Why acclaimed Pakistani film Cake makes for an interesting watch


Why acclaimed Pakistani film Cake makes for an interesting watch

The widely acclaimed Pakistani film that has every ingredient of a nuanced family drama.

By Khalid Mohamed

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Published: Fri 21 Jun 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 28 Jun 2019, 9:34 AM

Not many in  Bollywood are aware that its vast treasure of vintage songs has received a fulsome tribute in the globally-lauded Pakistani film Cake, a deeply moving account of a dysfunctional family.
Snatches from Shankar-Jaikishen's melodious Bahaaron Phool Barsao, picturised on Rajendra Kumar and Vyjayanthimala in Suraj (1966), as well as R.D. Burman's imperishable chartbuster Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja, picturised on Helen in Caravan (1971), are deftly incorporated in the narrative at key dramatic points. Instead of jarring, the classic oldies serve as a reminder that there's nothing quite as magical as the Hindi movie music of yore.
In fact, the plot structure of Cake (a somewhat misleading title) may remind you also in passing of the Shakun Batra-directed Kapoor & Sons (2016). Yet, independently on its own terms, the Karachi-located drama revolving around the human frailties endemic in Asian family relationships, is a top-quality surprise packet.
Released last year in its homeland, the US and the UK (the first Pakistani film to be premiered in Leicester Square, London), it opened to rave reviews in the global press, besides being chosen as its country's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. Cake may not have made it to the final nominations, but it's as spellbinding as it gets - something I wouldn't say easily.
Fortuitously, I came across the Pakistani dramedy, thanks to an off-the-cuff recommendation by a friend, as a must-see of the new additions on Netflix. So far, in recent years, only two films from across the border - Shoaib Mansoor's Khuda Kay Liye (2007) and Bol (2011) - have found a theatrical release in India.
Subsequently, Pakistani cinema and its actors and singers, due to political face-offs, have been prohibited strictly on Indian shores, cutting short the careers - especially of Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan who had made waves in Bollywood, the former with Khoobsurat (2014), Kapoor & Sons and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), and the latter with the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Raees (2017). In addition, Shoaib Mansoor's hard-hitting Verna (2017), dealing with a woman-centric subject, remains unseen in India.
Be that as it may, Cake is now accessible at the click of a remote control, and it makes for thought-provoking and entertaining viewing, a rare combination indeed. Written and directed by an investment banker-turned-filmmaker, Asim Abbasi's debut effort appears to employ the Bollywood style of linear story-telling punctuated by songs (albeit in the background soundtrack), besides opting for full-throttle melodrama in the climax, which is filmed in an uninterrupted 10-minute shot. Incidentally, the consistently expert editing has been achieved by the Mumbai-based editor Aarti Bajaj.
Alloyed to B-town's flamboyant storytelling technique, the influence of European cinema is also palpable in cinematographer Mo Azmi's moody lighting schemes, vivid colour patterns, not to forget the abstract vignettes featuring a boy, who was killed in a car accident,  silhouetted against the setting sun. Death and life serve as bookends, then, of the dramaturgy focusing on a set of ageing parents and their three grown-up children, all of whom are grappling with their careers and repressed psychological issues.
The camera alights on an infirm, bantering couple, the Jamalis. The old lady of the household is a drama queen, nagging her husband of snoring as loudly as a bagpipe. The sight of the bedridden woman trying on wigs, shades of lipstick and preening into a mirror are charmingly rendered. Despite their arguments, the Jamalis Sr., are crazily in love. And they are tended to by their daughter Zareen, who's fed up by now of playing babysitter besides supervising the family business.
When the father has to be admitted to hospital for a heart ailment, the seemingly placid household turns topsy turvy. Enter the younger daughter Zara, who jets in from London, and seems to be a bundle of nerves. A shot of her dropping her trolley on the hospital stairs conveys her state of mind succinctly. As for their elder brother Zain, he is not quite sure whether he should cancel all his appointments in another town, phoning in to ask if his presence is required at the hospital. The sisters tell him not to bother.
The sibling hostility between Zareen and Zara is vivified in detail, their differences dissolving as they re-enact their childhood prank of chucking eggs at plush villa gates. An element of mystery is provided by a young family friend, nicknamed Romeo, whose hovering presence underscores the fact that there's a skeleton waiting to pop out from the family closet.
For once, the males - be it the mysterious Romeo or the weak-willed Zain - are kept on the sidelines. It's the sisters and their flamboyant mother who occupy the centrestage. As for their father, he's presented as someone carefree, who enjoys his game of cards with his cronies, expecting the women around him to resolve every crisis. The moments of pure and stark tragedy are detailed throughout the film with a bittersweet edge.
The dialogue, with its regard to Urduspeak, ensures that no concessions are made to woo the millennial generation with clever colloquial punchlines. Bucking the formula, the sisters are shown in their middle age when they could have been facilely converted to hep, teenybopper characters.
Heart-bracingly, the acting ensemble is of the highest order. Aamina Sheikh as the cynical Zareen and Sanam Saeed as the more vulnerable Zara, are first-rate, relying more on tapping their emotional memory than on bespoke costumes and kilos of cosmetics. As their ever-cranky mother, who's convinced that "abhi to main jawaan hoon", Beo Raana Zafar, is memorably delightful.
The supporting cast comprising Adnan Malik as Romeo, Faris Khalid as Zain, and Syed Mohammad Ahmed as the abba of the household are impressive too. Mercifully, they aren't ever reduced to caricatures.
Although it doesn't seem feasible in the near future, how one hopes that there could be a renewal of exchange of Indian and Pakistani cinema and talent. After all, cinema speaks a universal language, doesn't it? Till then, do try out a helping of the multi-layered Cake.

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