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“Love me or hate me, you can never replace me,” Meera as Shameera scorns - Photo courtesy: ARY Films
“Love me or hate me, you can never replace me,” Meera as Shameera scorns - Photo courtesy: ARY Films

Shameera (actress Meera with an additional ‘Sha’ at the beginning of her name) is having a bad day on set. Filming the song Gangster Gurriya in a film directed by Yasir Hussain (one of the many cameos in the film), we see that Shameera’s rhythm is off. In a matter of moments (deliberately, yet subtly filmed by director Saqib Malik), Shameera had lost it: her steps are sloppy and out of sync with the dance troupe, her confidence in a shambles. In a move befitting an insecure diva way past her prime, Shameera sprains her ankle and is escorted off the set.

“Aik gaana nahin sambhal paa rahi, film kaisay sambhaleingi!” [She can’t handle one song, how do you expect her to manage an entire film] argues the director. In a flash, Shameera is replaced by the new diva on the block: Mehwish Hayat.

Down but not out, Shameera finds out what happened, and taking a quick look in a big mirror for a reality check, perhaps to gauge the level of anger she must playact in front of her producers, she storms the set in crutches.

“Love me or hate me, you can never replace me,” she scorns.

Baaji is an expertly mixed cocktail: one part ode to classic cinema and the other a flagrant reinterpretation of its star Meera and her scandals

Malik’s film, written by Malik and Irfan Ahmed Urfi, is teeming with nuances; some in-your-face deliberate, some subtle (Shameera walks into a spa with a t-shirt that reads ‘Truly Lost’) and some (like the blink-and-you’ll-miss mirror bit above) a lucky, unpracticed fluke.

Baaji is an expertly mixed cocktail: one part ode to classic cinema — the rise and fall of an actress, with a murder mystery plot-twist reminiscent of 1950’s Hollywood — the other, a flagrant reinterpretation of Meera and her scandals.

Photo courtesy: ARY Films
Photo courtesy: ARY Films

Like a master mixer, Malik finds space to reflect on his own career (a character plays the interlude from Khamaaj, Malik’s most popular music video, on the piano), so, in a way, Baaji is as much Malik’s film as it is Meera’s, or of the rest of the cast. There is ample room for characters to flaunt their own convictions, which, inevitably, lead to drastic repercussions.

Amna Illyas plays Neha, a smart, lower-middle class working girl who befriends Shameera, eventually becoming her new manager when the actress’s career and her personal life are in a shambles.

Shameera’s boyfriend, Remy (Ali Kazmi, brilliant), the son of an expat billionaire, wants her to leave the industry and settle down. Her former managers, Dilshad Bano (Nisho) and Chand Kamal (Nayyar Ejaz), want Shameera to go back to the muck she started from, doing dance performances for C-Class ‘theatre’.

In a deus ex machina moment, Rohail (Osman Khalid Butt), a young director whose Hollywood debut is on the verge of release, comes back to Pakistan to woo Shameera for her big screen comeback. With a wry smile and incapacitating confidence, he overwhelms both Shameera and Neha in a matter of seconds.

Rohail’s sudden entry in Pakistan, and the industry’s warm-hearted, naïve welcoming of a first-timer from Hollywood, raises pertinent questions about our own sense of insecurities. Rohail’s character is a well-versed, seemingly intelligent man, who has yet to make his mark both domestically or internationally; the industry, though, flocks to him, as if he’s a saviour of Pakistani cinema.

One immediately notices a difference in both Meera and Amna Illyas’ craft; the former brandishes a uniquely ‘Lollywood’ style of performance; the latter is seamless and modern.

Malik and Urfi have a lot of story, characters, contexts and subtexts to go through within a two-hour, ten-minute running time. The two calculatingly — at times methodically — intermix real life with reel life; their sense of balance is inconspicuous and near-perfect.

Every principal character is well-defined and well-placed; one realises this late in the film when Mohsin Abbas Haider, playing a lower-middle class youngster who prides himself on pumping dumbbells and pines for Neha, becomes a minor but important aspect of the story.

The narrative hardly slows down, introducing conflicts, impediments and resolutions before continuing the cycle over and over again. The experience is astounding, requiring full attention of one’s wits at what’s happening on-screen — particularly for the trivia or the connotations one may miss.

Osman Khalid Butt  - Photo courtesy: ARY Films
Osman Khalid Butt - Photo courtesy: ARY Films

In one scene, Neha offers to read another actress’ lines so Shameera can rehearse. Both actresses are mesmerising — though not just for their performance.

One immediately notices a difference in both Meera and Amna Illyas’ craft; the former brandishes a uniquely ‘Lollywood’ style of performance; the latter is seamless and modern. It’s a hard clash of two different worlds in a metaphorical and literal sense — and in a broader sense, explicates why the old school may not work for today’s audience anymore.

There are moments when one feels that the edit is quite harsh on scenes. Heads and tails (the beginning and end) of shots and scenes are trimmed without remorse, as if to cut the running time and hasten the pace. Even the over-used ‘fade-outs’ feel awkward, as if the fade itself was sliced in half.

At first, director of photography Salman Razzaq’s frames felt too TV-ish. The aspect ratio (the width and the height of the projection) wasn’t complimenting his lens choices. The characters felt unnaturally cramped and his lighting soft and flat, especially in interior shots. But Razzaq — whose filmography includes Jawani Phir Nahin Aani 2, Ho Mann Jahaan and the upcoming Parey Hut Love— eventually finds his aesthetic sweet spot.

Given the nature and genre of Baaji, a more diffused yet punchier, contrast-y image and grade would have worked in the film’s favour. It’s nothing more than a nitpick, really.

The soundtrack isn’t up my alley either, but — and this has been happening quite often — the songs look good on screen and their placement in the narrative compliment Malik’s storytelling. A number between Shameera and Neha, where they are drunk silly, is a hoot; it was a conscious call before things went dark and dirty.

Baaji’s climax is somewhat contrived — but bear with it for a second. The epilogue culminates the story with a serene sense of closure. Like the film, it is a very rare treat.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 30th, 2019