Call me a sentimental fool if you may, but I watched Josh with a huge smile on my face. When the movie ended I wanted to stand up and applaud, and actually would’ve if my husband handn’t been around. As it is throughout the movie he kept looking at my dopey grin wondering if I was losing my mind. By the time end credits rolled around I’m pretty sure he was convinced ke meri biwi bechari paagal ho gayi hai. “What was so great about this ke tum itni khush ho rahi ho” he finally asked. I looked at him, began to answer then thought better of it. “Forget it, you won’t get it.” Later when I did tell him he laughed, calling me a softie, a sap, a sucker. Ghussa tau aaya, magar theek hai .. . softie tau softie hi sahi. No matter what he thought nothing was going to diminish the pride I felt while watching a Pakistani movie on Netflix. Watching a movie online (legally) is not a big deal if you are a Japanese, French, Korean, Iranian, or Indian, but for Pakistanis like me this is huge.
Fed up of seeing us portrayed as terrorists and our country depicted as either an embattled landscape or a staging ground for foreign forces to fight their wars, I am thrilled to have the option to recommend a feel-good, well-made, apni movie to my non-Pakistani friends. Not all of us live in areas where these films are typically screened or perhaps have schedules that prevent us for making it to the special screenings, and this is where this option of online viewing is fabulous. Hopefully Josh is just the first of many that will make their way to media streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, etc as well as become widely available for purchase. There are so many more movies – Waar, Main Hoon Shahid Afridi, Lamha (Seedlings) – that I would love to watch and share. Revival of Pakistani cinema is not just a catchy slogan but also a pressing need. We can no longer afford to have others speak for us. We have a voice and its about time we reclaimed the narrative and made ourselves heard.
Coming to the movie itself, let me begin by saying that Josh is a feast for the eyes. Cinematographer Nausheen Dadabhoy succeeds in capturing the very essence of Karachi, conveying that imperceptible vitality which is hard to describe with words. There is development alongside decay, ugly modern buildings standing next to those from the colonial era, thailey walas selling gola-ganda outside the posh cafes where the hip crowd hangs out. The starkness of the rural landscape is beautifully offset by the chaos and confusion of the metropolis and Nusrat Bi’s humble gaoon wala ghar is eloquently juxtaposed against the elegant interiors of Fatima’s luxurious house. Right from the get-go these visual contrasts set the tone for the ambitious reach of the film. Rather than focusing on one strata of Pakistani society, Iram Parveen Bilal’s Josh is a film that looks to straddle both sides of the socio- economic divide. There are students for whom history is about the past, something interesting they study in the comfortable environs of their English-medium school. These are the lucky ones. Living a few hours away are those for whom history is not a thing of the past. Studying under an open sky, their books trampled upon by goons bearing guns, these children are unwitting participants in the writing of history – alif se Allah, bey-se-banduk.
Josh (Against the Grain) is inspired by true events that led to the founding of Khana Ghar, a small dhaba in Karachi where the hungry are fed a full meal for only 3 Rs. Here, in director and writer Iram Parveen Bilal’s version, Fatima, a young idealistic schoolteacher, joins hands with her slain housekeeper’s family to bring about a change in the feudal setup of Khuda ki Basti. History books tell us Pakistan came into being in August 1947, but for the peasants of Khuda ki Basti alif se azadi is a dream yet to materialize.
So far so good. The visuals are stunning, the story is powerful and most importantly rather than focusing on the tired narratives of terrorism, endemic poverty, haye becharey loag, corrupt politicians, evils of the socio-economic divide, and debauched feudals, what we get is an evenhanded and empowering narrative. Not only do we see the problem but are presented with a solution as well – it is time to reclaim our voice. Rather than waiting on our leaders it is up to us to come together and become the agents of change. And it is precisely here where the strength as well as the problem of the film lies, the reason why my husband couldn’t get my enthusiasm. Josh is a beautiful movie and is all heart BUT it is all over the place and lacks a soul. I was moved by the thought of Josh, the feeling behind Josh touched me, but the movie itself did little for me. The pace lagged, the narrative lacked tension, and the flat story line had a sense of inevitability about it. More often than not the dialogues tended to get preachy. There is a subtext but the heavy-handedness of the text left me disenchanted. A little subtlety would have gone a long way in helping me relate to the going-ons in Khuda ki Basti. Many characters held interesting possibilities, several questions were raised, but all were left to dangle in the wind.
For a movie inspired by the story of Parveen Saeed, the driving force behind Khana Ghar, there was surprisingly no buildup to her character at all. Ahmed, Nusrat Bi’s brother, whose actions served as a takeoff point for the story, inexplicably faded away into oblivion. Khalid, the school master whose eyes told so many tales contributed nothing to the narrative. Uzair, the young politician, who appeared taken by Fatima, and Adil, Fatima’s frustrated artist suitor, seemed to be rivals for her affection but their track seemed to have been forgotten by the end. Fatima’s father had an absent presence in his daughter’s life. Khan, though appropriately menacing, was a composite of all the evil waderas we’ve seen over the years.
Of all the hodgepodge characters, the two who made their presence felt were Nusrat Bi, Fatima’s nanny, and Gulsher, the conflicted goon. The scene, where Gulsher warns off Nusrat Bi was simply fabulous. Gulsher offering fateha at the fresh grave was another memorable scene. Tipu Adnan, Nyla Jaffri, Mohib Mirza, Saleem Mairaj, Parveen Akbar, Khalid Malik, Khalid Ahmad, Kaiser Khan Nizamani, Gul-e Rana, Qaiser Naqvi, Naveen Waqar, all are great actors and it was disappointing to see them in these half baked characters. Standing head and shoulders above all was Aamina Sheikh as Fatima. Josh is Fatima’s story. She is the linchpin that holds the movie together and the reason why I could not walk away. Though Fatima is a naive do-gooder, as unidimensional as everybody else in the movie, there is a sincerity, a believability about the way Aamina plays her. Along with the cinematography, Aamina Sheikh is the reason you should watch the movie, if you haven’t done so already. Finally, lest I forget, the soundtrack is an absolute winner.
Overall, I would say Josh is a well-intentioned, well-made film. A lot of hard work went into the making of this film and it shows. Is it the best thing out there? No, it isn’t. There are problems with the script, the story needed a sharper focus, and it was about 30 minutes too long, but having said that I have no hesitation in owning and supporting this film. The more films we make the better our filmmakers will get at telling their/our stories. Josh is a begining, here’s to looking forward to many more, bigger and better Pakistani films in the years to come.
Written by SZ~