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Eidul Azha is officially the de-facto “season to be jolly” for Pakistani filmmakers. Every year, filmmakers battle each other to nab this particular holiday — irrespective of whether their films warrant an Eid release or not.

Although Eid brings in record-breaking box office numbers, no one considers the financial damage the titles inflict on each other, or the fact that the remaining year sees no big releases.

This year, the fight is between three big motion pictures: Jawani Phir Nahin Aani 2, Parwaaz Hai Junoon and Load Wedding — one, a sweeping family-friendly comedy; the other, a romantic-drama that doesn’t exploit nationalistic sentiments of the armed forces in bad taste, and finally a social drama wrongfully presented as a comedy.

By a miraculous stroke of luck, all three turned out to be cinema-worthy endeavours.

Jawani Phir Nahin Aani 2

When we first see Sherry in Jawani Phir Nahin Aani 2 (JPNA2), he’s not the person he used to be. With his hair and beard messily overgrown, he’s the epitome of despair. We’re told that since JPNA, which happened three years ago in the film’s continuity, Sherry’s been through a lot.

Given Sherry’s track record, you don’t buy what he’s going through (and there’s no real reason why anyone should, given the tone of the scenes and the genre of the film), but one empathises for the moment. When eventually Sherry jolts out of his slump, you know he’s matured quite a bit.

Well, both him and Humayun Saeed — the actor who essays Sherry.

Individually, Eidul Azha releases Jawani Phir Nahin Aani 2, Parwaaz Hai Junoon and Load Wedding each have their own stories to tell. But can they collectively result in a group victory for local cinema?

Saeed, the principal lynchpin of JPNA and JPNA2, is a smart producer. With an overstuffed cast in play, the actor elegantly (and graciously) takes a step back to let others take centre stage.

Trust me, it’s not an easy thing to do — especially in one’s home production.

Saeed’s Sherry disappears from JPNA2 after the opening sequence, popping up half an hour later at the behest of the story, before taking the backseat again.

During Sherry’s disappearance, Saeed (as producer), screenwriter Vasay Chaudhry and director Nadeem Baig establish the back stories of both old and new characters.

The returning lot includes Sheikh (Chaudhry), Pepe (Ahmed Ali Butt) and their wives Gul and Lubna (Sarwat Gillani, Uzma Khan), each at a different phase in their lives — and that’s all I’m going to say.

The plot then swiftly adds Rahat (Fahad Mustafa), Lubna’s smart-aleck brother who is a constant pain in Pepe’s neck.

Rahat is what Sherry used to be — an imp out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream who is willing to throw anyone under the bus for his own benefit. Even if some of those reasons barely make sense in the latter-half of the movie, and even when you know his priority is self-survival, Rahat is far from an antagonist. At best, he’s an obstruction in an otherwise hitch-free story.

Rahat brings his own set of troubles to the table. He is smitten with Xoe (Mawra Hocane) whose dad, Balani (Sohail Ahmed), is a Turkey-born fashion designer who speaks Punjabi-accented Urdu, yet has never been to Pakistan.

Xoe, a dog lawyer whose marriage decisions rest on her pug’s approval, is the typical representation of the dimwitted blonde archetype; she’s almost oblivious to Rahat’s shenanigans. Balani, on the other hand, is a tough customer.

Sohail Ahmed nearly hijacks the movie from a cast with pitch-perfect comedic timing. Chaudhry’s screenplay, however, is smart enough to not let any individual overtake the other for more than five minutes.

Throughout the blink-and-its-over two hour and forty-five minute runtime (yes, the movie is that long), Fahad Mustafa, Ahmed Ali Butt and Sarwat Gillani are fed excellent retorts in scenes that move fluidly from one set-piece to another.

The shortcomings in JPNA2 come and go without really affecting the plot, the acting or the flow of laughter
The shortcomings in JPNA2 come and go without really affecting the plot, the acting or the flow of laughter

It is my assumption that the screenplay — or at least the successions of scenes — were locked before production went on set. The pace and the lack of narrative jolts (save for a few minor hitches here and there) are hard to master on the fly, especially when almost all of the jokes land on the bullseye.

With so much happening in JPNA2’s meagre plot (which later includes an Indo-Pak rivalry that introduces actors Omar Shehzad, Kanwaljeet Singh and heroine Kubra Khan in the mix), one almost misses director Nadeem Baig’s contribution to the movie.

Like Saeed — who proves once again that he has mastered the art of comedy — Baig is improving by the picture.

Baig (with able assistance from director of photography Suleman Razzak) films long takes and follow shots of his actors while remaining inconspicuous. It’s a conscientious decision that keeps the film from being too self-aggrandising. Showy camerawork is the last thing a fast-paced comedy needs.

