It almost feels like you’ve missed something, because Betabiyan starts off with the subtlety of a derailed speeding train one has accidentally jumped on to.

Moments into the film, Hassan’s wife Rida passes away during childbirth, and the films’ cinematographer and editor lose their minds. Framing amateurishly, whizzing round Hassan, the world unexpectedly turns into a throbbing headache.

But then, just as suddenly, the exaggeration cuts off as Hassan’s life finds instant stability when his best buddy from college, Niggy, offers to become the newborn child’s adoptive mother.

Being the child’s over-protective father, Hassan doesn’t realise that Niggy has been in love with him since forever. And so begins the protracted drama of a ‘what if’ scenario — what if Kuch Kuch Hota Hai had its mushy Bollywood sentiments (and budget) taken away, and the hero’s daughter, now in college, falls in love with a douche who thinks he is the hero of the film?

Woe is us having to find streaks of hope in a film that has glib characters, a trite premise and a screenplay that stretches one’s sense of believability

This alternate universe of late ’90s storytelling clichés doesn’t sound too enticing … right?

In spite of how Betabiyan looks, it is at times chirpy, stress-free entertainment with some fine music. I’m not saying the film is good — far from it — but these are dire times when even ho-hum fodder with some saving grace appears applaudable.

Woe is us, then, for entertaining the idea of being entertained by a film that has glib characters, an impulsively laid-out premise, and a screenplay that stretches one’s sense of believability.

Take Hassan, the clueless father played by Babar Ali, as an example: even though he lives in Karachi and seems to be a man of the world, he apparently had never tasted mix chaat in his life. The very thought of his daughter, Nida (Saima Baloch), eating a plate sets his senses on fire.

This, however, is as deep and as emotive as the character gets. Mostly directed to deliver as flat a performance as possible, the scene above is one of three moments we see Babar Ali trying out a different set of emotional reactions.

Then again, it’s not entirely Ali’s fault. The script gives his craft the wiggle room of an overweight man stuck in a jam-packed bus.

Baloch’s character — a kind-hearted, clueless, over-privileged brat who flings money at every issue — is just as uninteresting. When her love-interest, Syed Arez as Zain, makes his entry, one realises that pairs are indeed made in heaven. He is every bit as much an insufferable cardboard cutout as she is.

Even their college friends are every bit as unbearable. One of these friends is actor Waqar Godhra (Chain Aye Na, Enaaya), whose almost dialogue-less hamming bit-part should have been cut out of the film.

The real star of Betabiyan — and the superglue that holds the film together — is Niggy, played by Hiba Ali. The actress, and her diligence to outshine every actor in her scenes, almost saves the film.

The list of usual suspects unknowingly roadblocking her are producer-director Abdul Majid Khan, writer Wasif Burney, editors Hasan Raza Abidi, M. Muneeb — and, astonishingly, topping everyone — Farhan Hafeez, the cinematographer whose credits include Jami’s Moor.

Hafeez’s work alone amounts to a bulk of the problem, from the framing, the lighting, to the low-light noise of the camera that has been, quite apparently, cleaned up during post-production. The shots are obnoxiously uneven. Split-second inserts suddenly look cinematic, and just as abruptly, look as if they were shot from a cell-phone camera.

As if things weren’t dire enough, the late inclusion of the supporting cast (Sangeeta, Javed Sheikh and Saba Pervaiz), who lend an air of lightheartedness in scenes of overwrought drama, coupled with the bloated climax, make the last part of the film appear juvenile.

All is not lost though, because one gets sporadic pockets of relief. The eight songs by composer Ahsan Bari and the professional character play by Hiba Ali, heave and tow Betabiyan through the mediocre, the ill-conceived and the unbearably bad. One is inclined to give Bari and Ali a standing ovation — but then one remembers the last two hours spent in the cinema hall.

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 8th, 2019