The only wheat Judge Michael Nazarewycz is fearful of having stolen from him is of the frosted mini variety.
"Do not be satisfied with the stories that come before you. Unfold your own myth."—Jelaluddin Rumi
Recently, I've had the great privilege to screen and review a pair of excellent foreign films from a pair of excellent female directors. The first is Nisha Pahuja's The World Before Her. This film is a documentary from India that compares and contrasts Miss India pageant hopefuls to members of the all-female military group Durga Vahini. The other is Haifaa Al-Mansour's Wadjda, a Saudi Arabian drama about young Saudi girl and her dream of owning her own bicycle, despite living in a culture that forbids girls from owning such things.
These two powerful films from two gifted filmmakers have kept me on the lookout for other female-centric, female-directed offerings from around the globe. I found one in Iram Parveen Bilal's excellent Pakistani drama, Josh (Against the Grain).
Facts of the Case
On the surface, Josh (Against the Grain) presents itself as a tale of two Karachis. Fatima (Aamina Sheikh, Seedlings) is a young, beautiful schoolteacher who comes from a wealthy family, has an artist boyfriend (Khalid Malik, Good Morning Karachi), and rubs elbows with Uzair (Mohib Mirza, Insha'Allah), a dashing young politician. This is the new Karachi. Meanwhile, in old Karachi, thieves in a village steal wheat under the cover the night. This wheat belongs to feudal ruler Khan (Kaiser Khan Nizamani in his screen debut), who uses his ownership of land and his control over the wheat distribution to rule a fearful people. Khan sends his right-hand man, Gulsher (Adnan Shah, Kajraare), to find the thief, who has gone on the run.
Below this surface comes a story about standing up for what is right and helping those in need of help. This is then made dramatic with a tale of political intrigue, kidnapping, and murder.
Iram Parveen Bilal is a sneaky-good storyteller.
The first act of Josh (Against the Grain) is assembled like a series of random ideas—snippets of ideas, really, jotted down for further development. Characters exist as if we've known them for half a film, and how characters relate to one another is like trying to get the lay of the land on your first day at a new job. Slowly, though, Bilal brings it all together; as the film progresses, this fuzzy picture comes into sharp focus. It's a confidence in writing fit for a filmmaking veteran, not a first-time writer/director.
Because of the unconventional structure of the story—a mash-up of the first two acts of a traditional story followed by the the third act freight train home—it's difficult to reveal much without revealing too much. What I like most about the story, though, is that it never preaches. It promotes a positive point of view, but there is never anything forceful or contrived about the political thread running through it.
There is also something to be said for a few key actors and the characters they portray.
There isn't a camera or angle that doesn't love Aamina Sheikh, but she isn't here to be just a pretty face. She is the rock of this film, whether as a schoolteacher, a young woman in search of a loved one, a daughter defying her father, an amateur investigator, or the leader of a social movement. Sheikh carries the weight of her role well; it isn't a tour-de-force performance, but it is strong. As Fatima's long-time nanny/surrogate mother Nusrat Bi, Nyla Jafri (also in her debut) brings a tenderness and vulnerability to a role that is key to selling a very specific plot-point.
Stealing the show, though, is Adnan Shah as Gulsher. He's the henchman, the black bag man, the bad guy's bad guy. Every piercing stare and every line in his face shows it, too. Yet he is tormented by his lot in life, struggling to find a way to do the right thing yet remain loyal to the man who has given him everything. Every moment of Shah's screen time is mesmerizing.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation is fantastic and it needs to be to showcase Nausheen Dadabhoy's spectacular cinematography. Every one of her establishing shots is better than the one before it—lush, vivid color portraits of a part of the world most of us will never see. As for the heart of the film, whether capturing the hectic, arid landscape of Karachi or celebrating the festive colors of traditional Pakistani garb, Dadabhoy dazzles, as does this disc.
The Dolby 5.1 Surround track, on the other hand, is less than fantastic. Dialogue outputs are uneven throughout the film, mostly as a result (it seems) of uneven source audio. This wouldn't be much of an issue if the entire film were in Urdu (unless you speak Urdu, of course). However, the characters naturally slip in and out of English so frequently in this film, that even though the English subtitles are on display during those English exchanges, it is instinctive to want to hear the English language. Sometimes it's difficult.
There are no extras on the disc, nor is there a menu. It's too bad. This film is supposed to have been inspired by true events—I would love to know what those are. Also, the trailer is wonderful and worth a look (you can find it on Dadabhoy's site through the link in the sidebar).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For as much as the story comes together by the end, Bilal runs the risk of losing viewers because of how loose she runs the story early on. The payoff comes, although I had no choice but to stay to the end (for review purposes). Other viewers might not be so patient. Bilal also overplays her hand a bit when it comes to the reluctance of the older characters to stand up to Khan. We get it. They are old-school set in their ways; we don't need endlessly repeated reminders. Also, the film's ending veers into the melodramatic. It's almost as if Bilal wasn't sure how to finish it, so she took a page from sensationalistic teledramas rather than close with the strong story she has. She didn't need to do that.
Like her contemporaries I mentioned at the open, Iram Parveen Bilal shows great promise, and I hope she gets another chance to show the filmgoing world what she's got. Until then, I just added another fantastic female foreign film to my collection. I recommend you do the same.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Virgil Films
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