Near the dead centre of its running time, a scene defines the very essence of the new film Wakhri.

Sitting in the corner of a dimly lit studio, Wakhri readies herself for the camera. Her real face is secreted behind a glittering veil of strings, her hair tucked under a fuzzy, purple wig, a see-through dupatta just about draping her shoulder blades and a strapless top.

The get-up, inspired by trans-men and women of the West, is Noor’s (Faryal Mehmood) secret superhero identity, in a manner of speaking — it is a fiery, sensual guise that augments and liberates the societally trapped woman inside her.

If one doesn’t get the message of what she (and the film) stands for the first time round, they need only look at the psychedelic-coloured poster behind her that features a well-endowed woman with wild hair, swinging a rifle, alongside the words “Honour Kill This.”

As far as words go, “subtle” — both the word and the execution — is not a part of the film’s vocabulary; in its place resides the word “power”... the power of the image, of the freedom of expression and speech, of anger and its repercussions and, of course, eroticism…because, as we all know, sex sells.

Wakhri is a brazen, ‘statement’ film against close-minded conservatism and that is its precise problem as well

The sensually voiced woman has been an internet sensation since she walked on to the stage of a club for trans men and women (apparently in Pakistan) two days ago. By day three, Noor realises the power she wields.

An accidental byproduct of grief and whim, the convention-breaking image Wakhri flaunts is a deliberate retaliation that’s meant to tantalise horny men and — even though she doesn’t want it (or is naive enough to not comprehend it) — trigger religious outbursts from conservatives.

Despite the flashy, attention-seeking presentation, Wakhri tells her viewers, with honey-dripping casualness, that the intention of her video is quite noble. As viewers, we know she wants donations to acquire the lease of a land to build a school for girls.

Her patrons, however, are kept in the dark about their investments; they just have to accept her word that “aik aik rupiya Sunnati kaam ke liye jayega [every cent will go to a cause that is rightfully Sunnah].”

Given her attire, how can anyone doubt her intentions? Insert eye-roll.

As I often tell budding filmmakers, the relevance of the stories they mean to tell depends solely on the paths their characters choose to take, and that those choices depend entirely on the whims and tilts of the filmmaker. In Wakhri, these specific narrative choices, both relevant and ridiculous at the same time, come squarely from writer-director Iram Parveen Bilal.

Wakhri is a brazen statement against close-minded conservatism, set within the confines of a story of a frightened woman who liberates her voice when she shows some skin and puts on a wig; there is no other way to short-change this hypocritical, lewd society, we’re led to believe.

Noor is the widowed single mother of an intelligent young boy named Sulay (Shees Sajjad Gul). She lives with her kindhearted father (Akbar Islam), and stepmom (Bakhtawar Mazhar) who is into morning shows that thrive on gimmicky content.

By day, Noor is a normal, clever, conservatively dressed woman who wants to fight the system run by the bad men in the world so that young girls can be educated (she teaches girls at a rundown school — ergo, the need for the donations mentioned above).

By night (some nights, that is), flashy, Western party dresses replace Noor’s kurta shalwar. It is her escape we’re led to believe — though one wonders, escape from what exactly?

The suffocating weight of societal norms aren’t really killing Noor, unlike her best friend, Guchhi (Gulshan Majeed). Guchhi is a homosexual, who hides his inner self from his conservative-minded family. He loves an understanding young man and runs a small studio where he shoots bargain-basement quality commercials. Given the tone of conversations we hear, we assume that he used to prostitute himself.

Guchhi is under the debt of a man called Chaudhry (Sohail Sameer), whose courteous comportment hides a vile and dangerous mobster. Chaudhry, unfortunately, is not as big a villain as the film leads us to believe.

As the story progresses, we realise that the amplitude of Noor and Guchhi’s plights reside on different parts of the spectrum. Noor’s dilemmas and her injustices are mostly normal hurdles of life that one must navigate through.

Noor fights her in-laws for the custody of her son — however, we soon realise that they’re not bad people, and her own son prefers spending time with his paternal aunt and grandparents.

Although the pain of losing one’s child after losing a husband might have been insufferable, the agony — and the fight to make the girls’ school happen — are not enough reasons to take refuge in an alter-ego. Also, in the age of the internet, surely a woman can raise money for the school without resorting to tactics to lure the lewd.

Noor’s story doesn’t have a life-and-death scenario, until the story is hard-pushed into that direction (the film is a homage and inspiration to the late Qandeel Baloch).

While lacking sense and the power of conviction, Parveen Bilal’s screenwriting and directing prowess do lend an air of surface-level believability to the story at hand. As far as screenwriting is technically concerned, every turn of the story falls precisely on that particular act’s beat…until the screenplay enters its climatic act.

For the sake of not giving away the predictable climax, let’s just say that whatever plausible air of believability Parveen Bilal gave her characters and narrative turns, blows up in the most ludicrous manner possible.

If Wakhri did not have shining performances from its acting ensemble — Faryal Mehmood, Gulshan Majeed and Sohail Sameer are brilliant actors who pull the film through its dips — it would have been a very difficult film to sit through.

Thank heavens that, as a film, its pros — the realistic production design by Kanwal Khoosat, the mix of anamorphic and spherical cinematography by Ludovica Isidori, the edit by Aarti Bajaj, and of course the acting — somewhat offset the cons of the narrative (and mind you, they are pretty big to let to go of).

The end result, thus, is a technically well-made film that doesn’t make you cheer for its story or its characters.

Released by Mandviwalla Entertainment, Wakhri is rated A (Adults Only) by the Sindh Board of Film Certification. Given the theme, the film obviously has adult subject matter

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 14th, 2024

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