Salman Shahid, Sanam Saeed and Rehan Sheikh in Azad
Salman Shahid, Sanam Saeed and Rehan Sheikh in Azad

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Azad is a very long, meandering lecture by writer-director-actor Rehan Sheikh. It also doesn’t take the wisdom of Solomon to guess that the film may not be playing at the cinemas by the time you read this review.

In the story, Dani, a rebel-minded radio jockey (Sheikh) who hides behind the alias of “Azad” (free man) hosts a morning show and cribs about life. Like most good-for-nothing artists, he has a problem with the corporate world. He rallies up his listeners (a total of five people: two old men, two housewives, a man driving a car), helps a sultry caller (Nimra Bucha) get free of her personal problems, but forgets to mention the sponsors of the show (Dixie Cola and Dingo Bubble) because he simply doesn’t care.

His boss (Salman Shahid, whose dialogue delivery is now eternally set to the tone of a quacking duck) is angry at Dani. His producer, Saadia (Sanam Saeed) exploits every opportunity to get him fired. Dani, meanwhile, takes his green Volkswagon to a secluded and serene dhaba (open-air cafeteria) every day and bickers about life with his buddy Billoo (Ajlal Shah). At times, Dani, Billoo and Saadia break the fourth wall to talk to us. As if to make sure we haven’t dozed off from the unending lectures.

Two films in the cinemas offer contrasting methods of constructing narrative

Azad is a rambling mess, one that uncannily inherits the traits of its central character. Like Dani, the film doesn’t care about anything. Scenes repeat. The story doesn’t progress. A brief plot point about a former lover (Sabreen Hisbani) forces itself into the narrative 10 minutes before the intermission and stretches 20 minutes after the break.

By that time 25 people left the cinema (yes, we were actually counting). Unsurprisingly, the film only had 20 percent occupancy on its first Saturday. People were laughing at the film on their way out after Azad ended. A few were cursing themselves. If making your his audience curse life was Sheikh’s master plan, then congratulations: he hit the jackpot.

As a filmmaker, Sheikh has no regard for cinematic conventions or the need to entertain the audience. A dialogue in the film shuns the need for entertainment and advertisements. Sheikh, though, falls into his own trap. For example: when Azad rouses his audience’s emotion on the radio, isn’t that a form of “entertainment” and isn’t he “advertising” himself as a pitiful philosopher?

Despite Dani’s pigheadedness, I believe he has no problems cashing in his cheque every month; a cheque that is possible because the show has sponsors.

As Azad, Dani wants to be free, yet he has no problem showing up for work every day because it pays his bills. At the end of the movie, as if one couldn’t deduce, Dani will leave his job. What the film doesn’t tell us is, he’ll eventually find another job and bicker again, like before.

During the film, I kept asking myself: who is Azad and what does he want? Is he thinking about the loss of innocence? Musing over nostalgia and old promises? Happy in whimsical daydreams that have a soundtrack made up of jazz and old Bollywood songs (or songs inspired by Guru Dutt’s movies)? Sheikh manhandles each one of these aspects as Dani, but intentionally chooses to not write an engaging screenplay around the premise.

To answer counter-arguments: yes, I know Azad is the story of an aimless man, brought down by his own mentality. However, there are other ways to tell this specific story. Sheikh, by default, chooses the easiest route: the one pressured on to film-school students by their idealistic teachers who want every film to have a dramatic message, especially at the cost of the narrative.

This very specific genre of cinema applauds pseudo-intellectuality with an argumentative, spoiled-brat attitude. When filmmakers are cornered by tough questions, they admit their fallibilities. This artsy mumbo-jumbo comes from theatre, a powerful platform better suited to tell this particular story.

Unlike in theatre, one doesn’t connect to the characters in Azad. But then, in hindsight, who can empathise with talking heads (technically: medium and close shots of people talking) who rapid-fire long expository disagreements that do not explain what that character wants.

Peter Rabbit

In the last few years, I’ve become quite wary of walking, talking computer-generated animals in live action movies. Call it a subconscious call for caution, especially after Scooby Doo, and more recently from The Smurfs. The odd mix of franticness and happy-go-lucky dilly-dallying of cutesy creatures, often lead to migraine and then nausea, especially after the camera latches on to the critters in the middle of a comedy-action sequence. It’s a good thing, then, that Peter Rabbit wasn’t in 3D. One can only stomach a few frenzied creatures, not gazillions of them.

Being in 2D doesn’t hurt Peter Rabbit’s storytelling at all. Adapted from the children’s books of Beatrix Potter, the stories tell of Peter (the voice of James Corden) and his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, and their sidekick cousin Benjamin, as they raid the next-door neighbour’s cabbage garden for food. The main plots of the books serve as a solid footing for screenwriters Will Gluck (also the director) and Rob Lieber to take the film into a new, yet familiar, direction. Peter has to fend off his old neighbour’s nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson, fantastic) after the former dies from an unhealthy lifestyle. Unintentionally amplifying their feud is Bea (Rose Bryne), a bad painter on whose property Peter and his family live. Bea loves her cuddly bunnies, and Gluck makes sure that there is no weird inter-species romance in this film. Also, humans can’t understand animal language, which is another relief. Peter and Bea’s relationship is that of a mother and son, and Peter can’t imagine Thomas as a father figure.

Most of Peter Rabbit feels like a Tom and Jerry cartoon with one gag leading to the other, yet, miraculously, it feels breezy. A good chunk of the screenplay and the action is limited to Thomas’s cabbage garden, Bea’s painting area and Thomas’s lounge and bedroom, but doesn’t become unexciting or repetitive. The pacing is smooth, the jokes (with one exception) are lighthearted. Also, being British helps sell the package.

The film’s CG animation and rendering is fantastic. A lot of small details register to a keen eye. The wrinkle of the animal’s nose or the slight quirks in body language convinces us of their believability as living creatures. The emotion Gluck and Lieber create is bound by the simplest of story beats, but feels genuine. Isn’t genuineness, no matter how it is fabricated in the story, the only thing that matters in movies?

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 18th, 2018