JPNA2 is not without slip-ups (the latter-half is a spin on Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’s theme). However, these shortcomings come and go without really affecting the plot, the acting or the flow of laughter. Even the songs, which sound just about okay in the promotions, blend seamlessly into the story (Aya Lariye and Lahore Tere Tay somehow end up being foot-tapping).

Kubra Khan, one of the two girls who make it to the second-half of the movie, has the cutesy aura befitting her role as JPNA2’s lead. However, I think it would be a mistake to call JPNA2 a single man or woman’s win.

This is, quite evidently, a group victory.

Load Wedding is not about Raja getting Meeru, or the jealous streak of Raja’s slightly plump sister (Faiza Hasan). Instead of just telling a story of romance and drama, Nabeel and Fizza use these characters to highlight multiple social evils.

Parwaaz Hai Junoon

“God bless the enemy” says someone in the Pakistan Air Force Command Centre as squadron leader Hamza (Hamza Ali Abbasi, charismatic as always) pulls off a drastic air manoeuvre over two invading bogeys (another name for enemy jets). As the dogfight heats up in the air, a girl sips her third chai [tea] on a hilltop chai stall — and then orders three more cups.

The dissimilarity of the two scenes is symptomatic of Parwaaz Hai Junoon’s (PHJ) storytelling perspective — and expressly of where it is narratively heading.

This is a film about the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), but more than that, it is about the people who join the air force; a group of aspirants learning about chivalry (and because this is Hum Films’ home venture) while going through oodles of emotions.

The last point makes PHJ an avant-garde gamble from a very brand-specific production house. M&D Films, the producers of PHJ, is part of the Hum Films’ family — a label whose filmmaking philosophy specifically targets female audiences. Their previous production, Bin Roye, is a prime template of the label’s representation.

As PHJ moves from scene to scene, one can feel an intense, concentrated juggling act in progress between telling a character-centric drama and buttressing the armed forces’ commitment to facilitate Pakistani motion pictures. More often than not, the juggle succeeds.

PHJ is about two sets of characters: the new bloods and the aces.

The first set has Sania (Hania Amir, okayish), a cute-looking girl-next-door who is proud of her American nationality, yet gives it up to join the PAF. Barely qualifying in height and physicality, she is hardly PAF material.

Inducted with Sania is Saad (Ahad Raza Mir, underwhelming), a book-quoting type who studies hard, sticks to conventions and openly exhibits chauvinist tendencies. His art of the putdown (mostly blunt sarcasm) often targets Sania — a girl he secretly fancies.

Saad’s two roommates — Zaid (Shafaat Ali) and Rashid Minhas (Sikandar-Vincent Khan) — round up the group.

Zaid is the group’s comedy relief and a bit of a wuss. Rashid Minhas is the underprivileged underdog who gets the least screen time for his back-story (which is more than the blink-and-miss appearances from Shamoon Abbasi and Farhan Ali Agha; Adnan Jaffar has a slightly bigger role in comparison).

PHJ’s second set of characters — Hamza and Nadir (Shaz Khan) — are buddy pilots. Hamza is the rule defying maverick and Nadir, the lesser skilled of the duo, flies and shoots by-the-book.

The stories soon intermingle. At Nadir’s wedding, Hamza falls in love with Sania as they jig to an upbeat number (Azaan Sami Khan’s music is quite hummable by the way).

Spoiler Alert! PHJ isn’t a romantic-triangle, but it is a romantic-drama splintered across time and space. The new cadets and the veteran maverick’s story tracks run parallel, amalgamating and resolving story arcs when necessary.

Parwaaz Hai Junoon is about two sets of characters: the new bloods and the aces
Parwaaz Hai Junoon is about two sets of characters: the new bloods and the aces

Editorially, PHJ is one tough gig, managing narratives of an unpretentious, unadorned plot that oscillates between the not-so-tough schooling of trainees and Hamza’s love life.

Farhat Ishtiaq’s screenplay is comparable to Bin Roye — her last film credit, bolstering heavy doses of sentimentality in every possible nook and cranny. The drama repeatedly takes the limelight away from a subtle, omnipresent pro-armed forces message.

However, this deliberateness to stay away from kicking-screaming patriotic overzealousness is a good call, as is the decision to ground the storyline with normal everyday people frolicking to wedding songs (Kubra Khan plays Shaz Khan’s wife in a brief supporting role).

PHJ is not a war movie, but it does feature action scenes. The action is set during Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which sparked a needless controversy with the so-called Central Board of Film Censors in Islamabad. The villains serve no characteristic purpose, yet are obligatory for a film that sells the concept of die-hard nationalism.

