In one of cinema histories prime cringe-worthy moments, brought to you by Saya-e-Khuda-e-Zuljalal’s (SKZ) producers, Nayyar Ejaz – who plays a sleazy Hindu bad guy, gives a full-mouthed kiss to a champagne glass offered by a sultry female femme fatale, Gia Ali. The scene, if anything, was exuberant in such licentiousness that the female audience behind me shrieked in horror. I was, at the same time, shielding my eyes. It is a dire moment in a film full of dire moments, where one wonders just how a motion picture with scenes of such dissoluteness passed the censors. In their defense, though, the censor board may have their memories of such a scene sledgehammered into a state of obliviousness; it is better to have forgotten the bad events of one’s life, after all.
As SZK progresses, one is best to think of what must have happened in its four-year production run. The first trailer, which came out three years ago, was a hodgepodge of events and actors that didn’t make sense; it ended with a fleeting close-up of Shaan Shahid, who may have been a significant character in the film.
Cut to today, and almost all of the original cast is replaced by an entirely re-shot and re-cast motion picture that, superficially, condenses the basic premise of the police and armed forces working together to cut down terrorism.
The new version, just about done playing domestically, stars Moammar Rana as Haider, a ‘supposedly’ corrupt cop who sides with Major Faraz (Sohail Sameer), and his rag-tag team of elite undercover army-men including the actor Shafqat Cheema – wonderful as always in a wasted appearance – who plan a covert strike-down on foreign-funded fanaticism. The movie also stars an ensemble of ten-too-many-actors, including Javed Sheikh, Firdous Jamal, Noor Bukhari, Nimra Khan, Rachel Gill, Aamir Qureshi, Arbaaz Khan, Kamran Mujahid, Afzal Khan aka. Rambo, Asad Malik, and an uncredited Noman Ijaz; I’m sure I’m forgetting about a dozen others.
The actors are bunched up together for reasons best underlined as production logistics. Javed Sheikh and his grown-up son played by Rana, do not share the screen. His scenes are clumped together with Jamal, and includes a clip with actress Nimra Khan, who later also shares a single scene with Shameer. Rana’s scenes are divided between his interactions with Rachel’s character named Razia Sultana, for needless impressionistic reasons – and Noor – delightful and shining as always. Sameer – perhaps one of the better actors in the film is bundled with Cheema. The production, therefore, is showcasing explicit signs of scheduled performances where a group of actors are set-up in particular locations, they complete their scenes and have little or no crossover with other cast members.
At nearly a hundred minutes, the assemblage of scenes essentially let the character define their outlooks, but fail to convey depth or emotional connectivity; they are there, because they are, not because they progress the story, which is already nonexistent.
The screenplay by Tauseef Razzaque, Inam Qadri, Ijaz Shahid, likes to time travel a lot.
The film, in fact, opens on MM Alam’s celebrated Indo-Pak aerial dog-fight, where he struck down five Indian aircrafts in a minute. The scene, which is copied and pasted in entirety in the film’s anticlimax, is graded in black and white stock with heavy grain to mask the shot’s lack of VFX finish. The work was credited to VFX house Film Factory. The remaining scenes of the past chronicling the heroes Major Aziz Bhatti and Shabbir Sharif, which I think span a good 15 or 20 minutes – have a desaturated sepia tone. Now, to those who are wondering about the inconsistency, the reason is of simple logic: turning the aerial scene black and white masks the imperfections of unrealistic visual effects.
The past, mostly set in the Indo-Pak war of 1965, is a stuffed-in tribute; a standalone motion picture on the war would have worked better. As 75 per cent of the movie’s plot revolves in today’s time – give or take a decade, where we see Rana’s characters’ childhood – the old war sticks out like a sore thumb, where one’s brain strains to find coherence between events and characters.
Technically, SKZ is shoddily shot, with atrocious camera placement. In one instance, Rana meets Rachel where a very big and white grand piano, covers at least half of the frame’s foreground. The story is spliced together in the editing room and the characters – the people who we should give a hoot about – are mislaid constructs pulling double-duties as heroes and paper-clips holding everything together, and praying for dear life, that nothing falls apart.
In retrospect, a few years back, I was pretty hard in my review of producer Hassan Waqas Rana’s WAAR. Today, I accept my lack of foresight and the vapid pipedream that better films were just over the immediate horizon. WAAR is a masterpiece, in comparison.•
When Passengers opens, we are introduced to the magnificence of a built-to-last corporate spaceship – the Avalon, a miracle of modern capitalist achievement transporting about 5,000 people and 200 odd crew members to Homestead II – an off-world utopia where green hills go as far as the eye can see. The ruse may sound too good to be true for most, including Jim played by the mesmerising Chris Pratt, a mechanic in an age where they don’t matter. Even though the screenplay by Jon Spaihts does not mention the exact year, the holographic AI clarifies that Earth is overcrowded and overpriced. The journey to Homestead II will take 120 years, while its passengers sleep through it all.
Imagine Jim’s horror then, when he wakes up just 30 years after take-off. Spaihts’ screenplay and Morten Tyldum’s direction is anti-claustrophobic, given the absolute horror Jim goes through. He is a second class take away citizen without privileged access in a very commercial, infallible, enterprise. The film later tells us that the company populating off-world planets makes quadruple billions per planet. There is no way to get back to cryogenic sleep, it was an Earth-only procedure, and the message he sends back home about his problem, which costs him $6000, will be replied in 30 odd years.
Stranded in space with an android bartender, a wonderful Michael Sheen, Jim falls into depression, learns to live with what he’s got and falls in love with a sleeping beauty, Aurora, a journalist on a return trip back to Earth played by Jennifer Lawrence.
Then movie is driven by complex human emotions filmed with utmost technical and aesthetic beauty. The production design, the visual effects, and even the romance, which the trailer signifies in vivid spoiler-filled details, are mapped out delicately – as if the film itself moves nimble-footed around Jim and Aurora’s misfortunes.
Both Spaihts and Tyldum work with pre-set constrictions, foregoing typical red herrings, Mcguffin’s and deus ex machina contrivances. Tyldum, who showcased perceptiveness in The Imitation Game, skips a director’s despotic tendencies and moves the characters, the story and the camera by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, in a natural, almost second hand familiarity.
Passengers is a rarity then. In a premise that would have Jim and Aurora waste time, the film does not waste a scene, let alone an act. Oh, and did I miss the aspect about the film’s romance – about not really soul mates finding each other? Yes, there’s that too. •
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