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Cannes 2023 – ‘In Flames’ – Pakistani-Canadian writer-director Zarrar Kahn makes an impact at Directors’ Fortnight…(review, short video)

Cannes 2023 – ‘In Flames’ – Pakistani-Canadian writer-director Zarrar Kahn makes an impact at Directors’ Fortnight…(review, short video)

Billed as a horror film, this is social realism with an added layer of bite as film tackles deep-seated in-built prejudices that pervade women’s spaces, sanctioned and not…

WRITER-DIRECTOR Zarrar Kahn represents another moment of evolution for Pakistani cinema and one that leaps into a similar space left by ‘Joyland’.

Last year, its appearance in the Un Certain Regard section of the 75h Cannes Film Festival showed that Pakistani made productions are garnering serious attention internationally and ‘Joyland’ did not fail to live up to expectations – in some ways, it exceeded them.

The same could be said too of ‘In Flames’ which played in the Directors’ Fortnight section (alongside India’s ‘Agra’) and it too was an impressive piece.

It opens with the demise of the patriarchal grandfather figure of a family – leaving the widowed wife, Fariha (Bakhtwar Mazhar), daughter Mariam (Ramesha Nawal) and her younger teenage son bereft – though he is too into playing video games to see what is happening around him.

The film centres around Mariam’s journey and the family occupy a middle class status – Fariha works and they live in a small flat in Karachi, and enjoyed a relatively comfortable existence as Mariam’s late father was a senior police officer.

As you would expect, there is a considerable shift in family dynamic following the death.

Mariam (Nawal) is studying to be a doctor and is quickly foisted with yet more family responsibilities by her mother, Fariha (Bakhtwar).

There is no doubt that Mariam is capable and doesn’t shirk from the tasks that now befall her – she steps up to the plate and doesn’t appear unduly fazed.

Mariam (Ramesha Nawal) and mother (Bakhtwar Mazhar)

Of course, there is huge tension between herself and her mother but at one level that seems predictable and manageable.

The absence of a significant male figure now invites abuse and unwanted attention – she is such – as the ugly phrase goes, in a society controlled and run by men for men (mostly, everywhere) as Kahn intimates – easy prey.

The flip side of this, is that she needs protection (or at least a buffer) of some sort and leans into the interest of a cousin Asad (Omar Javid) who is going through his own significant adjustment having moved from Canada to Pakistan.

Khan, himself grew up in Canada, but has chosen to turn his critical eye onto issues that permeate much of South Asia, regardless of the actual country.

The same insidious forces that seek to keep women’s choices deeply restricted, operate to varying degrees in each and are a major theme in ‘In Flames’. Kahn talking after the film at its first screening on Friday, May 19, said that for him the move back to Pakistan from Canada wasn’t such a big deal but the world for his sisters changed dramatically.

At first, Asad sees his role in general protective terms – as an older cousin brother might in simply looking out for a younger sister cousin.

But as the film unfolds, it is clear he has another agenda and what is interesting is that Mariam allows these feelings to develop and clearly feels comfortable about where their ‘relationship’ is headed.

Any chance of romance is, however, massively disrupted – and we will have to leave it at that.

The last half of the film is all about the challenges Mariam faces and coping with the fallout at every turn.

In the background, Mariam’s uncle (Adnan Shah Tipu) has thrown a protective cloak around the family and recalls earlier, better times with his brother and like Asad too, at the beginning, insists he is acting out of love and concern.

His sister-in-law is naïve and accepting, while Mariam is the smarter one in realising quite quickly that Uncle Nazir (Tipu) also has an agenda – around the property they call home.

Kahn’s skill is to weave these different parallel stories deeply into the fabric of the film, articulating the vulnerability of the women depicted, while still – through the character of Mariam – showing there is some light and fight.

The fate of the two women during the film deviates considerably before being brought back together again for what is a surprising and violent finale.

Kahn shows how society and a dominant (patriarchal) culture continues to repress and subvert women’s dreams and ambitions.

In Flames’ deserves to be widely seen and is part of an important conversation about women’s rights and freedoms in societies where the concept of equality or parity between genders (in all things), is still being made – or is sometimes, dismissed aggressively, as a western affectation and undesirable on grounds of traditional culture and prevailing mores being violently and needlessly upended. (Sailesh Ram)

ACV rating: **** (out of five)

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture