A few minutes into Daal Chawal, the new Pakistani film aimed at marshalling nationalistic sentiments, we see an assembly of PhD students lower intelligence standards in front of the head of the Punjab Safe City Authority (PSCA).

Taking in the expensive command centre of the department, with its chain of gargantuan monitors sending live feeds from most of Lahore, and small booths run by a well-trained female staff, one student loses his sense of lucidity.

Thinking that the department’s dramatic state-of-the-art overhaul leads straight into the early days of the future from Minority Report, he asks “Do we have cameras that can detect crimes before they happen?”

Hardly embarrassed by his fellow’s comment, another student goes a step further by advocating pro-gun law for the masses. “Why don’t we give people guns so that they can defend themselves?” he stresses.

Daal Chawal is a ho-hum public relations message for the police but we’ve seen shoddier endeavours in the name of patriotism

As if he had read the screenplay of the film — or because he may have heard inane questions like these before — the head of the PSCA Akbar Nasir Khan (who is actually the real head of the department, and the film’s credited producer, writer, composer and lyricist), brushes off the stupidity without raising a brow. No, we do not have cameras that can track the future he says and, rather than take the law in one’s own hand, it is best to inform the police.

Later, when the film’s leading actor Ahmed (Ahmed Sufyan) does exactly that, he ends up behind bars, demoralised and angry by the actions of the police.

This, however, is not a tale of a man wronged by justice who becomes a vigilante for the sake of good. Ahmed is rescued from his jail cell by a local thug (Pehlwan, played by Shafqat Cheema) who has well-placed connections in the police department.

For a film that is more-or-less a public relations message about the valiant men and women of the police force, Daal Chawal veers quite close to how things are in reality.

Pehlwan, for example, is a villain without overly villainous tones. He runs a protection racket, collecting cash from poor people who run small businesses in pushcarts in his area. One hardly sees him escalate matters — in fact, he jokes around and helps keep the peace when he can. At one time, Pehlwan steps in and stops a brawl between Ahmed and a vegetable vendor (it was Ahmed’s fault, by the way); another time, mentioned in passing, he even tries to stop the government from taking away the carts during a street clean-up operation. And, of course, he even helps get Ahmed out from jail when he is put behind bars by the very head of the PSCA.

Villains are prone to be villains, alas, and he, in his own words, “spreads his wings”, by helping initiate a terrorist threat in Lahore.

Ahmed, meanwhile, is stuck in a rut. Not really a hero, and not actually a supporting character, Ahmed is a small town hick with a B.Sc degree who ends up working at his uncle’s roadside daal chawal cart (ergo, the title).

Somehow, in the first few minutes of the film, he is spotted by the film’s heroine Sonia (Momina Iqbal), who monitors crime at the PSCA. Needless to say, it is love at first-sight, for whatever reasons.

Sonia herself is a third-generation patriot; her grandfather was in the army, and her father is a police martyr. The patriotic attitude seeps its way in, even in scenes that build up their romance.

In fact, martyrdom plays a much more important role in evoking sentiments in Daal Chawal than the leads. Sonia has a tendency to succumb to fits of sadness at night, where she dolls up and sings a sad song to give weight to her character. Ahmed, as a character, is equally inept and is essentially a rash youth who has little legitimacy in the screenplay other than helping the narrative move along and letting other characters shine.

His uncle, Khalil Khayali, played by Salman Shahid, is a college graduate and a poet who came to the city decades ago with high aspirations, and ends up running the daal chawal pushcart. Khayali (his poetic nom de plume), is an interesting laid-back fellow, and the film benefits from Shahid’s presence — and his chemistry with Cheema — despite the actor play-acting the role as if it were just another paycheque.

Frankly though, we’ve seen shoddier cinematic endeavours in the name of patriotism. For the most part Daal Chawal, which almost seamlessly transitions between a poor family’s dilemmas and the gallantry of the police force, is a ho-hum diversion.

Directed by Awais Khalid, the film is hardly cinematic. It is neither well-shot or well-edited, nor appealingly scored (the production design is fine), but at least it keeps the story grounded and relatable — and more importantly, actually does a service to the police force’s image.

Unlike other films backed by nationalistic sentiments (Yalghaar, Saya-i-Khudaye Zuljalal, Sherdil, System), Daal Chawal at least is not diligent in making law-enforcers look like stereotypical nincompoops.

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 13th, 2019