Bullseye: That is what I thought of Waar hitting the target as the credits rolled out at the end of my first viewing of a Pakistani film in Dubai. The hype surrounding Waar, starring Pakistani actor Shaan Shahid, had been building up a considerable extent long before the film premiered in Dubai last Thursday. Its record performance in Pakistan, surpassing even Shah Rukh Khan’s Chennai Express, had everyone flocking to the cinemas to see what had turned the tide. And so the legend of Waar was spun.
A packed house on a weeknight in the film’s opening week may not be the only barometer for how well it’s doing; what matters is the story, the satisfaction of seeing something worthwhile in those few hours assigned for the magic of living celluloid dreams in a darkened theatre, the emotions generated and of course the response of the audience while exiting. As for that, there were some very interesting comments to be heard. “Great job for a Pakistani film, good effort!” etc...
There was also the odd “too much violence, and bad language” comment drifting over the excited chatter of the moviegoers as they walked out but considering the subject being portrayed and the fact that violence and sex sell almost as much as a good plot, one could excuse the faint disapproval, which did come from two senior couples, to be honest.
So does Waar mark a turning point in Pakistani cinema, which has been struggling for survival, more so after the advent of cineplexes and the lure of the sirens from across the border? While Bol and Khuda Kay Liye (two movies I did have the pleasure of seeing at home, the latter also starring Shahid) may appeal more for their content and appeal to the intellect and for their ability to evoke awareness and empathy for issues that society has more or less swept under the carpet and failed to address, Waar strikes a different chord.
The turning point is that it comes in a very slick cinematic package raising the benchmark for subsequent films for Pakistan cinema. Yet, it’s not all gloss for it succeeds in delivering a core message that resonates among Pakistanis by visualising their suffering at the hands of terrorism — a fact that is now part of daily life and has affected a wide spectrum of society, whether civilians or security officials at the forefront.
While the Indian External Intelligence Research and Analysis Wing’s (RAW) role in hatching sinister plots, instigating terrorist acts and brainwashing children in madrassahs by funding the Taliban may sound far-fetched to even some sections of the Pakistani audience, it is not something that is incomprehensible. A patriotic movie in Pakistan about a terrorism plot is hardly going to show Martians or even the North Koreans sneaking in from across the very penetrable Line of Control to carry out their dark mission or funding anti-state activities. Naturally it had to be the Indians as is the case for myriad Indian films showing the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and Pakistani militant groups allegedly supported by the ISI carrying out their nefarious activities in India. Waar does not need to defend itself on that account. But it would have fared better to pace the plot to uncovering the terrorist attack for the climax as the police academy attack was dealt with.
Shahid’s role as a retired counter-terrorism specialist coming to grips with the loss of his family at the hands of the arch villain Rumal, played by Shamoon Abbasi, is convincing in the portrayal of the pain he goes through while reliving the incident. As an action hero he checks all the right boxes. The chemistry between him and Javeria (Ayesha Khan) could have been tapped into, surely lending a frisson of excitement to an otherwise all-action thriller. But keeping in mind his mission to foil Rumal’s plan to wreak havoc in the country and seek revenge for his family’s deaths, the budding romance was probably deliberately kept in check.
As for the other protagonists, one was left yearning to learn more of visionary politician Aijaz Khan’s (Ali Azmat of Junoon fame) relations with Laxmi, the RAW embed played by Meesha Shafi, the siren songstress who enthralled audiences with her rendition of Jugni and Dashte Tanhai in Coke Studio. She does play it raw with her earthy whispers and delight at witnessing the carnage orchestrated at her behest in the Police Academy, a bullet-pumping whiplash who can also tango with the devil (Rumal), a cold, ruthless player who has no qualms in disposing of her ex-lover Aijaz Khan and his pregnant wife.
Ali Azmat deserves more than a mention, playing the leader-with-a-vision convincingly, however his lack of remorse for cheating on his wife falls short in endearing him to the audience.
The Taliban are there, the good and the bad, and of course it is the bad who prevail over the good. But temporarily. The ruthless Mullah Siraj with his long locks and kohl-ed eyes inadvertently offers comic relief with his punchline “Ao Kana” (“Oh yeah!”) before aiming his gun at the counter-terrorist forces and his mockery of his father’s death. But he also chills. The ease with which terrorist acts are carried out and how the naked power struggle among the militants impacts the security situation is well-depicted, to say the least. The police academy attack in Lahore is a chilling reminder of the tenacity, capability and lethality of the terrorists. The only jarring factor was the women suicide bombers in the attack. Not that women have not factored in suicide attacks in Pakistan, but two things stood out that could have been avoided.
First, since when do two women, after having been handed their very thin muslin suicide vests and congratulated for their imminent ascension to heaven, calmly walk into the packed dining room of the all-male Police Academy and stand around with beatific expressions before blowing themselves up without being checked or questioned about what they are doing there in the first place? Second, the police trainees are sitting eating while a massacre is going on outside with gunfire loud enough to wake the dead from their eternal slumber!
But then this is, after all, a movie and one can excuse an oddity or two since even in the best of Hollywood thrillers the most unnatural happenings are shrugged at.
What could have been avoided and which has struck me, as a Pakistani, as odd is that the whole movie is in English with some scattered dialogues in Urdu. Why could it not have been predominantly in Urdu, even if it was aimed at an English audience — subtitles would have filled the gaps. The accents as well could have been done away with, why the highly Americanised English accents, the awful Pushto-accented Urdu by Mullah Siraj’s father, Siraj’s lack of a Pushto accent? But then the redemption came with Siraj’s “Ao Kana!”, my favourite line in the movie.
So how does Waar fare? Despite the shortfalls Waar deserves a big hand. A more balanced narrative would fine-tune the gaps, maybe a debate between the protagonists looking inward at Pakistan’s role and responsibility in allowing things to degenerate to this extent would have raised the film higher. But this is something hopefully future films will incorporate. Waar clearly stands out and sets a precedent for Pakistani films lending hope that one could expect some good films coming this way.