Adnan Sarwar’s biographical adventure film Motorcycle Girl follows his 2015 debut Shah, which told the story of Pakistani boxer Hussain Shah, who won the bronze medal at the 1988 summer Olympics.
This time, Sarwar’s unsung hero is Zenith Irfan (Sohai Ali Abro), the first woman to ride a motorcycle from Lahore to Khunjerab.
In the first five minutes, the film efficiently introduces most of the film’s key characters and their relationships with one another, with particular attention to its protagonist, Zenith, a 20-something from a middle class family living within the confines of society, dealing with everything from workplace harassment to unwanted advances on public transport, sexist partners and narrow-minded family structures.
At work, Zenith is harassed by her boss (Sarmad Khoosat), who scolds her publicly and criticises her for carelessness. The film highlights the nepotism in working environments, such as one instance where Zenith’s ideas are presented to a client by one of her colleagues, who her boss favours.
Once she learns how to ride a motorcycle and rides it to work, Zenith becomes the target of criticism from a religious client of the firm her boss is unwilling to upset. Her boss tells her a woman riding a motorcycle does not fare well in society, and eventually fires her.
However, Zenith does have the support of her mother (Samina Peerzada) and her brother Sultan (Hadi Arshad), while her traditional grandmother Bajoo (Shamim Halali) only appears interested in Zenith’s marital future.
The film doesn’t shy away from highlighting Zenith’s vulnerability – encapsulating her position as a young woman with overwhelming responsibility on her shoulders.
In comes Zaffar (Ali Kazmi) a misogynistic financial whiz-kid from a New York investment firm who agrees to marry Zenith, chosen for him by his mother. Within a few meetings, it becomes clear to Zenith that Zaffar believes that a woman should stay home, bear children and take care of her in-laws.
However, Zenith asks him to let her ride her bike to Khunjerab, an unfulfilled dream of her father’s, which he agrees to.
This is where the story of Motorcycle Girl truly begins, following Zenith as she tours the country on her bike and giving the director the opportunity to show-off his skills.
What follows is an immersive experience for the audience, who follow Zenith through a breathtaking landscape, down serpentine local roads and along the flowing rivers of the countryside.
But as beautiful as the landscape is – and as well showcased as it has been by Sarwar – Abro is the showstopper of the film.
Her portrayal of Zenith is nuanced, highlighting the character’s strength as she breaks social barriers as well as vulnerability in heart warming scenes during her journey and particularly her last monologue.
Abro’s outdoes herself in Motorcycle Girl, and the entire film rests on her shoulders.
However, there are moments where the film seems to drag on, and could have been tighter as a whole.
At the same time, the movie sheds light on workplace harassment and the difficulty women face as sole breadwinners for their families.
It also emphasises the harassment women face in public spaces, from the leers Zenith faces while riding her bike or eating alone at a dhaba, to unwanted statements and harassment on social media.
The film holds up a mirror to Pakistani male chauvinists, while also highlighting the courage and strength it takes to aim high and fulfil your dreams.
Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2018