Screens at CIFF: 10/10
World premiere: 24 June, 2011, Pakistan

Indian cinema is not a specialty of mine. And this doesn't necessarily matter, because Bol is a Pakistani movie - the highest-grossing Pakistani movie in history, no less - but its DNA is Bollywood.* Living in a cultural hegemon, and never having really thought about the way that just about every movie from just about every country for several generations now has existed in relationship to Hollywood filmmaking, even if in strict opposition, I am a bit thrown by a movie the comes out of a truly alien set of filmmaking standards and cultural assumptions. But this is my problem, not yours, and I will endeavor to push through it.

Bol opens with a young woman failing to receive a stay of execution, but being permitted her final request: to address the nation via TV from the very podium on which she is to be hung by the neck until dead. That woman, Zainub Khan (Humaima Malik), announces at the forefront that she is guilty of the act she has been sentenced for - murder - but is not guilty of a crime. And from here she launches into her tale.

Giving it away would be unfair and take too much space, besides; at 165 minutes, Bol has a lot of story. But in brief, Zainub was the eldest daughter of a Sunni man from Lahore, a practitioner of traditional medicine named Hakim Sayed Hasmuthallah Khan (Manzar Sehbai); and he is a cruel, unyielding man whose fundamentalist religious views cause him to lock his five daughters away from the world in the family home, and force his wife (Zaib Rehman) to pop out babies until she can finally give him a son. When she does, the glad event is spoiled by the midwife's announcement that the child has something wrong with him, and would be better raised as a girl, being as he is not properly a man.

(Here's one of those cultural things: I never quite got whether this meant that the boy was intersex, or given the later implications that he's homosexual, if the midwife just had unusually strong gaydar; or heck, if there's no meaningful distinction between the two cases in the culture being depicted. At any rate, there appears to be an entire class of such people, judging from the film's evidence. I suppose I spent more time dwelling on this ambiguity than it deserved. He is also developmentally disabled, but I don't think that's meant to be part of the same thing. Any enlightenment on this topic would be appreciated).

Hakim is made all the harder and colder by this child, who he refuses even to name; but the girls call him Saifi (Amr Kashmiri), and raise him with as much love as they can. Still, the boy's presence in the family is a destabilising element that leads eventually to tragedy when Hakim grows convinced that the boy will shame the family eternally; and even that tragedy is only the start of a daisy chain of events that results in Zainub resisting her father's authoritarian hand at the peril of her own safety, throwing his reactionary religion right back in his face and denying that his warped conception of God could possibly hold in the world she sees every day.

There's a little bit of a lot of things in Bol: it's a full-throated attack on religious conservatism and a rallying cry for the right of women to live as full and equal citizens; there's a star-crossed lovers subplot, a collection of tender character studies, pop music interludes (one of the actors - and far from the best, I might add - is pop star Atif Aslam, playing the handsome boy next door that turns the head of Zainub's sister Aisha, played by Mahira Khan), and a fair vein of silly humor that keeps things from bogging down in the seriousness of the main plot. Having only heard the reputation of this sort of film, with its kitchen sink mentality, I am by no means qualified to say if director Shoaib Mansoor is particularly good at marshaling all these elements into a coherent form or not; except to say that it is indeed quite coherent and moves with considerable assurance towards its tragedy.

Indeed, what sticks most about the film is that despite its sprawl and clutter, the film never loses track of its gravitas: at heart, this is about a young woman sacrificing herself to protest a fundamentally broken way of looking at the world, facing ahead with a clear vision and steadfast purpose in the face of petty, totalitarian cruelty. Malik and Sehbai ground the film with a pair of absolutely irreproachable performances: hers suggesting not just inner strength, but the slow discovery of that strength; his demonstrating how Hakim's worldview is based in his deeply felt principals and not some arbitrary desire for control, and though we never like Hakim, Sehbai ensures that we understand and perhaps sympathise with him, and given everything he does, that's actually quite a surprising achievement.

It's far from a perfect movie: it has a certain cheapness about it, maybe a side effect of the low-quality film stock on which it was shot, for the sets certainly appear well-conceived and authentically lived-in. And the precise nature of the film's melodramatic excess, an almost presentational, stagey element, like we're watching a spoken opera, is disorienting (and maybe I'm wildly misreading it: the film itself offers an answer, that Hakim has ordered his family to live according to very traditional behaviors and modes of speech, and this is seen as old-fashioned by other characters). But it's unquestionably arresting, thick with humanity and social awareness, and never boring.