums of money for more female babies. Ashamed he returns to his impoverished family, but when the courtesan dumps the new-born on his doorstep, his initial reaction is to bash in the baby's brains. That is when Zainub murders Daddy. When the pimp and his minions come to fetch the child, he's told that it was killed and dumped by its dead father -- having been spirited away to safety by one of the daughters.

During the course of her statement to the flabbergasted crowd of journalists and photographers, one female reporter is convinced that a miscarriage of justice is about to take place and tries to reach the President for a stay of execution, however his aides refuse to wake him up. The President's sleep is more important than justice, she concludes. Zainub finishes her statement with the sentiment that had her father lived, she would have died every day. She wonders how a man could love God yet hate his creations. Then she is hanged....

There were many other strands to this sorry tale which space and time force me to omit, but the film was a searing indictment against religious fanaticism. In the end, there was something of a happy ending, but this only helped to ease the pain of the events that preceded it. One comment that I should add is that unlike neighbouring India's films, the music here was embedded in the plot and was not used as a break in the action for some over-the-top singing and dancing. I understand that Mustafa was played by one Atif Aslam, a Pakistani pop star, and the modern outlook of his character and that of his family shed some light of hope in what otherwise would have been a very dismal world. The moral is that a man can have religious faith without losing his humanity.  
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