This movie has taken the cloak (and clothes) off many segments of current Pakistani society and parts of it will make the viewer quite uncomfortable.
What used to be true about film entertainment originating from south Asia, especially Pakistan was that it sure took its sweet time while reaching California. We were usually the last to catch up (unless it was available online) but still remained no less appreciative or critical than the people say in New York, London and Dubai. This time however, Shoaib Mansoor’s movie “Bol” was released throughout the US and Canada around the same time. But not too many reviews have surfaced, here, possibly because of the seriousness of the film and its grim subject matter. Is it because members of the Diaspora in North America try to ignore our grim social realities and just prefer more entertaining films? The answer to that may be a qualified “yes” but reminders like “Slumdog Millionaire” from last year just cannot be ignored. And in the same vein neither can one ignore “Bol” (Speak or more accurately Speak Out) because rarely does such a bold film originate from Pakistan.
My wife and I were the only two people seated in the theatre in the Sacramento, California suburb of Elk Grove to see this film so we can even boast of a “private showing”. Salman Khan’s latest film “Bodyguard” was playing next door and the number of people coming out of there was far larger than the two of us. But if one can make such a statement, it is that “Bol” is a more realistic movie and thus has had fewer people viewing it! And this is not another attempt to incite India-Pakistan tensions. “Bodyguard” is surely far more entertaining and Bollywood trumps Lollywood in quality films anytime. But watching “Bol” was an “experience” and not necessarily an entertaining one, even though singer Atif Aslam’s character Mustafa did try to add that aspect to the formula through his music and somewhat romantic pursuit of Ayesha (Mahira Khan).
Before going any further there are two advisories. First, please do not take your kids to see “Bol’ because the movie is just too intense for them. And second, if you are from the conservative mindset, “Bol” will generate many difficult questions. After having seen it now, in my opinion this movie is not anti-religious. But it sure makes a very disturbing statement against societal and religious hypocrisy. In other words this movie has taken the cloak (and clothes) off many segments of current Pakistani society and parts of it will make the viewer quite uncomfortable.
The movie starts with the sad face of Zainub (Humaima Malick) who has been sentenced to death for murder. Her mercy appeal is rejected callously by the President but her unusual request to speak to the media just before her execution is approved. This is Zainub’s story and that of her father Hakeem Shafa’atulah Khan (Manzar Sehbai) and his diminishing financial fortunes and increasing family size entirely made up of girls. That till a “son” is born of questionable gender. Unfortunately Saifullah Khan or Saifi’s (played by Sagar and by Amr Kashmiri) birth is hailed only by the local transvestite (Heejra) community. It enrages his father the Hakeem, to the point that he wants to kill him. But the many women in the Khan household protect him and never allow him to leave the house so that the family “shame” remains hidden.
But how long can a family protect Saifi, a gifted artist from the cruel world? He is finally taken out helped by his artistic touch and paints trucks to make some money for his now struggling family. He is also raped there. His father is enraged and conducts an “honor killing” to hide his shame which Zainub witnesses but cannot prevent.
In translation “Yes it’s true that I am a murderer, but a criminal I am not,” aptly describes Zainub’s character as she continues with her story told from the scaffold in front of the media (per her last wish). Zainub and her father the Hakeem are the two main characters on which the story focuses. Humaima Malick’s acting is good but that of Manzar Sehbai as the father who we come to hate in this film is superb. Two others that stand out are Shafqat Cheema as the pimp Sahka Kunjar from Lahore’s “Heera Mandi” (Diamond Market) and last but not least the stunning Iman Ali as the courtesan Meena in a role that leaves one speechless.
If one is not from amongst the Urdu-Hindi-Punjabi speaking realm, the nuances built into the “Bol” script will not be easy to pick up. The story as written is good but the symbolism which the Urdu language is famous for is plentiful here and that makes it memorable. If “Bol” just had to have another name, it would be “Bold” in English. Shoaib Mansoor has really pushed the envelope here.
This movie is not a masterpiece of direction and the sets and cinematography although adequate, could have been better. But “Bol’ in my opinion is the best movie to come out of Pakistan since Sabiha Sumar’s Partition film “Khamosh Pani” (Silent Waters). It is also perfectly timed for silent Pakistanis worldwide to speak out, denounce injustice and violence especially against women and minorities there. Speak up before it is too late.
Looking back, there was a time when some of us predicted that Slumdog Millionaire was heading to the Oscars and were somewhat ridiculed. Although “Bol” cannot be a contender for best picture, one should not be surprised if it is considered for the “Best Foreign Film” category. It certainly deserves such recognition.
There is no doubt that this is a very grim movie. Some of the worst aspects of Pakistani society are exposed in it. Hypocrisy rules the roost here but the message that comes out is that claiming helplessness is no longer an option. Fair minded Pakistanis, women and minorities need to fight back and raise their voice.
To conclude, some people were not happy that I circulated information about how to see this movie to them. I have to admit that we were as shaken as they were as we were after watching it. But like Saifi and his questionable gender, the truth cannot be hidden forever. “Bol” may not be too entertaining but watching it is certainly a learning experience.