(Top) Usman Mukhtar holds the screen in his debut feature and (above) Ushna Shah is astonishingly good in Chikkar
(Top) Usman Mukhtar holds the screen in his debut feature and (above) Ushna Shah is astonishingly good in Chikkar

Chikkar (also referred to as ‘keecharr’ meaning filth or mud) is a social-awareness drama in the guise of a police procedural, whose ace in the hole is its uncomplicated mood (and dare I say, plot) and A-one performances. To some however, the abject, unambiguous, straightforwardness may be as much a con as a pro. That and the extremely long running time.

Chikkar’s plot is fixed dead-centre on SSP Sarmad Zaman (Usman Mukhtar), a calm and calculated cop, weighed down by political pressure to lead a murder investigation in the backwater town of Diyalpur, Punjab.

A dancer named Neelam Shehzadi (Faryal Mehmood), who used to light up the stage in raunchy performances (that we thankfully never see), is killed by an angry mob. The sight of her death would send shivers up an enemy’s spine, we’re told. Her bones are broken in ways that elicits outbursts of seething outrage and tears from those who saw her body (we’re never shown the brutal state of the body).

Social media and news reports reveal that Neelam had been dragged out in the street, nude and screaming, with her lover, a young man named James. Their crime — adultery — the jailed mob and townsfolk affirm, is punishable by death according to religious law.

Since Chikkar is a film, and its genre is a procedural cop-mystery, the audience knows that the case is never as clear-cut as it seems. That feeling lasts for about the first 30 minutes.

Chikkar’s police procedural with its excellent acting and unshowy storyline could have been a gem of a film or series if it had been trimmed down judiciously

The viewers never share the cloud of cluelessness of the film’s lead characters (ie the lawmen). The people who orchestrated Neelam’s murder are never far from the camera’s frame; the way the actors perform, and how they’re written in the script, hardly leaves anything to the imagination. At most, the matter is more or less about connecting the dots (Spoiler Alert! — or perhaps not — everything is spelled out in the climax for the viewers’ sake).

Chikkar’s mystery forsakes the mysterious aspect; the story is less about who did it and more about why it is done. Getting to the ‘done’ part takes a lot of time: nearly three hours to be exact!

Writer-director Zaheer Uddin’s film is overlong and indulgent; the lingering storytelling is a byproduct of a director’s auteurist prerogative. The procrastination could have easily been chopped off, or at the least largely trimmed in the edit.

For example: an early scene at a dinner party shows us the suffocating divide between Sarmad, a middle-class man, and the elite society his cricketer wife Ayla (Ushna Shah) belongs to. Immediately afterwards, Sarmad walks out in the open air to exclaim this very point to Ayla. The conversation adds at least two-three minutes to the film.

On the flip side, the loose, nonchalant pace of the narrative is instrumental for character development. Most of the build-up is restricted to the leading man, though. Sarmad is a smart soul who gets a lot of screen time (Mukhtar is with us 90 percent of the film, if not more).

The excess time for relevant backstories hammers in the fact we realised within the first 10 minutes: Sarmad is a calm commander who had been made into a celebrity by the press after he charged a minister’s son with a speed violation. Awarded a post that gives him a lot of free time — the government had no choice but to promote him — Sarmad’s near-docile, non-confrontationist attitude hides an intelligent, morally upright man who is hard-wired to follow the path of justice.

However, don’t mistake his diligence for justice as a means to indulge in rogue vigilantism. His conscience and upbringing force him to work within the confines of the law, no matter how corrupt or stupid it is.

In one scene, where Sarmad has had enough of his corrupt subordinates’ stupidity, he explains away his smarts by telling them (and us), that he almost topped the CSS exams, and that, in retrospect, makes him brainier than the lot who can’t even string two English words together in a sentence. The cops contending with bad English is a running joke; one bit, about painting a room’s wall lilac, is a hoot.

At another point in Chikkar, Sarmad notices a copy of the book The Dictators at Khalid Malik’s house. Malik (Abdullah Farooqui), a local political hopeful, is fascinated by totalitarians and subjugators. His presentation as a character, and a following scene where he talks about the dire need for education in the style of a politician’s substandard drivel, tells us that the man is not that deep.

Sarmad, in contrast, tells him that he favours people such as Nelson Mandela — a strong-willed warrior who suffers oppression and subjugation in a war for the rights of the people.

The parallel is never not-in-your-face in Sarmad’s depiction. The weight of corrupt politics, in the form of Minister Zareen Shah (Nausheen Shah) — whom he doesn’t get along with; from their conversations, one supposes that there is more than meets the eye between the two — and the leeway he gets from his understanding but burdened superior Majid Khawaja (Gunjal’s director Shoaib Sultan), who wants him to finish the case in haste, puts exacting, time-sensitive pressure on Sarmad.

The eight-day countdown to the case’s wind-up is never presented as a ticking clock element of the story; the drama would have been amped up if it were.

For the most part, Sarmad and his investigation is undynamic and lacklustre. There is hardly a fisticuff, let alone a full-fledged action sequence. Almost all scenes are talking head pieces. Often dull and drab, most of Chikkar sees Sarmad conversing with people relevant to the case, or spending moments of quiet escape with his understanding wife, Ayla.

Ayla travels to and fro from her cricket practice sessions from the city (I’m assuming it is Lahore) and, like Sarmad, wants justice for the dead. Her actions, though, are limited to holding posters in rallies, and later making a statement in one of her cricket matches. Sarmad, however, knows that these will do little good.

The filth of corruption — whether political or religious — is omnipresent in Chikkar. With few points of comedic relief, this is a grim movie about a dead woman whose shadow looms over every scene. The intensity gives the actors room to deliver brilliant but understated performances.

Usman Mukhtar holds the screen in his debut feature as if he had done 10 films as a leading man. His charisma and understanding of what makes Sarmad the man he is, is a refreshing change. Ushna Shah, who shares most scenes with Usman, is astonishingly good. Unlike some of her television work (from the little that I have seen), she is more in control of her timing in Chikkar. There is little — if any — overplay by either actor.

Saleem Mairaj, who plays a local journalist who wants to make it big, is relegated to the backseat. Still, one sits up when he shares the screen with Usman. Aliee Sheikh and Nouman Waheed, who play Sarmad’s right-hand cop and the local inspector who thinks he speaks better English (and he does, considering his environment), nearly steal the spotlight from Usman.

Adnan Shah Tipu and Shoaib Sultan are fine, and Nausheen Shah is a teensy bit more than fine. The uniformity of good performances has as much to do with the well-designed, grounded characters written in the screenplay.

If the screenplay could have been cut in the edit — and the sound design with its droning, ambience-thickening score could have been reworked, the dialogues made crisper during ADR mastering, the dull-drab colour grading tweaked for a little vibrancy — this would have been a great little film.

Right now, it is a good but tiring film that has very little story. Like Gunjal, it would have made a heck of a web-series…if some more twists were added to the story.

Released by Mandviwalla Entertainment, Chikkar, steers away from any obscenity, violence or curse words, earning its U (Universal) censor rating

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 7th, 2024

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