“Qismat say ziyada nahin, waqt say pehlay nahin” – loosely translated: one doesn’t get anything that isn’t destined for them before its due time.
The feeling of this dialogue resonates – at times quite loudly – within “Zinda Bhaag”, the directing debut of Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi that hooks Pakistani talent with Indian technical craftsmanship and elbows its way into Oscar’s foreign film submissions shortlist.
There are some peculiarities that may have made the job a bit easy for our recently set Oscar bench. “Zinda Bhaag” is set in Lahore and it focuses on three lower-middle class youngsters who have taken the title of the film a little too literally. Because plebeians don’t usually have good-Samaritan relatives settled abroad or stacks of money at their disposal, their way out is often an illegal game of chance that can backfire tremendously with either a bullet to the head, a jail cell, deportation and – as the opening scene tells us – an air-mailed corpse.
In one of the first of the well placed anecdotes narrated by Pehlvan (Naseeruddin Shah), we get to know one corpse better: he is Mehboob Alam – one of the lucky ones who succeeded in a “dunki” (slipped into another country) with the help of a brand new suit and the utilization of all of his life’s “Angraizi” in a single act of confidence that duped the border patrol. The successful deceive helps Mehboob make it to France where he opens a business named “La Boob”, and becomes a stimulus for anyone contemplating to long-jump the fence.
In one scene someone asks “Samundar ka paani garam hota hai ya thanda” (are the ocean waters hot or cold). The answer is: “Gehra” (deep).
A hefty portion of “Zinda Bhaag” shifts between Pehlvan’s real-life stories – told in splotchy, reel-life negative look – and Khaldi, Taambi and Chitta (Khurram Patras, Zohib and Salman Ahmed Khan), the three youths who will ultimately be inclined to Zinda Bhaag from Pakistan.
Khaldi is the hook of the narrative: we see him with his family – a set of women with disheveled hair glued to the idiot box watching a woman’s “Auqaat” (a daily soap on the woes of being the second wife to a boofhead of a husband), his girlfriend (Rubina, played by Amna Illyas) – an elfin saleswoman who cons people into buying her homemade beauty soap “faceLook” (she doesn’t speak Punjabi, the film’s native language by the way), and his pals who he drives to work (Khalidi works for a cable company, and the company van plays an integral role in establishing a link to the obviousness of their individual shortcomings).
Ms. Gaur and Mr. Nabi’s film is an amalgam where everything blends together, yet stands out on its own. For less than two hours (an hour, fifty six minutes if I can trust my watch), the narrative is tightly edited (and pertinently shot) even as it hopscotches between Khaldi and co.’s anguish of not being able to escape Pakistani drudgery and social bias (there is an excellent scene with Chitta at a party where the help are frisked for a missing blackberry).
Unlike some of the more in-your-face releases, Mr. Gaur and Mr. Nabi’s screenplay never stoops to overburden the ambiance of “Zinda Bhaag” with undue theatrics.
The songs – some better, some space fillers – are sprightly, if sometimes unnecessary. “Pata Yaar Da”, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan is aptly placed and yet didn’t really feel at home. “Dekhaingay” (sung by Jabar Abbas) happens as a celebratory-cum-rebellion fashion in the kitchen (I didn’t mind the setting, or the way it was choreographed). For some reason though, “Paani Da Bulbula” (by Abrar Ul Haq) is tagged within the opening credits in the design of a title scroll. This made me feel as if it’s time to que up for the exit (customarily, title scrolls are used in the end).
Mr. Patras, Mr. Zohib and Mr. Khan are near perfect casting. Mr. Patras and Mr. Khan in particular, carry the weight of their own personal predicaments with profound gist. Mr. Zohib, who slides under Phelvan’s wing, is amateurish to a degree – and yet that amateurism works with his characteristics. Ms. Illyas’ place, though, is a bit of conundrum. Her necessity to make the film ‘mainstream’ is a given, and she does fizz in front of the camera because her Rubina is a zesty, easy to woo, serious minded girl. She is written into the screenplay as if she has a position, but in retrospect, there’s still too little of her to command influence on “Zinda Bhaag’s” overall plot or its culmination.
Some may argue the same about Mr. Shah’s Pehlvan, though his precise turn is borderline gray – not black, not white, just a delightful shade of gray (some may see him as a villain, I applauded his principles).
Unfortunately, like most features of “Zinda Bhaag”, (SPOILER ALERT!) Mr. Shah disappears quite abruptly from the picture. This is perhaps one of the biggest let downs of “Zinda Bhaag”. As soon as someone leaves Pakistan, their essence more or less evaporates from the picture – almost like in real life. I get the point Ms. Gaur and Mr. Nabi were trying to make, but in cinematic terms without scenes to bridge their departures or small inserts of them in midst of their journey, the influence is less sweeping.
What works for “Zinda Bhaag” is its full-circle theory. We see people – not characters – pushing through a system, with their own choices. There’s a level of pluck – especially with the film’s dialogues – that makes everyone human here. And yet, like real people, “Zinda Bhaag” isn’t flawless (none of us are), but its idiosyncrasy is what makes it relatable. Like that certain relative one cares about, likes a lot, but not really loves.
Released by ARY Films and Footprint Entertainment, Produced by Matteela Films, Directed by Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi; Produced by Mazhar Zaidi; Written by Ms. Gaur and Mr. Nabi; Music by Sahir Ali Bagga; Editing by Shan Muhammed; Cinematography by Satya Nagpaul.
Starring Naseeruddin Shah, Amna Ilyas, Khurram Patras, Salman Ahmad Khan, Zohib.
“Zinda Bhaag” is rated U/A for some sensuality, a parti-colored song, laugh-out-loud humor and the reckless impulse of real life.