Kamli: A watershed for Pakistani storytelling

Kamli seems to say, “I know why the caged bird sings”, even when it is cloaked in forms of feminism that we may not recognise

By Saba Karim Khan

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Published: Thu 14 Jul 2022, 7:09 PM

Kamli is a haunting, complex and quietly fierce masterpiece, mystical and moving at once, with a transcendental quality that elevates Pakistani cinema. This is South Asian storytelling that has rid itself of the chains of the commercial cookie-cutter; unapologetic, full of enigma and parted from the tropes, decidedly telling the story on its own terms. There is stinging loss and human desire; messy secrets and shame, complicated sisterhood; navigating normative expectations, those that women have of other women; human beings harmoniously threading through nature, its wilderness and mystique; and considerable poignant subtext. Finally, there is Saba Qamar, glorious, effortless, often-times restrained, occasionally outraged, stripped off every possible performance crutch, devoid of vanity, and ruling the roost.

Kamli is composed of evocative, contrasting storytelling frames; two women, linked by loss, placed in a waiting room, craving the return of a loved one; other women, also linked by loss, attempting to cross-over through art and creativity, yet belonging to entirely disparate worlds; there is women’s desire pitted against their cages, the controlling of their bodies and the monitoring of their movement; the modest sliding back on the dupatta, immediately after encounters of “moral transgression”; anger, mediated by fear and regret; human beings tricking their prey, versus animals who appear much less cryptic. Each strand of Kamli comes together to form an intricate web of symbolism, creatures in conversation with the wild, generating a medley of emotions, silences and clandestine chances.

At its core, Kamli is about acknowledging the “everyday” and herein, perhaps, lies director Sarmad Khoosat’s greatest strength. This is not a story relying on outlandish, larger-than-life heroism to evoke human empathy; rather, its focus is on tiny emblems — instances of struggle, resistance, experimentation, our constant search for soulfulness, threats to existence, the motifs of contention which we wake up to — and which eventually weave into the mosaic tapestry of life. Khoosat is digging the well as deep as possible, so that bit by bit, Kamli unearths the extraordinary, which lies buried within the banal.

Human drama is embedded profoundly within the metaphorical universe of nature in this film. The frames feel crisp and moist; illuminated by the symbolism of animals, lakes, jungles, atoms of fire and elements of water, and what the quest for everyday survival looks like. Survival for two of these women, Hina (Saba Qamar) and Sakina (Sania Saeed), means listening to audio tapes in a long-dilapidated room, where the boundaries between love, longing and suffocation are no longer legible. Amidst the stifling indoors, there is silent desire which steadily brews, thickens, emulsifies — coaxes into possibility. But women’s desires make people nervous, hence there is moral panic which grinds equally firmly, the constant threat of the price you might pay for the pursuit of such trouble.

In the world of Kamli, less is definitely more. Sentences are sometimes left hanging in midair and they intensify the pathos; Qamar relies on silences to convey longing and tragedy, showing us that there is no one way to effectively express anger, love or sorrow; feminism isn’t being doled out in obvious sums on trays either; we stumble upon it in the gentleness and maternal preserve for animals, in the tough choices women express, despite the wake of the quiet desperation they face, in the dangerous journey and strife of finding their voice.

Which is why the title couldn’t be more captive; “Kamli”, it glimmers, intrigues, opens a window into this world that Fatimah Sattar has eloquently written and Sarmad Khoosat so carefully crafted — which they are gently prodding us to enter. A quick Google search for the meaning of the word ‘Kamli’ reveals: “Kamli is a Punjabi word which means mad, crazy.” This description depicts the experience of the film itself — much like the title, Kamli is difficult to pin down or reduce to a genre or label. It doesn’t offer shortcuts, drip-feed its audience, coerce them to pass judgements, fit people and their lives into neat boxes; instead, it frees you, opens a breathing door, a portal through which you might pass and enter new arenas, gain fresh perspectives, an unfamiliar prism to view the world — especially the world of female voice and agency in Pakistan.

Kamli’s music is woven into the grainy texture and tonality of the storytelling, making it almost impossible to disentangle one from the other — each melody appears indispensable to the act. These are songs which are sincere to the world that is being erected — raw, healing, mysterious, not worried about pandering to any gallery or ticking a remix box; lyrics invoking human instinct, reminiscent of simple wedding festivities, gathering the chaos and cacophony of life and eventually distilling from it, the minimalism of a gothic tune. It seems to be breaking new ground, offering a distinct voice for composition and melody out of Pakistan.

But beyond the brilliance of a single film, Kamli signals much greater significance for Pakistani storytelling at large. It rubbishes the caricatured representation of Pakistan and its “oppressed” women, as the “real Pakistan” — the only narrative that deserves a seat at the table. The chase for the “real” Pakistan, for a single kind of Pakistani woman, is nothing but a battle for imagined legitimacy; Kamli turns that notion on its head. It breathes life into the heterogeneity of Pakistan, its people, places, their everyday stories. Whilst fully acknowledging the role that gatekeepers of dogma play, especially when it comes to morally policing women, Kamli wants the nuances of Pakistani women and the various kinds of agency they express, to come to life — be watched, understood, celebrated. In other words, there is no one correct way to feel empowered.

This form of storytelling stands at a departure from what we have come to expect when consuming content about Pakistan — be those emerging from within the country or elsewhere. This is a story profoundly comfortable in its own skin, in no rush to unravel itself or fleetingly seek attention; rather, it offers an invitation to slow down, reflect, a foil against the clutter of an overly crowded information universe.

It doesn’t promise fairytales either. Nor does it shy away from the chaos of peoples’ lives, as they unfold in front of our eyes. It doesn’t worry about taking you to uncomfortable terrain. It isn’t provocative for the sake of sensationalism. It seems to say, “I know why the caged bird sings”, even when her song is cloaked in feminism that we may not immediately recognise. Then who better then Saba Qamar to offer such a spunky, arresting ode to Pakistani women?


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