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SUBTEXT: MANIFESTO OF THE MAN-CHILD

Updated April 23, 2017
Illustration by Marium Ali
Illustration by Marium Ali

At one level, film criticism is meant to first identify what the filmmaker was trying to convey and then evaluate how successful he or she was in getting that across. Keeping that in mind, Sahir Lodhi’s Raasta, which has been relentlessly panned by critics, has at its heart a very coherent and consistent message that is lost amidst the ludicrousness of the film’s experience.

Raasta is a dissection of what it means to be an alpha male in the contemporary world. This isn’t immediately obvious, and the film exists within some very tired tropes of South Asian masala movies, offering a typical climax where good defeats evil. And yet, even as good triumphs, Sahir’s film seems to be questioning which type of good, and what type of masculinity, is to be embraced. Raasta is essentially a celebration of Sahir’s character, who is the ultimate man-child. (I should add that although I do not personally endorse Sahir’s viewpoints, I do find it fascinating how he’s used this film to essentially deliver a manifesto of what sort of men he thinks society should venerate.)

Raasta is about two sets of brothers — Sultan (Aijaz Aslam) and Sameer (Sahir Lodhi) versus Shahnawaz (Shamoon Abbasi) and Sherry (Naveed Raza). Just as one would expect, the plot unravels with the two ‘good guys’ — Sultan and Sameer — battling the two ‘bad guys’ — Shahnawaz and Sherry. And yet this mirroring is set up another way as well, and the younger brothers can be seen as a contrast to the two elder brothers. In this latter contrast, the questions of morality are more open-ended, and Sahir asks us to question which set of brothers embodies the more desirable traits.


Critics have missed the point completely. Sahir Lodhi’s Raasta is actually about male sexuality and what kind of man should be venerated


The most obvious clue about this uncertain morality is showcased in Sameer’s anger about his unemployment. Twice in the film, he sits in interviews where his interviewer takes a phone call with a sifarishi on the other end and gives them the job in front of Sameer. Yet tellingly, Sameer’s frustrations are aimed directly at his brother, whom he resents both for according value to Sameer solely based on his employment status as well as refusing to provide the necessary sifarish Sameer needs to land a job.

Now this is quite contrary to established logic in both our films and society — the frustrated hero who can’t get a break usually blames the ‘system’. But Sameer’s ire is towards his brother’s obstinacy. He also routinely accuses Sultan of committing infidelity towards his wife, Sameer’s beloved bhabhi, with the mistress in question being Sultan’s job.

All these attitudes help establish Sameer’s point of view, which is that it is more important to cherish and support family and loved ones than owing ultimate loyalty to one’s profession. Sultan is shown as nothing more than the sum of his professional principles, unable for example, to console his daughter when his wife is murdered, or to reconcile with his brother.

Sultan’s aloof, professional persona is a mirror of the villain Shahnawaz’s. Both men dress in conventional manners (Sultan in understated colours and formal clothes, Shahnawaz in stylised shalwar-kameez); both are very prone to violence (Sultan regularly roughhouses suspects, Shahnawaz starts shooting in the middle of business deals); both have only one woman in their lives that they take for granted (Sultan his long-suffering wife, Shahnawaz his girlfriend who is the widow of a man he killed); both have little motivation in the film apart from pursuing their professional interests.

Their conflict ultimately becomes one of stasis – Sultan keeps biting off Shahnawaz’s empire but is never able to deal it a mortal blow. Sameer, who converts his frustrations into a role as an avenging vigilante, spectacularly undoes the Sultan-Shahnawaz stalemate and blows Sultan’s Sisyphean approach out of the water. Rather than going by the book, Sameer launches a brazen assault on Shahnawaz’s operations and leaves them crippled.


Sameer’s transformation into this vigilante, which takes place after the interval, sees him become even more flamboyant than before.


Sameer’s transformation into this vigilante, which takes place after the interval, sees him become even more flamboyant than before. His hair is generously streaked golden, his shades become reflective, his clothing becomes leather-exclusive and he is shown as suffering from a cool, bored detachment as he rapidly rises to become the city’s most dangerous person. Sameer’s rise sees him repeatedly squaring off against Shahnawaz’s brother Sherry, and yet Sherry is in many ways closer to him than his own brother Sultan.

The younger criminal is similarly invested in wearing a variety of flamboyant clothes, and both younger brothers care more about love, wooing several women during the film. Crucially, both of them are also less prone to violence. In one of their several square-offs, Sameer intimidates an armed Sherry through some aggressive kissing sounds (common on the streets of Karachi) yet despite the presence of guns there is no violence.

Their one major difference is over the importance of friendship. In one of the climactic scenes, Sameer eschews the chance to kill Sherry and avenge the murder of his bhabhi. However, when Sherry assumes that his mercy means that they are now friends, Sameer immediately kills him. Sameer’s obsession with friendship is also shown earlier when he advises a close friend that in case he ever betrayed Sameer “goli aagay se maarna, peeche se nahi… peeche se dard hota hai.” (Shoot me from the front, not the back. It hurts more from the back).

This lionisation of friendship isn’t just a trope — it is one of the central facets of the man-child philosophy that Sameer represents. Sahir Lodhi wants us to celebrate this man-child lifestyle where one isn’t obsessed with their job or social status, but rather is free to indulge themselves as long as they are faithful and respectful of their families and friends. This is why Sameer’s success as an ass-kicking anti-hero is so important, because it underlines the fact that out of the two good guys, he is actually good while his apparently ethical brother is at best clueless and at worst no better than the villains.

In the film’s climax, despite the villain holding his daughter hostage, Sultan doesn’t join Sameer in rescuing her. When Sameer successfully effects the rescue and makes to leave, Sultan orders him to stay and give himself in to the police to atone for his vigilantism. Sameer refuses, so Sultan shockingly shoots him in the back. This little exchange, which takes place after the film’s actual villains have been killed, is central to understanding Raasta. Sultan isn’t punished by fate in the film, but this climax establishes that he is clearly reprehensible, first failing to rescue his own daughter and then shooting his own brother (in the back, no less), just for the sake of his job.

Sahir Lodhi’s celebration of this man-child phenomenon isn’t emerging from a vacuum, but rather is embodied by several famous personalities of this day. Think of someone like Ahmed Shehzad, or Waqar Zaka, or Sahir himself. Each of them has created this persona which is extremely vain, self-obsessed, fragile, and often justifies their behavior by appealing to patriotism.

Waqar frequently frames his shenanigans as representative of authentic Pakistani youth culture; Ahmed Shehzad worked his way back into the team by getting celebrities to make videos for the Prime Minister; and Sahir himself defended his film against critics by saying the film represented the common Pakistani. Which is why perhaps it is no surprise that despite being left a bloody mess by the end of the film, Sameer doesn’t die, helpfully explaining that those who love their country never die. It is a laughably shallow point of view, but Raasta is an extremely sincere effort at showcasing it.

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 23rd, 2017