Thursday, October 31, 2013

Main Hoon Shahid Afridi

Pakistan's most popular sporting hero, its most sighed over actress, Islamic sentimentalism and spades of melodrama. Can you think of a more potent mix for a commercial Pakistani film? Neither could Vasay Choudry, the writer of Pakistani cinema's latest offering, Main Hoon Shahid Afridi.

Pakistani cinema, I love how the phrase feels on my tongue. I want to roll it around in my mouth to savour its newness; to enjoy the liberty of using it in casual conversation without people inching away from me like I'd suddenly declared I'm a feminist. Does anyone remember Shaan, Syed Noor and Saba Hameed ringing in the demise of Pakistani film (whatever existed of it previously) if Indian movies were allowed to be screened here? Well, I wouldn't want to be those guys right now, forced to munch on humble-popcorn while hordes of people queue up outside cinema houses, ushering in what looks very much like a re-emergence of Pakistani film.
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When I was young, cinemas only closed down in Lahore, or existed within the dreamlike confines of my Archie comic collection; now new ones open up in upscale localities, complete with options for salty or caramel popcorn and seats that aren't tattooed with paan and chewing gum. Old establishments around Laxmi Chowk offer the same films at cheaper fares instead of barely disguised porn to stay alive.

In this context commercial viability is a crucial factor, so it is hard to blame the creators of Main Hoon Shahid Afridi for a film that often comes across as a cynically assembled formula for commercial success. What Bollywood actors are to India, cricketers (and cricketers alone) are to Pakistan, so if you are going to take the risk of financing a Pakistani film, you could do worse than have Shahid Afridi, Pakistan's biggest and most instantly recognizable star, in your title. I must confess I was expecting some kind of biopic, but if the story could be confused for somebody's life it would have to be Mohammad Asif's, not Shahid Afridi's.

Pakistani cinema, I love how the phrase feels on my tongue

Akbar Deen, played by an aging Humayun Saeed (can somebody please stop him from starring in every single project he finances?) is deeply in love with his wife (a heavily botoxed Mahnoor Baloch) and son. These minor matters, however, are not allowed to stand in the way of some Middle-Eastern nightclub prancing with a semi-clad Mathira, who, in a forgettable item number lays on the sultry like a 70s Helen on steroids. Deen's shenanigans are meant to be seen through a quaisi-kosher, boys will be boys lens in the light of his declaration that he sees his wife's image in all women he is tempted by. This is the line upon which our forgiveness for his transgression is meant to hinge; and one that nicely sets up a dream sequence within the item song for some little-black-dress action from Mahnoor Baloch. Never having met any blue-blooded male who is impervious to her appeal, casting her is another commercial coup, one that was well exploited in the movie's posters, despite Baloch being nothing more than a pretty prop (one who can't dance at that) throughout.

Why has Aitchison College, Lahore given only three players to the national team in the 66 years since Pakistan's creation?

From there onwards, the film becomes an almost direct rip-off of Chak De India with bits of Lagaan thrown in for good measure, its seeming purpose the fulfillment of Hamayun Saeed's (self-financed) dream of playing (a poor man's) Shahrukh Khan. Where Chak De India relied on the unity in diversity trope to rouse patriotic sentiment, Main Hoon Shahid Afridi seems confused about which particular aspect ofPakistaniat to exploit for maximum emotional appeal. It starts off with a lesson on religious tolerance by pitting a Talibanesque pathaan fast bowler against a church-going Christian wicket keeper, but then constantly vacillates between xenophobia and strident religiosity on one hand, and tolerance and brotherhood of all mankind, on the other.

Its strengths lie in an exploration of Pakistani class differences and cricket's ability to be the great leveler; the last grounds upon which a young Pakistani boy from a small town can still dream big dreams. While watching I was reminded of something I have often wondered: considering its state-of-the-art sporting facilities, why has Aitchison College, Lahore given only three players to the national team in the 66 years since Pakistan's creation? There is an attempt, however flawed, in Main Hoon Shahid Afridi to ponder this question of Pakistani cricketing talent emerging largely from the lower socio-economic classes. If it had stuck to that, instead of trying to be everything to everybody, it could have been a tighter and more plausible film. As it stands, it is engaging enough, and dare I say, quite decent for a Pakistani movie. That will do. For now.


Published in The Friday Times (August 30 - September 5th, 2013)

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