Thursday, October 20, 2011

Haunting, bold Bol

A prerequisite before enjoying Bol is an open mind. But even for the lead-lined mind of the zealot, just the sensory input of the film could break a steel-web or two. And staunch liberals might feel whiplashed at times as well.

Director Shoaib Mansoor insists that we talk. All that he brilliantly directs happens rampantly, but Pakistanis know not to talk about it. Our taboo issues are learned as if by rote and almost every issue raised in the film is where angels fear to tread.

The reviews were so wonderful and most films disappoint, for a movie, like life, is really all a matter of expectation. Not Bol. It is amazing that one film could mirror Pakistani society and tackle taboo issues so successfully. The art and savvy of the film is not its plot, for most of it is easy to predict; it is the depth, the dialogue and deep heartache that the lives of the characters create within you that makes you want to see it again so that you can savor what you surely missed the first time around.

While Pakistan is one of the few nations of the world that recognizes transvestites as a third gender, their ridicule is a given. Theirs is a mold that was predominantly created by society and has unfortunately continued to be filled and characterized today the way it was centuries ago. Recognition as a third gender is present in the law, but again like all things in Pakistan the law is useful only when cases of murder and gross usurpation of rights have to be fought in court. Societal bias and ridicule have not changed an iota and this is addressed very successfully in the film. When a child with gender confusion is born in a Pakistani family, hell does break loose. And this is the most heart-rending part of the film. In a single sentence of a single character the concepts of cross-dressing and homosexuality are challenged. Taking umbrage of religion, Pakistanis have stolidly ascribed the issues of cross-dressing and homosexuality to the environment; the film shatters this.

Patriarchy, intimidation and the preferential treatment scooped up by men is shown even in the small touches of the father getting mosquito net protection and the larger portion of food, but no one else, for the rest of the family is all women. Deprivation of education by the father and then ridicule for illiteracy is the typical double standard of numerous households. The practice of palming off endless daughters to any Tom, Dick or Harry and feeling the burden when the bad decision returns in the form of a divorce or undereducated or illiterate girls waiting a lifetime for Prince Charming is painful to see.

Hot-button issues of ethnicity and sectarianism take you on another roller-coaster ride. And Bol is an equal opportunity employer. If you feel embarrassed for the crudeness of Punjabi behavior, don’t despair, for the arrogance and superficial sophistication of Delhi-wallas is pitiable. If Shias are seen to be cultural Muslims, one sees Sunnis as blinded and without perspective.

Human life has little or no value in Pakistan. And Bol is graphic about this. We are more concerned with honor and societal respect than simply “the milk of human kindness”. And we are willing to sacrifice, in the literal sense of the word, a whole heck of a lot for ratings of friends and family. “Loag kya kahein gey” (what will people say) might as well be “kishwar-e-haseen shad bad”(happy be the bounteous realm).

The father’s cronies are unmoved when he says that he will kill his daughter or she will kill him one day. He only grabs their attention when he says that she questions Hadith.

Islam stands up to harsh inquiry and only those that understand a bit more than its basics don’t get hot and bothered by seemingly pointed questions. The logical inquiry of a young mind which is totally on point and is premised on the “dua and dawa” (prayer and medicine/action) concept bother the father endlessly, for his is not blind faith, but a dead one. Islam promotes inquiry and many a verse in the Quran asks you to wonder, challenges you to seek and learn.

That women perpetuate the exploitation of women is also well illustrated in the film. And the harsh and abusive circumstances that many families are living in day in and day out make you count your blessings.

For days Bol haunts you. You talk about it ad infinitum only to realize that everyone is not a fan. “We should make films that give a better image of Pakistan” said a friend. Is an image more important or the reality I asked? But ours is a society steeped in veneers. The veneer of a spotless drawing room but filthy kitchens and filthier bathrooms. Ours is a “sub theek ho jaye ga” society. Colonialism has not left us; we are more concerned about what is thought of us than righting our ills.

“The movie is very stressful” said another. Really? And Pakistan is not? Terrorism and corruption ridden, bursting with an uncontrolled population we should still put our collective head in the proverbial sand and make those movies in which they prance around in the grass singing love songs.

Free will and predetermination are also discussed. And the widespread attitude of receiving without lifting a finger and the raging confusion of submission to God’s will meaning to just be a puppet that perpetually procreates. Ironically this puppet-like submission does not come with an acceptance of God’s will when He showers a household with daughters.

A painfully human and particularly Pakistani trait is sharply shown: to blame a person for the way they look, for their gender and for their sexual orientation.

Shoaib Mansoor’s films are reminiscent of the soul-searching films of Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal. And more; they are pointed and courageous and Bol puts you through an emotional vacuum cleaning, if you let it that is. And we must collectively let it; we must talk about these issues rather than cloistering them into a stench.

The theme that the film wants to promote is not understood sufficiently because it comes way late in the movie. All else that it wants to convey it shouts, it screams and it harmonizes in a beautiful but sad symphony.

Mahjabeen Islam is an addictionist, family physician and columnist. She can be reached at