A proper, over-the-top villain would have taken the story in a different direction. The bad guys we do see speak regional dialects and are little more than extras cast to shout wildly before firing at airplanes and passing convoys.

The aerial photography is cool — at times; after all, nothing beats seeing real planes zoom through clouds, banking left and right in radical manoeuvres. The computer generated graphics are fine too … sometimes.

Photorealism in visual effects is far from Pakistan’s domain — or so we wrongfully think (the VFX, though, is done overseas from what I know). Their biggest flaw is the lack of consistent lighting in CG shots. A few shots here and there are laughably composited (i.e. put together during visual effects). In-cockpit close-up shots have fake background skies, but the jitters of air turbulence that rock the same cockpit feel authentic.

It’s a win one, lose one situation that’s not as bothersome as some other elements in the final half of PHJ. Asif Raza Mir (a fine actor) pops in very late in the film and the plot loses its lucidity, turning into a TV drama that shows one particular character’s antiquated mindset. His character — that of a high-ranking air force officer — pushes the plot into a half-baked climax, destroying established characters and the momentum of the story. Scenes suddenly start falling on their faces, barely surviving because of the hardcore emotionalism we’ve seen since the first scene.

There is, thankfully, a closure in the end that almost takes care of PHJ’s off-target narrative choices. Notwithstanding this hitch, PHJ is unconventional, far-reaching entertainment that goes far beyond Hamza Ali Abbasi’s bankability and magnetism.

Load Wedding

“Abhi tak dil nahi jala” [the heart hasn’t lit up yet] someone calls out to Raja (Fahad Mustafa), a local electrician who is rewiring the sign that reads: Nasir Weds Meerab.

The job is painful and obviously there’s a pun about heartburn.

Raja has been in love with Meerab — aka Meeru (Mehwish Hayat) — since their school days. Soon, Raja is on his rooftop bawling his eyes out about his unrequited love.

His best friend (Qaisar Piya), who is also the film’s narrator, tries to lighten the direness. Eating a plate of biryani at Meeru’s wedding reception, he tells Raja “Chaawalon ki bud-dua arsh hila daiti hai” [Uneaten rice’s malediction has the power to shake the heavens]. Later he says that a grown man only cries on one of two occasions: when either his bones or his heart is broken.

Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza’s dialogues are witty, even borderline chuckle-worthy, but they aren’t meant to bowl people off their seats in fits of laughter. Load Wedding is not that kind of a movie.

Nabeel and Fizza’s film is a social dramedy — a sub-genre they’ve been trying to hone since Na Maloom Afraad. Their improvement is as plain as the nose on your face.

Load Wedding is not about Raja getting Meeru, or the jealous streak of Raja’s slightly plump sister (Faiza Hasan). Instead of just telling a story of romance and drama, Nabeel and Fizza use these characters to highlight multiple social evils: from the societal boycott of widows to the unjustified demand for dowry.

However, these two issues don’t add the right “oomph” for a big production. So, out of the blue, the screenplay pecks a big, brutal hole into television channels’ unmoral hankering for high ratings.

Load Wedding is by far the duo’s most mature film to date. The narrative is perfectly structured (but then again, textbook act breaks and narrative structures come easily to these two). Each dialogue is fittingly placed within context, and the characters come with a specific mindset and body language.

The production design (which includes their regular cinematographer Rana Kamran’s shot-to-shot consistency in lighting) aces the lived-in look of houses. This, in particular, is a very difficult job, considering our filmmakers cluelessness to realistic art decoration.

Load Wedding is by far Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza’s most mature film to date
Load Wedding is by far Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza’s most mature film to date

Perfect story structures, technical nitty-gritties and a well-timed plot, however, do not equate to cinematic excellence.

Nabeel and Fizza’s film doesn’t evoke the right emotional response in its first half. You understand every character, and more importantly their motives, yet aren’t engaged by their plight or their happiness (give or take a scene or two).

Emotional high notes are hit at regular intervals and the cast performs brilliantly, yet you feel that something is off … until the story takes a drastic turn in the final 20 minutes.

At this moment, one is liable to make comparisons with Jeewan Haathi or Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai; however, that feeling (as headache inducing as it is) lasts barely a minute.

Nabeel and Fizza’s peculiar quirks lead to a rousing finale. One that steers you to a flurry of afterthoughts about our own intemperance, and the power we unthinkingly give to communal pressures and televised media.

If one is inclined to ponder, that is.

If not, then Load Wedding might not be the film one thought it was. Like I often write in these pages: enjoy the movie for what it is, not what it ought to be.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 2nd, 2018