Mehar Bano
Mehar Bano

Taxali Gate, the ensemble-studded, revenge-thriller, courtroom drama, begins with a brief history lesson about Lahore and the inconspicuous lower class red-light area once infamously called Heera Mandi, now renamed Taxali. The title, therefore, is a reference to the gate leading into the locality, and in broader context, serves as the viewer’s entry into the lives of the people in the film.

Aleeha’s film is tethered to its characters. Minutes into the film, we meet Zainab (Mehar Bano), a young woman who gets raped by her boyfriend and his best friend (Umar Alam, Sheheryar Cheema) when she visits him at his place.

Battered blue, we soon learn that she is at a great disadvantage: her father, Abdul Hameed (Nayyer Ejaz), belongs to the lowly Kanjar caste — which gives the writer in Aleeha excessive wiggle room to add dialogues of humiliation and double entendres in the film.

If that creative indulgence weren’t enough, we find out that Abdul Hameed’s younger brother, Shafiq (Yasir Hussain), is a well-known pimp, whose sharp eyes rope in clients big, small and penniless to Muskan (Ayesha Omer), the prostitute with a big heart.

Taxali Gate’s screenplay feels rushed but, compared to writer-director Abu Aleeha’s prior works,the end-product still feels more complete as a motion picture

Getting the short stick from the law (the cop in charge is played by Iftekhar Thakur), the family strengthens their wills and go against Chaudhry Sheheryar (Babar Ali), the rapists’ very influential dad. Soon, their respective attorneys — played by Iffat Omer and Alyy Khan — clash in a courtroom, whose judge (Khaled Anam) allows lawyers to go straight into a legal skirmish on the very day the case is presented in court.

Ayesha Omer
Ayesha Omer

Ludicrous as this sounds, this “cinematic licence” to try the case on its first day comes quick and dirty in the film, and as absurd and illogical as its placement is, the adequately worded hearing hastens the pace of a screenplay that is already blazing fast to begin with.

Though unpolished at times, the 95-minute-long film is probably Aleeha’s most refined cinematic excursion till date. It is satisfactorily shot by Asrad Khan (Daadal, Super Punjabi, Parday Mein Rehnay Do, Chhalawa), slickly, though at-times questionably edited by Sheraz Mehboob, with story-fitting (but not raunchy) production design by Sunita Bhawani.

Iffat Omer
Iffat Omer

Unlike Aleeha’s old filmography, the screenplay moves like a feature film — one that gives the actors enough space to carve out interesting, though at times philistine, performances; Babar Ali, Alyy Khan and Ayesha Omer are the only actors who nail the subtleties without indulging in head-tilts, eye-blinks and limb-flailing.

The ensemble keeps the film interesting as Aleeha rushes through his scenes as if he is on an extremely tight schedule (missing, this time round, is the director’s trademark long take).

The rush job, of both writing the film and centering it as a three-or-so-day story, robs the film of potentially intelligent and emotional moments.

Alyy Khan
Alyy Khan

The deliberately constricted time frame leads Zainab and her family to the courts in a little more than 48 hours, which immediately leads into a full-blown trial and a quick and dirty judgement. While time-bound trials in special courts do exist in Pakistan, thanks to the Anti-Rape (Investigation and Trials) Act of 2021, the three-day window shown in the film kicks out the possibility of introducing scenes of stigmas, societal humiliation and, when the characters would reach a boiling point, a powerful sermon-ish counter-argument for seeking justice. Admittedly cliched, these key moments would have kindled sentiments for the characters.

Of course, this is a storytelling call, and it is my belief that critics cannot ask filmmakers to adhere to their personal storytelling whims — films are, after all, stories told from filmmakers points of view — a reviewer can, however, point out confounding technical calls that are made to deliver artistic touches.

Babar Ali
Babar Ali

For example: a key scene of verbal exposition between Ayesha Omer and Yasir Hussain has interesting dialogues, but the shot-taking decision throws one’s concentration off.

Shot from the top, looking down, the camera frequently flips the angles between the two actors, who are lying next to each other on the opposite ends of a bed. The flip “flips” the actors around, shifting their placement on the screen, thereby creating a jarring disconnect between what they’re saying and what the scene should be conveying.

Perhaps as jarring as the flips are the fade-to-blacks that happen in the middle of running scenes. These, and some other cuts, should have been curbed in the edit — though, it is my guess that either there was a lack of footage to cut in and out of (a feeling I get from other scenes with inelegant cuts as well), or that they were written that way in the script.

Nayyer Ejaz (left) and Yasir Hussain
Nayyer Ejaz (left) and Yasir Hussain

This brings me to a qualm I have with most of Aleeha’s movies: the rushed, half-thought-out screenplay. Taxali Gate’s screenplay is definitely rushed — the whole idea of Ayesha Omer’s character’s placement in the trial seems half-baked — but when compared to Aleeha’s prior works, the end-product, despite the shortcomings, feels more complete as a motion picture.

As a director, Aleeha needs to guide and rein in his actors. Given how flamboyantly actors usually perform in films, that’s a skill most Pakistani directors need to improve upon.

Aleeha once told me that he knows absolutely nothing about filmmaking. His reason for jumping into the field came from his observation that no film director in Pakistan actually knows what they were doing in the first place, so how would he be different? Well, five years and 10 films later — and that too in different genres — he finally seems to have a semblance of an idea of what he is doing.

Executive Produced by Barrister Shabbir Shah and produced by Ayesha Omer and Waqas Rizvi, Taxali Gate is released by Distribution Club. The film, at the time of writing the review, had not been rated, though the subject matter makes it fit for an “A” certificate

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 18th, 2024

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