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THE ICON REVIEW: WHAT EXACTLY WAS THAT?

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Kasim Khan, Kiran Tabeir, Nimra Shahid and Saleem Mairaj in Kataksha | FlashFilm Productions
Kasim Khan, Kiran Tabeir, Nimra Shahid and Saleem Mairaj in Kataksha | FlashFilm Productions

In Kataksha a reporter, a producer, a videographer and a driver from a television network are killed off by a wispy-looking demon at the Katas Raj Hindu temples, a historical tourist spot in Pakistan.

The four had it coming; they were despicable individuals. One of them, Sallu (Kasim Khan) had an uncultured tongue and a disgusting way of looking at women. The women, though, shot him down on the spot.

“Teri gandi nazrein meray jism ka rape kar rahi hoti hain [Your shameless eyes rape my body],” proclaims Aiman (Nimra Shahid).

Aiman, who also has an uncultured bitter tongue, is the reporter who doesn’t report and struts around like an amateur Instagram model. She is also an argumentative feminist with a dragon tattoo on her neck; a rebel who wants to fight the world — or at least yell at it from time to time. As a pastime, Aiman performs a slow, deliberate yoga routine so that front-benchers in single-screen cinemas have something to hoot at.

The driver, Ashraf (Saleem Mairaj), apparently the only sensible one in the lot, asks why she is prone to first world country boldness. Aiman argues that men are despicable creatures. Shazia, a burqa-clad colleague of hers, was harassed as much as she was, so what’s the difference? Then, in the middle of that awkward conversation she goes: “Mazay karnay ke liye shaadi ki kya zaroorat hai [Why is it necessary to get married to enjoy life]?”

In Kataksha, the film’s four characters don’t care about anything. Much like writer-director Abu Aleeha, who doesn’t care about the story

Already a misfit between Aiman, Sallu and their pragmatic, emotionally-closed programme producer Nazish (Kiran Tabeir), Ashraf decides to keep mum and stare off-camera. The moment goes on and on, four beats too late to be effective.

Unfortunately these moments of calm — and there are quite a few of them — where characters stare dumbfounded into the far blue yonder, do not last.

Driven by passion to blab incessantly without regard to narrative coherence, the four characters habitually sound-off, as if in love with their own voices. Soon, a series of expositions replace dialogues; the topics range from haq mehr to Islam and feminism, to Draupati from the Mahabharat, to finding one’s inner demons.

Writer-director Abu Aleeha’s movie, and its characters, are a conundrum. They bicker and fight like juvenile twenty-somethings who think they know the ways of the world, quoting poets and philosophers to give credence to their sense of conviction. These four characters don’t care about anything — just like Aleeha, who doesn’t care about the story.

In the first hour or so, the characters arrive at a hotel. They, then, go to the Katas Raj temples where they prop up four tents to stay the night. Then, like the cast of a B-grade slasher film, they are taken out by an unknown entity. That’s it, essentially.

Ninety-five minutes are too long for the three plot points that come and go without narrative high-points, emotional cliffhangers, conflicts or resolutions.

Forget the technicalities of good screenwriting (which Aleeha, a self-confessed aficionado of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, should know), there is a severe deficit of compassion and empathy in the characters. One can’t really blame the actors for play-acting when they have nothing of substance to perform from (Mairaj, an exception, was fine from time to time).

For arguments sake, let’s assume that the characters were consciously written as irredeemable, obnoxious, flawed individuals. Without a well-defined personal journey at stake, the plot’s sudden interest in their eventual demise holds little aesthetic or emotional worth for the audiences. In less wordier words, since we did not relate to the characters, and since they did not have much depth, they came off as insincere blowhards.

And then there is another aspect. By setting the film at a factual tourist spot in Pakistan, and branding it as a place of horror, what is Aleeha trying to achieve? If faint of hearts see Kataksha, would it not impact tourism? Also — and more importantly — what do we actually know of the supernatural that, supposedly, haunts the site?

Then again, it is quite silly of me to ponder about concepts and connotations. The supposition that forms the base of the argument is that Kataksha is a horror film. It is not. The genre is just a guise for characters to have verbal diarrhoea, and then die.

On the other hand, Kataksha’s crew, being the professionals they are, do their best to compensate. Every now and then, cinematographer Junaid Mehmood tries to wow us with massive reflections of rippling water on surrounding historical architecture. At times I had a feeling the editor and visual effects compositors also had a hand in creating spills of artificial light in post-production.

A perceptive sense of frame, composition and inconspicuous editing only help Kataksha for so long. The movie’s tonal ambience is severely impacted by the stylistically-harsh colour grading, which unimaginatively, uses a variant of the popular teal-orange look (often seen in Hollywood blockbusters). The grading is an eyesore, especially in low-light scenes where skin tones become a bad shade of yellow.

Kataksha self-professes to be Pakistan’s first psychological horror. The psychological aspect is nowhere to be found here. It is, quite evidently, lost, like the horror and the storytelling.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 30th, 2019