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After such a long time, this is what you bear me?” screams a fuming father to his wailing wife. The father is embarrassed because their newborn is a hermaphrodite. “I’ll tell the world that the child died during birth,” he screams.

Just then, out of the blue, Saima (Nayyer Ejaz) — a transgender — enters the room. “I’ll raise the child with respect,” she tells him (I use the third person personal pronoun “she” because that is how transgenders in the film address each other).

Saima has a heart of gold. A few cuts later, the child, now a pre-teen named Aashi, is shunned by playmates. She wants to go to school, but obviously, can’t. Why the injustice, she cries — a notion screamed throughout Shanakht.

Writer-director Zubair Shaukat drafts a transgender’s story from a bland, unengaging, propagandist point of view

Aashi (played by Faiz Chauhan when she grows up) wails constantly, as if she has nothing better to do. People passing her by on the streets try to pick her up. At a very cheap-looking engagement reception, a dupatta-less dancer inexplicably sings of rukhsati at a mehndi reception while Aashi weeps away her desires. Why can’t I have someone to love, she sings, to the utter bamboozlement and disgust of the groom.

Aashi eventually finds love, is gang-raped, laughed at by the police, shunned by society and eventually loses her house.

Writer-director Zubair Shaukat drafts Aashi’s story with a bland, unengaging, propagandist point of view. Neither Aashi nor Saima are interesting characters, and both Ejaz and Chauhan are bad actors to boot (Ejaz in particular hams it up when the film warrants genuine emotions). One loses interest fast.

Shot like a telefilm (the camera is clearly an HD camcorder) with a hard-contrast palette, the budget is quite low. The audience’s turnout, of course, is lower. I watched the film with 16 others on its day of release; seven left before the film ended. I couldn’t blame them.

On my way out of the cinema I kept thinking about A Fantastic Woman — this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. Both films have similar themes, plot points and low budgets. Both Aashi and Marina (actress Daniela Vega) have male lovers, and both are shunned by society. We, however, feel for Marina. Her conflict, including her bad decisions, was raw and real. Aashi, on the other hand, felt as if she came out of a cheap television re-enactment.

Shanakht is playing on limited cinema screens. It would be a miracle if it is still playing on the big screen by the time you read this.

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 13th, 2018