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When Sameer (Azfar Rehman), surprises his lady love Zoya (Mehwish Hayat) by entering her haveli [manor] under false pretenses, she asks, flabbergasted, how he managed to pull it off. Smugly he answers: “I may be a flirt, and I may be a liar, but I can never be late.”

Confounded, she asks why, and he replies: “Because the train was on time.”

Zoya — her expression aghast by Sameer’s absurdity — walked into this; the audience didn’t.

Technically though, he is right. His train, which got him from Karachi to Punjab was on time. “Main Punjab jaoonga [I will go to Punjab],” Sameer had said earlier in another groan-inducing send-up, one that had lampooned this film’s unjust comparison on social media with Punjab Nahin Jaungi (PNJ).

No, Chhalawa is not a derivative of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaeingay or PNJ — but it does wear the cliché these films spawned with an air of privilege.

Chhalawa is not a derivative film though it wears its cliches with pride. But despite some stellar performances, the rift between its corny jokes and its paper-thin story eventually become its undoing

Chhalawa is chock-a-block with lame jokes — the kind that simultaneously prompt groans and giggles, leaving the viewer half-embarrassed about enjoying the puns in the first place.

This particular self-consciousness doesn’t stay for long. As time passes, the rift between Chhalawa’s story and its comedy spreads, until the two are standing on opposite ends of a divided geography.

Chhalawa’s story is hardly more than flash-fiction (flash fictions, for those who don’t know, are the shortest short stories one can tell). Eventually we get to a point where scenes slog through one corny joke after another, as the story revisits aspects that were made abundantly clear in the first 20 minutes.

As if one needs to get the whole picture, here’s the premise, in a nutshell:

Chhalawa starts with Chaudhry Rafaqat Ali (Mehmood Aslam), a rural landlord who boasts of owning 500 cows, 1,000 goats and just as many acres of land, running desperately to get the blessings of a fake pir (Asad Siddiqui, playing the character Luqman). Rafaqat has put his daughter Zoya under lock-and-key, because she wants to marry Sameer.

Luqman, a young man behind his fake guise, happens to be Sameer’s friend. The two soon enter Rafaqat’s manor with a plan to whisk away the bride before she is married off to her cousin (Mohsin Ejaz) — an explicitly evident villain with an uncultured attitude and a drooping moustache (Adnan Shah Tipu, also sporting the same attitude and physicality, plays Ejaz’s father).

When Sameer and Luqman enter the household, they find Rafaqat’s family to be a hot mess. Zoya, always at odds with her dad, writes letters to her dead mum. Her sister, Haya (Zara Noor Abbas Siddiqui) wants a man in her life — or a career in Lollywood. The young brother, Haroon (Aashir Wajahat), is there for emotional support and a string of comedy sequences.

Mehwish Hayat as Zara
Mehwish Hayat as Zara

Actually, both Aashir and Zara Noor carry the comedy with dazzling wit and split-second timing. Asad Siddiqui (also Zara Noor’s real-life husband), showcases sparks of a good leading man, and unsurprisingly, Mehwish Hayat is quite good in the role.

Chhalawa’s story is hardly more than flash-fiction (flash fictions, for those who don’t know, are the shortest short stories one can tell). Eventually we get to a point where scenes slog through one corny joke after another, as the story revisits aspects that were made abundantly clear in the first 20 minutes.

The biggest shocker, casting-wise, however, is Azfar Rehman, who carries the schmaltziness and sentimentality of his role with the air of a bona fide leading man.

Aslam, Tipu and Mohsin Ejaz alas, are perfunctory — as are the reasons that form the structure of the film. Story elements, such as Zoya’s letters or her relationship with her dad, appear synthetic. We see the drama but aren’t engulfed in the emotions, which come in hot and heavy in the post-intermission half. It is here where writer-director-producer Wajahat Rauf loses his grip on the narrative.

A handful of situations drag the story to its conclusion, where a good 20 minutes are spent on what appear to be three sequences. Our attention starts to drift away, wishing that Rauf doesn’t organically follow the next set of clichés we’re dreading.

He does.

Boredom is not a pretty picture, even though the pictures we see on-screen are as pretty as they come. The frames by cinematographer Asrad Khan are aptly composed, but the production design is flatly lit, regardless of scenes being shot indoors, outdoors, or set during the day or night.

Such over-lit ambiences tell you that the production schedule would probably have been a hustle. Another dead giveaway of this are the limited locations.

Almost during the entire running time, we are looking at variants of the same emotional confrontations, happening at the same locations. It eventually dawns on you that 90 percent of the film is shot in the same manor. Haya and Zoya’s room, although part of the same household, seem to be sets — and if we have any doubt, the latter even has a green-screen balcony (note Zoya’s hair in her first scene in the film).

Rauf does try to offset the visual routineness with foot-tapping numbers from Shiraz Uppal; but then again, Rauf has always had a good ear for music. It’s the narrative — especially in the latter half — that he needs to rein in.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 9th, 2019