How The Legend of Maula Jatt is raising the stakes for Pakistani storytelling

Experiencing TLMJ is an occasion, akin to a festival or the celebration of a rite of passage, as if Pakistani storytelling has finally metamorphosed into a fresh chapter

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By Saba Karim Khan

Published: Thu 10 Nov 2022, 9:14 PM

Whilst I’ve lived in Lahore for a few years and often go back and visit, Punjabi doesn’t roll off my tongue. Hence, when I readied myself to experience The Legend of Maula Jatt (TLMJ), the potential “language barrier” was a real apprehension. Would I be able to follow the screenplay in Punjabi? Would subtitles distract from the action and movement; would they be too literal to deliver nuances and emotions? Would actors sound convincing, rattling dialogues in a dialect less familiar to many of them; in other words, would the decision to make Maula Jatt in Punjabi underwhelm the film? Second, Pakistani cinema, whilst experiencing a revival of sorts, hasn’t been regularly competitive at a global level. We’ve had the odd groundbreaking success with Khuda Kay Liye, Cake, Joyland and Kamli, among a few others, but original, cutting-edge storytelling has remained the exception rather than the rule. The Legend of Maula Jatt — with lofty expectations accumulating around it for years — had a lot riding on its shoulders; would it live up to the hype?

TLMJ has delivered box office results which exceeded predictions, but the implications of its success stretch beyond profit accumulation; the film, much like the legend, is a tipping point, hurling Pakistani cinema into fairly unchartered territories of global adulation, critical acclaim and the setting of new cinematic benchmarks. Most significantly, it marks the revival of the Punjabi gandasa culture genre, which makes it equally meaningful to explore the folklore underpinning the original legend of Maula Jatt.

TLMJ distills from the past, the essence of the Punjabi gandasa genre, based on the original 1979 film titled just Maula Jatt, and gives those popular cultural references a “hard reboot”, which is how the film’s director, Bilal Lashari, frames it. Just as other countries offer trademark forms of cinema — post-revolutionary, musical comedies, historical classics — the Punjabi gandasa has been a defining genre in Pakistani cinema. “Gandasa was and remains a weapon against injustice, it is a symbol of honour,” dialogue and scriptwriter Nasir Adeeb explains. Across Pakistan’s towns and villages, we still find references from the original Legend of Maula Jatt in use, be that on television displays at chai shops or dialogues scribbled on walls.

This new and innovative Legend of Maula Jatt transports the gandasa culture to a world of its own; its spaces filled with intriguing art production, murky set designs and subtle hues, and costumes that are befitting to be worn in such an environment. We might have caught glimpses of aesthetically similar, though not identical worlds, in Game of Thrones or Gladiator or even Ertugrul, but Maula Jatt localises its sights and sounds, adding authenticity to a world that lies somewhere in the Punjab province. Whilst embracing the quintessential, rustic folklore that underpins the original legend, the film offers a 2.0 version, attentively balancing preservation with contemporary textures.

The choice of language, contrary to my assumptions, works in favour of the storytelling, in part because the film isn’t apologetic about opting for dialogues in Punjabi — this lends a layer of sincerity to the spirit and the world in which the original legend unfolded, making you wonder how else one could narrate the legend of Maula Jatt, but in Punjabi? Subtitles steer away from literal, oversimplified signposting and instead, prop up the story with all its complexities, traces and glory.

Much like chaos, movement and combat in real life, the world of Maula Jatt is also an arena occupied by multiple actors, where simultaneous deeds and activity take place — how spectators (cinema-goers) unpack this world relies heavily on the actors who are inhabiting it. Audiences were anticipating nothing short of splendor from the lead, Fawad Khan, who plays the role of Maula Jatt; whilst delivering on acting expectations, what is surprising and equally rewarding is watching Khan navigate stretched silences and internalised emotions in several scenes, rather than relying on incessant verbal crutches to convince audiences of his larger-than-life appeal. He applies the golden rule of “showing” more than “telling”, knowing when to halt, hold space, let go, which offers room to the villain, Noori Natt (played by Hamza Ali Abbasi), to enter the arena.

Mostly, we find villains who succumb to the typecast of the caricatured, can-do-no-good character, who rarely capture the moral complexities of real humans. They tend to fall neatly on the less desirable side of the (binary) spectrum of integrity: flawed, unlikeable and impossible to redeem. Noori Natt is a different variety of villain; violence for him is daily fodder, but he has a backstory and some interpretations might even read him as a subtle feminist, given his desperation to protect his sister right from her birth. Abbasi delivers the role with poetic magnetism — humour, long-handled axes and honesty — without slipping into exaggerated expression. His performance remains on par with the most acclaimed antiheroes we have watched in global cinema.

Staying on the feminist thread, women in this world have a compelling enigma, especially Noori Natt’s sister Daroo (played by Humaima Malick), who is a force to reckon with. You recognise how director Bilal Lashari avoids the tropes of hyper-masculinity from the original legend, which tend to come at the cost of neglecting women. Daroo exudes a ferocious blend of charm, wizardry, defiance and sensuality, never uncritically imitating feminism from an alien context. She performs gender and agency in a manner that accounts for the nuances and subtext of the world that she herself inhabits, consolidating the weight of women in the folklore. Equally haunting is a brief, whirling dance sequence by Rajjo (played by Saima Baloch), raw yet classy, never reduced to an item number, which stays with you long after the music fades.

Experiencing TLMJ is an occasion, akin to a festival or the celebration of a rite of passage, as if Pakistani storytelling has finally metamorphosed into a fresh chapter. Previously, our cinema witnessed sporadic highs, but the success never sustained. This new world TLMJ creates is characterised by a spirited, relentless dance between rivals, siblings, mother and son, where friendships and loyalties can be both steadfast and fickle, where sub-plots and characters with less air-time are equally thick and as watchable as the leads (Maula Jatt’s friend Mooda and Noori Natt’s brother Maakha, in particular). This is a world that takes all the clutter, confusion and violence, and eventually lets you distill from it, the simplicity of a folk song.

Whilst offering performers a new on-screen universe to experiment with, it is clear that TLMJ also places certain demands on its cast and crew: the biggest one being that the film must take precedence over individual self-importance; fictional characters in TLMJ can sport egos but real-life actors, playing those characters, have to leave their own egos behind — only then will there be room for the grit and glory of the story to elevate. Fortunately, everyone on board seems to listen. With such a rich stew of influences and ingredients tossed into the mix, along with years of ambition, it is hardly surprising that the retelling of this legend — in ways that invoke nostalgia for a folklore deep-seated in Pakistani memory and popular culture, as well as a hunger to discover how it unfolds in the present — soars farther than anything Pakistani cinema has presented to the world before. The question from hereon is: will our storytellers choose to stay on this path or return to familiar, formulaic templates?

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