Ramchand Pakistani (2007)
Cast: Nandita Das, Rashid Farooqui, Syed Fazal Hassan, Noman Ijaz, Maria Wasti
Director: Mehreen Jabbar
Music Director: Debajyoti Mishra
Nutshell: Topical film about a young boy and family trapped in a political quagmire
This new digitally shot Pakistani film has finally arrived and does not disappoint. Mehreen Jabbar already enjoyed a reputation as a director of the slightly more cerebral TV serials produced on the idiot box over the years in Pakistan and it is a positive sign that she has gone on to direct her first major feature length production supposedly at a cost of around $700,000 which is miniscule when it comes to International filmmaking standards but fairly large by local standards. Only Javed Shaikh’s kaleidoscope nightmares cost more.
Ramchand Pakistani thankfully is a far cry from Javed Shaikh’s style of piffle oriented cinema that is an 80’s hand me down from Bollywood. Ramchand Pakistani, shot by a US based crew in the desert of Sindh in Pakistan is about a young boy mistakenly crossing the border to the Indian side where he is apprehended and soon after his father who comes looking for him is also snagged by the Indian Security Force and flung into a prison that is surprisingly pristine if slightly over-crowded prison. I say pristine because though it doesn’t overtly look palatial by any means, there are no buzzing insects, no flies, roaches or other nasty vermin that suggests that the Indian prison cells are at least cleaner than their Pakistani counterparts.
The early part of the movie focuses on what must be the only Urdu speaking village in rural Sindh as it appears that all the villagers’ converse with each other in perfect Urdu. (Try speaking chaste Urdu to people in Interior Sindh –sign language might be a better option). Clearly this decision to use Urdu as the language in Rural Sindhi’s was not a howling mistake but a calculated move on the part of the film makers to make sure the film would be more accessible to the cinema-watching public in Pakistan and indeed in India where the film was to set a precedent for the first Pakistani film released simultaneously on both sides of the border. (this hasn’t worked out though the film is set for release in India a couple of months later).
Javed Shaikh made typically bumptious claims but went further claiming his movie would open not only in India and Pakistan but simultaneously in cinemas all around the world. So far that has happened only in his dreams as the film has been savaged by the critics locally and business has been far from bountiful. Ramchand Pakistani is incomparable to Javed Shaikh’s work and is a rare Pakistani film that is intelligently put together, solidly acted especially by the major characters of the film and carries a message that is very topical. It also manages to capture the scenic beauty of the desert region as well as provide the viewer a glimpse of the hardships and issues faced by the downtrodden in Sindh still gripped in the darkest days of a miserable feudal system.
The films main strengths lie in the sensitive telling of its tale by the director and the performances of the young actor playing Ramchand who is instantly likeable and charming (unlike any child that ever appeared in a Pakistani film previously). The role of the child’s father is also played solidly while Maria Wasti’s bombay -speak (ending all sentences with “karne ka”) is almost believable. The inmates of the jail played by a bunch of Pakistani drama actors are not unimpressive yet one doesn’t really begin to understand neither them nor sense their plight as the film unfolds as the focus remains solidly on Ramchand and his predicament.
Some of the actors playing jailbirds appear natural and believable, others try too hard and the effort shows. There is one character that has a virulent flatulence problem and plays to the gallery providing one or two laughs (in true American Pie style?) the other inmates are either crazy or very ugly or both – jail does funny things to you physically. There is one of Pakistan ‘s most brilliant actors Salim Meraj who in a wordless role still manages to say much with his expressions than some of those with juicy dialogs. That said the acting on the whole is solid with nobody in particular standing out like a sore thumb. Easily the most impressive performance comes from Nandita Das however as the bereft mother who has suddenly been left on her own to fend for herself in a society dominated by wolves. Ms. Das is a class act and lends dignity to any project she is associated with and Ramchand Pakistani benefits enormously from her presence in the cast.
The music too is impressive with one or two stand out numbers by the wonderful Shobha Mugdul. Ramchand Pakistani is an excellent effort by a debutante director who clearly shows herself to be one of the brightest prospects in film making here in Pakistan .
In many ways it is at least as good as the frequently flaccid and posturing Khuda Ke Liye with its understated messages rather than the sledgehammer subtlety of KKL. However the second half of the film drags and the climax doesn’t quite materialize with the dramatic punch that the audience expects. However maybe it is exactly this lack of overstated drama that is the success of the film.
Ramchand Pakistani is several cuts above as far as local cinema making is concerned and shows that despite the wreckage that is Pakistani cinema, there are people out there capable of doing some top notch work. Mehreen Jabbar, with just her debut film, has already shown herself to be a highly capable and thoughtful film maker and her almost restrained style (despite the farts for laughs ) is hugely refreshing in an environment where only bombastic, loud rubbish is churned out with less and less frequency as the Pakistani film industry goes through its final death throes.
With film makers like Ms. Jabbar, Shoaib Mansoor and Ehtesham there might be life after death for Pakistani cinema after all. Ramchand Pakistani is well worth a trip to the cinema, the question is, will the general public brought up on a diet of semi pornographic Pakistani drivel and the slickness of modern day Bollywood have the patience to turn a film like Ramchand Pakistani into a Box Office success? It is almost like expecting the Iranian public to turn out in huge droves to watch those art films that are seen primarily by International Film Festival audiences and nobody else.
Ramchand Pakistani has been criticized for pandering to the “Film Festival circuit” like many films from Iran and not being accessible to the public at large. That may well be the case but even this argument doesn’t detract from the fact that it is an intelligently constructed, well crafted and solidly acted effort that for Pakistani cinema is nothing short of a major landmark. Pakistani cinema or what’s left of it has the right to feel immensely proud of Mehreen Jabbar’s effort.