Just right before the intermission, and seconds before the image of the demonically possessed girl is thrown at the audience for the apparent (and very obvious) “shock factor”, Zara, played by Hareem Farooq re-quotes a line straight out of Constantine, “Do you believe in the devil?” She asks. “You should, because the devil believes in you”.
While Osman Khalid Butt’s screenplay, is not the best example of originality in dialogues (or events for that matter), the Hollywood reference somehow elbows its way into a naturally comfy seating within the scene.
It is a custom-fit moment, something that happens on-and-off within Siyaah, Pakistan’s first independent mainstream horror movie now playing in digital 2D screens everywhere.
When Siyaah opens, we see a couple – Zara and Bilal (Jabbar Naeem) – relocate to a big, generally impassive house. To say that this house will be the devil’s playground some 30 minutes into the movie, is an offset assumption (at least in the beginning).
Zara, who lost her child recently, cannot have children, so Bilal suggests that they adopt. This is the first of the clincher’s of horror. They adopt a girl, who Bilal partially confirms on the way back from the orphanage, doesn’t exist – and yet she does.
The child, Natasha (the young Mahnoor Usman), is emotionally recluse. She doesn’t mingle much, or plays scrabble and isn’t particularly fond of the telly (well, in a scene she does, but that’s a rare incident, I suppose).
It is here that the supernatural of the plot slowly creeps up for dramatic effect: the dog becomes barking mad, muddy footprints walk all over the floor, the maid gets spooked by the radio and Natasha develops a knack for massacring the veggies at top-(demon possessed)-speed.
By the intermission Siyaah is a partial success; Bilal and Zara, though sharing wit, have the chemistry of a 2o-year married couple.
The ambiance is locked in place, thanks to Production Designer Sameer Hamdani and Music Director Ahmed Ali, and the McGuffin of the movie – demon repelling taaveez – make their way into the movie.
Post the post-intermission break is when Siyaah really starts to crumble. Scene’s drag, a number of elements – which I won’t give up here, pop-up and the stability of the movie’s first act goes belly up as the screenplay scrambles from one “shocker” to the next.
In a bid to juggle subtext, religion and real-world relevance, Siyaah amalgamates into an origin-less chimera – especially by the film’s overblown double-look climax; a singular twist reveal would’ve worked better, because the lack of space between the sequences afflict the impact of their timing.
While Siyaah may sound like a disaster from the second act onwards, what it is, (as I’ve already written above) is partially successful.
Ahmed Ali Akbar, who plays an investigating reporter and the bookend who gets the plot running , is particularly striking, adding slight nuances in a mesmerizing, star-worthy performance.
Mr. Naeem is low-key effective as he turns Bilal’s single-dimensions into a natural, indistinguishable 9-to-5 working man (he is an architect).
Ms. Farooq, who is saddled by the bulk weight of the movie, plays Zara with oomph, despite her character’s “only on-paper” superficiality.
Ms. Usman, still a little green in some of the scenes (and I was not talking about the raised color correction of the movie), handles herself quite well, even as Siyaah shrieks itself to overkill.
The main star of Siyaah, however, is director Azfar Jafri, who, despite shunning away any cinematographic dynamics (the film lacks close-pushes/converges, tilted angles etc.) – is a wunderkind with the actors. His blocking is effective and his sense of timing within the confines of the scene are (forgive the pun) dead-on.
Mr. Jafri, who comes from a visual effects background, surprisingly stays away from elaborate visual effects. While a few of them do show up (Ms. Usman starts levitating, in perhaps the movie’s only difficult effect), they don’t really add anything to the mix – except for the more susceptible of the audiences (the gent sitting between me and producer Imran Raza Kazmi at the premiere, being the perfect, pop-corn flinging example).
Despite the aesthetic and the technical snags – the film has visible issues with focus, moiré and aliasing, as well as extreme color grading that either crushes or demolishes chromatic details – Siyaah is a testament of a young-team’s resolve in making an independent Pakistani feature film.
So what if the experience is still a little green on the edges (still not talking about the color), it’s the willingness to risk risks that’s worth the price of admission.
Director, Azfar Jafri; Script by Osman Khalid Butt; Story by Imran Raza Kazmi, Yasir Hussain, Mr. Butt and Mr. Jafri (Story Conceived by Zara Zaman Khan); Production Designer/Asst Director/Art Director Sameer Hamdani; Production Head, Bilal Sadiq; Cinematography by Mr. Jafri, Mr. Hamdani and Shan Azmat; Edited by Mr. Hamdani and Mr. Jafri; Post Production by Mr. Jafri; Music Director Ahmed Ali; Opening Credits by Rizwan Ahmad Malik; Poster by Mehran Khan; Sound Engineer, Khalid Gul; Make-up Artists, Annum Shah; Special Make-up Artists, Jibran Khan, Shah Jahan, Azhar(sonu). Produced by Mr. Kazmi.
“Siyaah” stars: Jabbar Naeem (aka. Qazi Jabbar), Hareem Farooq, Mahnoor Usman, Ahmed Ali Akbar, Aslam Rana, Sofia Wanchoo Mir, Rizwana, Sarwar Salimi and Amy Saleh.