In one of those scenes one would never quote out of a film, Nayab (Yumna Zaidi) — a firebrand BSc student whose cricketing ambitions has her head-butting people left, right and centre, including her family — sits embarrassed and scared in front of the professional cricket selection committee.

There had been a scene and fisticuffs at the cricket camp where she is training. The scene part comes courtesy her family: her affable mother (Huma Nawab) and strict dad (Javed Sheikh, quite good in a well-deserved role) — who is hell-bent on sending his offspring to countries with greener pastures (with due reason as we learn later) — had brought a geeky suitor and his snotty family to the visitor’s lounge.

Nayab, flabbergasted, strikes down the rishta and — after the hooting starts from her rival Beena (Sana Taj) — strikes down her vicious co-player as well.

With the selection committee on the verge of making its shortlist, the board is ticked off by this incident. When Nayab is dismissed though, the miffed board breaks out into guffaws. The reprimand reminds one of school teachers and their semi-fake bits of anger that petrifies young students.

This scene, semi-crucial to the story — it is the first time Nayab has retaliated this openly to her father — also exemplifies a fact invisible to most critics of this semi-perfect family drama: the effortless use of conflicts and their easy, unprotracted resolutions.

Nayab’s strength is in its subtlety. It is not a sensationalised sports fi lm but rather a family drama with its feet fi rmly on the ground

Conflicts and resolves — ie when people are in jams and how they come out of it — are a fundamental aspect of storytelling. Without impediments, characters cannot aspire and climb out of lows. Nayab has conflicts and resolves every 10 minutes, if not sooner. Big, small, but never dismissible or forgotten about, unlike in most Pakistani films.

Umair Nasir, the debuting writer and director of Nayab, has the gift of foresight, intelligence and responsibility. His film, at first, is a story about a middle class family that just about makes ends meet, and then the tale of a young girl who wants to beat India at the World Cup.

This writer has seen some bewilderingly contradicting reactions to Nayab: some called it an overlong drama whose pre-intermission part dragged, and the end hastened, others flipped the verdict, calling the latter half unbearable and the first one good.

Nayab is not Schrödinger’s Cat. Unlike the cat that is both alive and dead at the same time, the film cannot be both good and bad, pleasant and unbearable, at the same time, in its pre- and post-intermission halves.

So, let me say it once more: Nayab is a family drama — that is the genre — one made with its feet firmly set on the ground. It is not about stereotypical triumphant hurrahs, or about underdogs beating the odds, or other sensationalised dramatics one associates with sports films.

The low-key story keeps relationships first, especially the one between Nayab and her elder brother Akka (Akbar, played by Fawad Khan, excellent!).

Akka, once a skilled pro-cricket hopeful who had chosen to be another one of those millions of indistinguishable faces that work from nine to five, loves his sister. He wakes up with her at five in the morning, takes her to practise the first love of her life, cricket (though she fails badly at delivering the yorker — it is a big plot point) and then tends to the daily chores.

Dead tired at night, he spends a moment of calm with his wife Saadia (Noreen Gulwani) who, unlike the norm we see in television, is a good woman who wants to maintain family ties and, like all mothers, yearns to see their young son Basil (Mahdi) get better education. These two points also bring in good drama later in the story when Nayab’s snotty rich sister (played by Hani Taha) from Dubai enters the film.

Nayab’s preference for familial hiccups that blow up into upheavals (without the melodrama, thankfully) does not shortchange the sub-plot of Nayab’s cricketing journey.

Apart from her mean rival Beena and her supporting friends (one of them is played by Shaheera Jalil Albasit), Nayab has stern mentors who know how to spot a diamond in the rough.

Her first coach is Zafar Khan (Sunil Shanker, quite good), and later there is Sikander Malik (Adnan Siddiqui doing what Adnan does, though with less conviction). And, of course, there is the obligatory villain: a sleazy, crooked man called Yawar (Mohammad Ehteshamuddin) who is all but dripping saliva at the thought of exploiting young women players.

Umair’s film ticks a lot of boxes — on a technical level, it is adequately shot by cinematographer Shajee Hasan, edited with precision and care by Rizwan A.Q. (a regular staple of Pakistani films by now) with some very good music by Shani Arshad, Shawn Phocum, Kamran Ullah Khan, Natasha Humera Ejaz and SuperDuperSultan.

However, more important than these prerequisites is the fact that the film is an astonishing balancing act.

Other than Umair’s preference for quick conclusions of the issues his characters face, he allots adequate time to develop every character, even minor ones such as Nayab’s friend Saadia or Nayab’s love interest Zain (Usama Khan), a good man who loves football and has an entrepreneurial mind (he wants to launch a distilled water business).

The romance Nayab and Zain share is meek and old school; they meet at parks, walk a little, maybe go on a non-touchy feely, hanky panky-less date in an amusement park (one notices locations at Port Grand in Karachi, twice) and leave for home — exactly like real-life people.

All of this soft development, of course, adds to the runtime. The film is two-and-a-half hours long. The time breezed by for this writer.

Good family drama, historically, is always protracted: Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Hum Saath Saath Hain, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, et al — I am deliberately taking Bollywood examples here since people warmly accept long running times if it is from across the border, but dismiss it with vigour and vehemence by calling it a television drama when Pakistani filmmakers do it.

Woe be to us, then, because Nayab is not Bollywood, and the people in it are not cut-outs of larger-than-life characters. Yumna’s performance, for example, is that of a defiant young girl from college (as defiant as

one can be in a middle class house, that is). The decisions she makes and how she reacts are evidence of Umair’s insistence to not make her a film heroine; the character is a kid, and kids in their late teens don’t think with maturity.

The opposite emotion applies to Fawad’s acting of a man in conflict — subtle, realistic and nuanced in the right places. He looks like a man who wants to please his father, support his sister, make his wife understand. He is the everyday man whom one sees riding his bike through Sharae Faisal for work.

Shot across Karachi in densely packed localities this writer easily recognises, the localisation of the film is key in establishing a key aspect of the plot. In the same stream of thought: the production design by Rumaina Umair (the art direction is by Noman Akhtar), with its clutter of household items, augments a lived-in look that lends tonal authenticity to the screenplay.

A scene where Akka takes out his old joggers for Nayab from a dust-covered storage room is a gem. We middle class people stow away our wares exactly like this, one roughed-up cardboard box over another.

The instance, however, slyly supplements courage to the young girl when she is being bullied in the field. Her brother’s joggers have the word jazba [passion] written on them. We see a close-up of those words twice in passing, when the character needs to buck up.

This is not the only display of subtlety. There are also moments that speak of class divide. A scene where Nayab is picked up from practice by her high-society friends becomes a fine example of getting the point across without propagating it with ham-fisted drama.

Nayab is a simple film that has little interest in the present day, Gen-Z approaches to story. It speaks about feminism without screaming about it. However, more than that, it talks about the relationship between a brother and a sister, and a young girl’s ambition to realise her true self.

Released by Mandviwalla Entertainment, produced by Kennyz & Num Films, Nayab is rated U, and is suitable for audiences of all ages

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 4th, 2024

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