I must confess I'm tired of talking about the 'revival' of Pakistani cinema. It's been a while since Lollywood (the term for Pakistan's film industry that thrived in Lahore once upon a time) has been trying to reinvent itself and go through the aforementioned 'revival'. There have been enough chants of 'support cinema' and we've been made to sit through some truly horrible films. The question now has ultimately become to this: shouldn't cinema be revived already? How much support does the cinema need to actually make good films?
But with Saqib Malik's film Baaji, starring Amna Ilyas, Meera, Osman Khalid Butt, Mohsin Abbas Haider and Ali Kazmi, it seems like the revival bit is done and dusted. Now we can sit back and mock the revival. The audiences can take a look back on it and stare at it with relish. Because with this film not only a new age of cinema has been ushered in but a new craft is emerging as well. Pakistani cinema, struggling to find its voice with the existential crises that have plagued the society since long, has finally begun to understand the envelopes it can push, the borders it can play with and the stories it can dare to tell. Baaji, in its very core, is in full grasp of it and that is, perhaps, its greatest strengths.
The film is the story of a struggling 'has-been' aka Shameera, a role played by Meera Jee so beautifully that it often seems like a cinematic version of Meera's own life. Meera's eventful personal life has often been in the news and the amount of self-referencing Saqib Malik does with the real and reel never tires you, rather pulls you into the narrative. It's like the story is being told by many insiders who are brave enough to laugh at themselves, at the lives that they have been privileged (or unfortunate) enough to lead. The cameos, the glitter, the light and the dark are all carefully placed by Malik in the heart of the film. Even though it loses its grip on some of the characters sometimes, it doesn't, for a moment, become boring. Even when it's slow and seems to take forever to get to the point, there is still something deeply delicious about the empty pauses and the OTT deliveries that follow.
Meera, as Shameera, is nothing less than astounding. Her performance as the bipolar, naive yet perennially insecure star who is struggling with age, transition and the inevitable exploitation of her persona, is masterful. This is a brave performance. She takes over the screen, as she must as Shameera, and when she smiles eerily or sneers pointedly, you can see talent, talent and nothing but talent. This is Meera's performance of a lifetime.
Amna Ilyas as Neha, Osman Khalid Butt as Ruhail, Ali Kazmi as Rammy, Mohsin Abbas Haider as Ajji, Nayyer Ejaz as Chaand Kamaal and Nisho Begum as Aapi are truly flawless. Amna has proven her acting chops in multiple films before, including the critically acclaimed Zinda Bhaag, but as Neha she bears the tremendous responsibility of being in the lead of what is clearly a difficult, demanding film. From her dance moves to her sobs, everything about Amna Ilyas radiates brilliance. Osman Khalid Butt's cryptic understated yet powerful performance as firangi Ruhail Khan is definitely the role Osman was made to do. Butt had began his career from vlogging and incidentally once did a dramatic reading of Meera's tweets in one of her vlogs. From that vlog to actually playing a lead next to Meera on the big screen is a testament to Butt's persistent hard work and staying true to who and what he is. Mohsin Abbas Haider is hilarious and edgy as Ajji and Nayyer Ejaz's role is one that could not have been pulled off by anyone but him.
Baaji is brutal and beautiful. It is a stark contrast in many ways, bringing together the truths of Old Lollywood and new. Baaji the film is worth your money if you are a cinema fan and a gripping watch to the very end. It doesn't bite back, it doesn't shy away from its own reality. And that is exactly the kind of cinema Lollywood needs to move forward.