What would make my film different? How would it stand out from the rest of the pack?” asks a little voice inside a filmmaker’s head. The most obvious answer, and logically the most effective one, is: to use a ‘cold open’ as the very first scene of the film. Cold opens are a devious storytelling tool — they often use a dramatic scene from the middle or end of the film, and if need be, explain its relevance through a narrator.
Right now, these openings are notoriously popular with Pakistani filmmakers. Take, for example, the one in Waar, which introduces Shaan Shahid’s gung-ho character in a good-cop bad-cop scene (there was no good cop in that room, by the way). Or the one in Jawani Phir Nahin Aani where a pre-intermission suicide scene is used as a ploy to heighten the film’s tension. Or the ones in Bachanaa, Wrong No. and Dance Kahani. The list is limited, but only because we have a limited number of motion pictures to count off.
The cold open in Chalay Thay Saath (CTS) has a voiceover from Resham (Syra Shehroz) who, in sombre tones, introduces the film’s cast in a montage. Resham tells us that she is a doctor who loves to doodle and write, in a diary, to her dead mother. Her widower dad (Behroz Sabzwari) lives somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the Hunza Valley. Her best friends are Zain (Osama Tahir), Tania (Mansha Pasha) and Faraz (Faris Khalid). Zain and Tania are a bickering couple who used to be college sweethearts, and Faraz is a US-returned burn-out with no life path.
The characters in Chalay Thay Saath are not real and their issues not serious enough
The scene, made up of shots we see later in the film, feels like an easy way out of character development. It is also tonally out of place and amateurish — as if the montage was the only way to get the audience to know these characters. In film school (or a proper film industry), there is a solution for such screenwriting mental blocks — you show, don’t tell elaborate back-stories in scenes. Apparently, no one gave the makers of CTS this critical piece of advice.
When the montage ends, we see Resham and friends on a sightseeing trip in the Gilgit-Baltistan region with a tag-along aunty called Aqsa (Shamim Hilali). On the way, their tour guide adds Adam (Kent S. Leung), a Chinese-Muslim who makes a love-connection with Resham.
Adam doesn’t speak Urdu; so his main mode of communication is a translation app that excels in picking out the gist and tone of conversations. And yes, this aspect alone opens up a wealth of comedic prospects. With Adam’s inclusion — a foreign tourist smitten by Pakistan and Pakistanis — CTS is brave enough to walk into unorthodox territory. Some would call this cultural propaganda (or kissing up to China) while others will applaud the always topical boldness of racial biases and cross-cultural marriages.
Adam’s inclusion leads to a trivial fisticuff between men (kindergarten fights are far fiercer), a slight father-daughter disagreement on her choice of life partner, and eventual resolution of whatever issues the film’s secondary set of characters have. I say ‘eventual’ because the running time is about one hour too long.
The screenplay by Atiya Zaidi — a documentary and advertisement copywriter and an attendee of Aaron Sorkin’s Master Class — presents superficially written characters and weightless conflicts that overlap and tip over near the film’s final 30 minutes. By then the only thing we care about are the end-credits. Not one of these people are real enough, or their issues serious enough, to warrant a one-hour conversation, let alone a two hour-plus motion picture.
Umar Adil, the debuting director and one of the film’s producers, banks on his Director of Photography (Shahzad Khan) to capture the lusciousness of Pakistan’s northern region. Adil, unfortunately, also feigns obliviousness to CTS’s principal fault — a lack of plot. The film’s cinematography takes charge — but only by default.
However, at this point I would argue against the intellectual depth of the craft. The camerawork is pretty standard, with low-angled tracking shots moving either left or right, or crane moves going up or down. Yes, everything was in focus, and in some situations the lens captures light-streaks from the sun that almost eat up the cast. They look lovely — but almost anyone with a DSLR (or even someone with a high-quality phone camera) can capture such vibrant images.
Adil, nevertheless, is blessed with some very fine actors (kudos especially to the very natural Kent Leung). These people make do with whatever lack of material they have at their disposal. Somewhere in the middle of the film, the cast adds Zhalay Sarhadi as a beautiful, tough-to-woo, independent young woman who runs a carpentry workshop. She, of course, has as much significance to the story as any other supporting character.
In a way, Chalay Thay Saath reminds me of Thora Jee Lay. That film too had a fresh young cast and an uncannily similar story angle that included a road-trip and characters whose marriage was on the rocks. Now that I think about it, TJL too started with a similar cold open. I guess Pakistani filmmakers are officially out of ideas … or maybe they all think alike.
Published in Dawn, ICON, April 30th, 2017