The key to creating a successful movie lies in good execution or at least Shehzad Rafiq seems to believe so. For his directorial debut Salakhain, he has chosen and utilized his locations and sets quite sensibly. His props, more often than not, seem to be quite in place and his camera work cannot be a frame better for a Lollywood movie. Some good acting skills exhibited by veterans like Shafi Muhammad, Farooq Zamir, Sajid Hassan and young Saud have done the movie a world of good. Most importantly, the director has successfully kept the tone of the movie at a reasonably low level, glimpses of comical gyrations and tragedy infused histrionics excepted. Unlike the run of the mill loud stuff the Pakistani film industry has been churning out quite frequently, albeit with little effect, Salakhain talks rather than shouts.
Salakhain tells the story of an innocent, hardworking student who comes from a lower middle class family and who is in love with an equally innocent and earnest looking young girl. A strange twist of events lands him in a dispute with the booti mafia (people facilitating cheating during exams), resulting in his arrest, his father’s death and his mother going mad, one following the other in quick succession. In jail he meets a man who knows his enemies well and has his own issues to pick up with them. The rest is as predictable as any action movie made anywhere in the world – a journey towards retribution, passing through the maze called politics and crime and ending in death and sacrifice.
Still it seems that ‘good execution’ is not tantamount to a ‘flawless execution’. In fact it is far from it. Salakhain could have done quite well without the kind of placid and hackneyed dialogues it has. The music is quite forgettable, nay, rather jarring and loud. The lyrics are equally ordinary and ineffective. And, most importantly, not all actors have done justice to their characters. Both Ahmed Butt and Zara Sheikh seem misfits in their roles as playful but well-meaning youngsters. Zara is good at dancing and singing while Ahmed appears to be at ease during action episodes. In the rest of the movie their acting skills display a singular lack of diversity and inability to vary moods and emotions according to the turn of the events.
Meera’s acting is as unreal as her role. Though the character she plays in Salakhain has been done by all the main Bollywood actresses and is found in almost every other movie made in our part of the world, it somehow lacks reality. In real life we hardly come across a woman who is equally good at being a singer and a criminal while at the same time being able to look pretty and rather seductive.
But the most important omission is the storyline, which goes a long way in substantiating the point that no amount of effort put in execution can make a thin plot work. A movie that starts with a jail fight and ends with quite a lot of bloodshed – with all the stock scenes and situations that have been used a trillion times in Pakistani movies in between – cannot take credit for being different. Even the subject that it takes up has been done to death by Lollywood filmmakers, starting with Hawaain and used afterwards in a series of films named after powerful student leaders of 1980s and 1990s.
The decision as to which subjects can be banked upon for the creation of a successful flick is highly personal and may depend upon various reasons for various persons. But as a general rule it is money that makes the mare go. The basic consideration for most of the moviemakers remains – or should remain – commercial, though there have been plenty of notable exemptions to this rule. Anyone attempting to have a go at a productive commercial venture needs to keep some basic facts in mind though, the most significant being lessons from the past. One needs to tread carefully where others have faltered quite frequently. The nexus between student leaders, crime and politics is one theme that has been used successfully only very sparingly so one wonders why the producers decided to repeat it.
Apparently, the theme looks promising because it is taken to represent how the world works around us – the innocent getting caught up in the web of crime and influence through no or little fault of their own. But much seems to have changed since this subject was first adopted. Take, for example, the case of student politics. It lost its allure long ago, when student unions were banned during Zia’s Martial Law. Similarly, the era of staged police encounters on the directives of the highest political authorities also seems to be over, for the time being if not forever. Public anger over the criminalization of politics has either subsided into a sense of resignation or has been co-opted through the networks of power and patronage. The vicarious pleasure that the audience could feel at the demise of a powerful villain at the hands of an ordinary young man no longer rings a familiar chord with the society at large.
The fact that the ‘angry young man’ of Salakhain loses everything – his love, his career, his family, his girlfriend and finally his life – does not provoke. Rather it confirms the prevailing feelings of pessimism, failure, helplessness and dejection. Unless a film about someone fighting against socio-political injustice ends up conveying a glitter of hope through the murky scenario it creates, its success will remain doubtful. If only if the movers and shakers in Lollywood knew this.
The only thing that they have learned so far is to be comfortable in using props which until recently have been taboo in Pakistani movies. Drinking and skimpy dresses made the actors, the directors and the audience all feel uncomfortable once, but no more. Maybe they are no longer being used for their own sake alone but as a necessary part of the milieu the film tries to evoke or present. Meera seems as much at ease in her glittering but seductively short dresses as is Sajid Hassan with his drinking. At least on this count, Lollywood seems to have come of age and with glowing colors. Surely this has to do with the authorities relaxing censorship rules and acknowledging that the ‘forbidden’ exists no matter how much glossed over in the movies.
Shehzad Rafiq has been into moviemaking for quite a while. He is mostly known as the producer of the mega hit Ghoongat – written and directed by Syed Noor. Salakhain, his first venture, is being touted by many as being the harbinger of much needed revival of film industry in Pakistan. It is equally being propagated as the entry point for a future film star – Ahmad Butt, someone who has over the years become the most recognizable male face on the catwalk.
Whether the movie makes good on its claims is a question that still begs the viewers’ verdict. But going by what happened to the movies which emphasized on one ingredient at the cost of the other – either form or substance – the future seems easy to predict. In opposition to the opinion of directors and filmmakers who have been insisting on having a strong storyline and taking little pains to improve on the form, there has emerged – or has always existed – another school which prefers presentation over content. Both camps have succeeded only in exceptional cases. The mantra lies in combining both the form and the substance – and it is here that Salakhain disappoints the most.
No doubt, some filmmakers have of late excelled in producing movies which had presentation as their forte. A number of movies that Javed Sheikh has come up with during the last few years ably demonstrate what excelling in form means. In India Bollywood flicks like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Dil Chahta Hai, Hum Tum and Chalte Chalte have successfully played upon this preference for form over content.
The reason why these movies clicked and why others made similarly did not (and will not) do well lies in how and how much filmmakers are able to stretch the limits of the possible. How much experimentation is done within a given form is what gives a film a fresh image that can attract audiences.
What goes to the credit of makers of Salakhain is that they seem to know their limits. But this ability to remain within a given framework also turns out to be the film’s most significant flaw. The director and the writer are unable to put the possibilities to test. They have succeeded in as much as that they have produced something that scores seven out of ten on technical grounds. But they have failed as much as that they have come up with a film that scores dismally as far as the storyline is concerned – Muhammad Badar Alam
Year – 2004, Genre – Action, Country – Pakistan, Language – Urdu, Producer – Khwaja Rashid, Director – Shehzad Rafiq, Music Director – M. Arshad, Cast – Ahmed Butt, Meera, Zara Sheikh, Shafi Muhammad, Farooq Zamir, Sajid Hassan, Saud & Sami