Durj (2019)

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Durj (Casket) (2019)
Cast: Shamoon Abbasi, Maira Khan, Dodi Khan, Sherry Shah, Nauman Javed
Director: Shamoon Abbasi
Nutshell: A film that commendably tries to break the ghastly cycle of endless Rom-coms and propaganda films but falls woefully short of expectations.

Durj is a Pakistani film marketed as a psychological horror thriller but ultimately ends up as a frustrating one which never quite builds to its potential.  The best thing that could happen to any film is a ban from the censor board as any publicity in show business is good publicity and a ban is possibly the best of all. The controversy the short lived ban created a sense of curiosity and people looking for something a little different from than the run of the mill stuff showed up in reasonable numbers with 50% or so of the cinema seats occupied on the second day of release.

From the very outset there was some ropy acting, cliched music and a heavy moralising message that soon gets rather badly lost in a script that has the director’s struggling to tell a story in a coherent manner. The audience is shown numerous jumps back and forth in time and later some plot twists are woven in and an injection of some heavy handed political and social commentary each of which may certainly have been of noble intent but forgotten was the primary motivation for most people going to the cinema which is for entertainment and despite a sincere effort, the entertainment factor sadly fails to materialise. 

The film follows an unlikely couple’s misfortunes and their subsequent slow dive into the horrors of murder and cannibalism but never adequately explains their motivations clearly enough other than poverty and despair. There are millions of poverty stricken people in Pakistan though who are at least as despairing as these two but unfortunately the film never quite examines exactly what made these two snap and drown in a world of spiralling evil and darkness that they find themselves drawn into.

It was a dour cinematic experience, relentlessly dark and with little relief. Even the abject Pari and the ghastly Hotal at least provided a bunch of laughs even if unintentional.  Here, some of the audience did start to laugh but because of the meandering nature of what unfurled on screen. Having recently watched the delightfully humorous Baaji and the quite exceptional Zinda Bhaag, this movie came as a blow to the senses as a completely humourless and unrelenting experience.  It was a rather confused attempt at “deep cinema” and rather than offer much food for thought, it just came across as an exercise in what could have been. Unfortunately the audience wasn’t engaged at any level nor invested in any of the characters who all came across as undeveloped and therefor the audience couldn’t feel for them at any level. None of them was given any depth, nor their motivations or insecurities or fears fleshed out so that the audience might care about them at all. 

Of the actors Sherry Shah emerges with some credit and Shamoon Abbasi scowls menacingly to good effect but the audience never truly gets to feel or comprehend his inner demons and conflict. There is one memorable moment where his mind wanders into a brutal act of violence which is perhaps most effective in throwing any light onto his psychotic state of mind but sadly little else that brings the audience any real insight.

The background music tried hard to infuse a sense of dread but may have benefited from a little more restraint.  By the time the movie reveals its climax and twists, most of the audience has been lost in translation along the way. A big plus point however are the quite stunning locations and some of the long drone shots are indeed breathtaking but even those fail to rescue the confused narrative of Durj – which promises much but ends up missing its mark.  The film meanders in its attempt to deliver it’s profound message and gets more than a little lost along the journey to its conclusion. 

The censors apparently cut a few scenes which was a bit of an affront because at least here was a film that tried to go against the grain for which it should be lauded. The US and UK release has a running time of 109 minutes without any cuts which clearly shows that only 2 to 3 minutes were removed from the Pakistani version. (The suits at the Film Censor Board need to justify their existence somehow!) Credit however to Shamoon Abbasi for attempting something other than the done to death Rom-com and at least to its credit the film wasn’t produced and financed by the propaganda machine that currently rules the scene on film and TV. 

Durj strives hard to present itself as something artful but falls short on entertainment. Agreed that the films content doesn’t exactly lend itself to a roller coaster popcorn ride but it fails to grip and engage its audience as it might have.  The bottom line for a movie watching experience has to be entertainment, cerebral or lighthearted or even brainless fun, and in this regard, Durj doesn’t pass muster. It is however a fine attempt at breaking from the mundane a brave attempt at expanding the scope of Pakistani cinema but it doesn’t quite click with its wavering narrative and misses the jugular, no pun intended.

The Censor Board of Pakistan needs a lot of maturing and to give some credit to their viewers who know that the world is more than a bed of roses. Nasty things happen in life, even here in “Soft Pakistan” we have ghastly crimes, injustices and atrocities like anywhere else in the world. To pretend they don’t exist by citing “its not our culture” is living in a delusional dreamland. Secondly, it is arguable that there is nothing as a “Pakistani Culture” as the nation is composed of four distinctly different cultures each with their own traditions, their music, their art, cuisine and history. Urdu for example is a language that has been imposed on the nation though is not indigenous to any of the nationalities or cultures that make up this country as Pashto, Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi and Seraiki are. Urdu is the language of those who largely migrated from India.

Then there is the “ostrich with its head in the sand syndrome” as not so long ago and extensively covered by the media, mass murderer Javed Iqbal killed, sodomised and tortured 100 children right here in Pakistan and the entire world knows about those despicable acts. Recent events in Kasur with children being tortured, raped and video taped for the dark net is also a horrendous fact of life everyone is well aware of. Not to suggest that films should glorify such atrocities but these horrors exist and to pretend that life is just a bed of roses and a series of rom-coms is an insult to the intellect of the Pakistani viewers. Such admittedly ugly subjects may not make huge profits at the box office and may not even be remotely entertaining but our cinema will never mature if the dark side is never discussed and simply banned for “not being our culture”. For this reason alone Durj is a brave attempt and an important landmark in the evolution of Pakistani cinema.

The world is a nasty place and Pakistan is as nasty as anywhere else on earth – no better but certainly no worse. We try to hide behind our own horrors by claiming rates of rape are much higher in the USA which may be statistically true but its perfectly evident that rape and honour killing murders are a routine part of life in Pakistan too. By hiding all adult issues under the carpet and pretending they don’t exist means we are left with a public who are being fed a diet of meaningless piffle and fantasy and treated like children. Though the truth sometimes hurts, it needs to be stared in the face and discussed. Not every film should be meant for children or flag waving warmongers alone.

Alas in Pakistan despite hundreds of blood soaked and semi pornographic Punjabi and Pashto films being passed by the same censor board over the years, subjects that are real and relevant are seldom allowed resulting in stunted and intellectually bankrupt cinema which is an insult to every thinking and knowledgeable adult in the land. Durj at least attempts to set the cat among the pigeons and is due credit for that despite its less than perfect execution.