There is a lot to commend the Asim Abbasi-directed and Sanam Saeed and Aamina Sheikh-starring Cake for.
There is its deftly constructed story, the varying strands of which creep up on you in an organically and satisfyingly slow way as the narrative progresses.
There are the carefully explored relationships – between sisters, between parents and children, between friends and lovers – that have enough room for complexity and contradiction within them to make them feel real and lived in.
There is the film’s insistence on touching upon difficult issues of class and privilege, of aging and accountability, and of our obligations to the people we love, and its subsequent refusal to resolve those issues neatly.
But there is also something else – not entirely unconnected to these strengths of the film – which is noteworthy, and that is the film’s quiet feminism, which can be seen not only through the two main characters but also through their relationship to the wide narrative of the film.
Feminism, particularly as it relates to popular culture and the media, is a tricky thing to talk about. The term has become highly charged and often contentious, particularly in the context of social media, with its rapid, unnuanced, meme-efied reactions and rampant misinformation.
It is a term that both Sanam Saaed and Aamina Sheikh have publicly grappled with and distanced themselves from, ostensibly due to this same misinformation.
But while the stars’ lack of clarity about the term is unfortunate, it is also somewhat irrelevant to the film’s ethos, whose feminism is subtle and quiet and, I would argue, no less potent for that.
In that regard, the film can be seen as the cinematic heir of Haseena Moin’s television dramas of the 1970s and ’80s, whose feminism, like Cake’s, also lay in fully formed, multi-faceted female characters who went about living their complex lives, building careers and falling in love, being sisters and friends and children and parents without feeling the need to monologue bluntly and grandiosely about things like Female Empowerment and Women Are People, Too.
Cake begins with a series of scenes exploring an ordinary day in the life of Zareen (Aamina Sheikh), as she goes about managing the needs of her exuberant, aging parents (Beo Raana Zafar and Mohammad Ahmad) and looking after the family’s landowning business in the absence of her two siblings who live abroad: Zain, her brother (Faris Khalid) with a young family of his own, and Zara (Sanam Saeed), a sister with a high-stakes career who, the narrative implies, left the country and the family in difficult circumstances.
In the midst of this, Zareen carves out quiet moments of privacy for herself, exchanging emails with her confidante and friend-but-almost-something-more, Romeo (Adnan Malik), furtively enjoying a cigarette in the bathroom and then flushing away the evidence.
These first few scenes manage to convey a lot about Zareen – how she has taken up the mantle of caretaker for the family, how she feels alternately proud and resentful of her indispensability in the smooth functioning of her family, how she longs for things for herself that she isn’t sure she has a right to want.
The film shows fully formed, multi-faceted female characters without feeling the need to bluntly monologue.
Things come to a head when her father’s already fragile health takes a turn for the worse, prompting Zara to return home after a long absence.
The sisters’ loving but contentious dynamic, and each sibling’s own specific relationship to their parents and their role within the family is what the rest of the film explores, with a difficult family secret that informs all of this in different ways.
It is this deft centring of these two complex women and the conflict between their own selves and the roles they have to play within their family and the larger world that feels truly feminist.
It is the way in which Zareen is allowed to be difficult without being demonised that feels refreshing, almost revolutionary, considering the kind of roles women are allowed to inhabit in Pakistani media today.
She feels specific, her class privilege, her place within her family and within the larger Pakistani society and her own self coming together to form a multi-dimensional, complete person.
She takes care of everyone, sure, but she is not depicted as a self-sacrificing martyr or a saint (a reductive trope that, unfortunately, a plethora of contemporary Pakistani television and film relies on).
Instead, the film allows her moments of unkindness towards the people close to her, and she grapples with the weight of her own wants in ways that frequently come across as unfair to those around her.
It is the deft centring of complex women that feels truly feminist.
In her relationship with Zara, too, the film triumphs. When Zara first returns to Karachi, their relationship is strained and somewhat cold, with grievances both said and unsaid hovering between them. As the narrative progresses, their dynamic is explored and deepened.
A scene with the two of them driving home from a party is a good example of the way in which the nuances of their relationship are brought to light without necessarily offering a neat resolution to their conflicts.
The car ride, with Zareen driving and Zara beside her, has moments of them arguing balanced by moments of vulnerability as well as moments of levity and silliness, and the way in which both sisters weave in and out of these range of emotions rings true to the way relationships between sisters – or indeed any relationship between women which is loving and complicated – really are.
In many ways, the Zareen-Zara duo are the contemporary descendants of the sisters of Haseena Moin’s Tanhaiyan (1985). In that drama, too, two sisters (Shehnaz Shaikh and Marina Khan) grapple with personal ambitions and obligations to each other and to their family, and like Zareen and Zara, their relationship, too, was at turns supportive and difficult.
Cake’s treatment of its women is reminiscent of Haseena Moin’s dramas in other ways as well. What makes Moin’s dramas so beloved and enduring is that they felt real and true in the casual manner in which they afforded their female characters the right to be difficult, to be conflicted and unfair and wrong, to make mistakes and learn from them.
It didn’t come across as Moin trying to Make a Point. It was subtle and quiet and it made her characters human, and that’s what made her work so feminist.
Feminism boils down to an argument for refusing to deny women the fullness of their humanity.
Subtlety and quiet moments that ended up saying a lot is a trademark Moin move, especially when it came to her women characters falling in love – and in that regard, Cake feels reminiscent of Dhoop Kinaray (1987), where Zoya (Marina Khan) falls in love with Dr Ahmer (Rahat Kazmi) in a series of small, intimate and largely quiet moments.
In Cake, the primary romance between Zareen and Romeo develops quietly, such as the scene where Romeo joins Zareen in her house’s courtyard at dusk as she is reading a book, and wordlessly, sits by her and opens a book of his own.
Even the complications of their potential romance, with the class difference and consequent power imbalance between the two of them (Romeo works as a nurse to Zareen’s parents, and his working class family has long been in service to Zareen’s much more privileged and affluent zamindar family), is explored with a lightness of touch that nevertheless seems cognisant of the social inequities within which their romance exists.
Despite what the confusion and mistrust of the term that is rampant on social media circles would have you believe, feminism really boils down to an argument for refusing to deny women the fullness of their humanity.
Cake feels feminist not merely because it puts women, their interiority and their relationships at the centre of the narrative, but because it does this quite casually and organically, giving, without much fanfare, the stories of Zareen and Zara the narrative empathy that is commonly and widely given to the stories of men. For this alone, the film deserves to be applauded and celebrated.
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