May 25, 2020
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A Speakeasy Panorama

Bol exposes the religion-addled sores of Pakistani society. It’s also a call to action.

A Speakeasy Panorama
A Speakeasy Panorama

Four years ago, Pakistani film-maker Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Kay Liye had the subcontinent gasping at his audacity in tackling the theme of terrorism in a country infamous for suicide bombers. Mansoor is back again—his new film, Bol (Speak), released a fortnight ago, holds out a mirror to a society which callously mistreats women, eunuchs, or anyone adhering to a contrarian belief system. Bol is not only bold, it’s also drawing mammoth crowds, raising as much hope of resuscitating the moribund Lahore film industry as it exhorts the suppressed womenfolk of Pakistan to speak out and free themselves from the shackles of misconceptions so often dressed up in religious certitudes.

Director Shoaib Mansoor

Bol has mesmerised Pakistanis as no other film before, boasting a record collection of Rs 25.03 million in the first week, galloping past the earlier top grosser, My Name is Khan, which earned Rs 21.65 million in the same period. About his success, Mansoor told Outlook, “Bol has captured the imagination of audiences and most critics in Pakistan, where Lollywood (Lahore film industry) films have attracted neither critical nor box-office acclaim. Bol’s success proves there is still an audience out there that yearns for quality films reaching out to them in a meaningful way. My film questions the worth of a human being—either a woman or a eunuch—as well as the rights to reproduce human beings by poor families without taking responsibility for them.”

Melodramatic, at times degenerating into a propaganda blitz, Bol has engaged TV producer Tazeen Javed because of the audience response to it. Says Javed, “The film is a three-hour-long advertisement for family planning, yet none of the usual suspects have called it un-Islamic. One character openly asks others to take off their hijab, leave the four walls of the home and experience life; and yet no fatwa. It gives me reason to hope for a tolerant Pakistan.”

Bol leaves you breathless not only because of its theme, but also because of its multi-layered subplots, myriad twists and turns in the storyline, and its surfeit of characters. To narrate the story of Bol in brief would tantamount to depriving the reader of a sense of its lure. The film focuses on the destructive quest of a Hakeem sahib (traditional medicine man) to sire a son that sees his wife beget 14 children, of whom only seven daughters survive. The eighth is a eunuch, much to Hakeem’s embarrassment.

The eunuch child, named Saifi, is proscribed from stepping out of home even as the daughters are allowed to study till Grade V. Schooled at home, the only outsiders the eunuch child has ever seen are the members of a neighbouring family, among whom is Mustafa (played by Pakistan’s top singer, Atif Alam), who has a secret dalliance with one of Hakeem’s daughters, Ayesha. But the daughter who inspires rebellion against Hakeem’s control over his family is the eldest, Zainab, who has separated from her husband as she believes their deplorable economic condition doesn’t justify having a child. Such is Zainab’s conviction that she persuades her mother to undergo vasectomy, and endures a severe beating from her father.

Bol fascinates not only with theme, but with subplots, twists in the storyline, and its variety of characters.

This only serves to fan her rebellious spirit—she takes Saifi to Mustafa, a medical student, wondering whether his incipient drawing/painting skills could be honed to enable him to earn a livelihood. Saifi is placed under the tutelage of a person renowned for paintings on trucks. Parallel to the brewing rebellion in Hakeem’s family, portrayed as much through Saifi’s clandestine apprenticeship as through Mustafa-Ayesha’s secret rendezvous, is the saga of Saqa Kanjar, a pimp and a Shia to boot, whose request to have his family learn the Quran Hakeem turns down. How could he teach a pimp’s family?

Here the story moves into another gear altogether—Saifi is brutally gang-raped and his father gets to know his clandestine venture. In a fit of rage, he chokes Saifi to death. Hakeem is now sucked into a spiral of crime. He siphons off Rs 2 lakh from the local mosque committee fund that’s being collected under his supervision to bribe the investigating officer for suppressing the postmortem report. Desperate to return the money to the committee before the embezzlement is discovered, Hakeem takes to teaching the Kanjar family, though he cleanses his daily earning by washing and ironing the crisp notes at home.

A series of sharp twists and turns follow—Hakeem turns down the request of Mustafa’s father for the wedding between his son and Ayesha; the committee demands its Rs 2 lakh back. A harried Hakeem agrees to a bizarre deal Kanjar offers in exchange of Rs 2 lakh. The father of seven daughters should take Kanjar’s daughter, Mina, as wife. If a daughter is born to Mina, then Kanjar keeps the child. In case a boy is born, Hakeem must take him.

After marrying Mina and spending the night with her, Hakeem returns home to hear the news that his wedding night was also that of Mustafa and Ayesha, solemnised at the rebellious Zainab’s behest. Nine months later, a girl is born to Mina, and Hakeem is anxious to whisk her away from the Kanjar household, apprehensive that she might become a prostitute later in life. One fine evening, Mina brings her child to Hakeem, much to the shock of his wife and daughters, who declare their unanimous decision to leave the following morning. On the same night, though, Kanjar raids the Hakeems in a bid to take custody of Mina’s child. Hakeem tries to murder Mina’s child, but a blow from Zainab kills him. She successfully hides the child from Kanjar, though she is sent to the gallows for the crime.

In a style typical of the subcontinent, Bol ends on a happy note—the sisters start the eponymous Zainab cafe, which pulls in enough business to allow them to live independently. About his reason for choosing the theme of Bol, Mansoor said, “Nothing in the world scares me more than the thought of being born a woman or a eunuch in a country like Pakistan... we make tall claims about the rights of women granted by our religion and yet when I look around in underdeveloped Muslim countries in general and Pakistan in particular, I find things totally the opposite.”

The film’s seductive pull, says writer Aksari Jalil, stems from the tackling of emotive issues which every individual has experienced, raising questions that are considered a sin to ask, and challenging many socially acceptable interpretations of religion. Others feel Bol serves the purpose of studying the society. As senior journalist Ghazi Salahuddin says, “The film may serve as a measure of its viewers’ capacity to come to terms with some harsh, unspeakable realities of our existence.” Beyond anything, Bol’s popularity testifies to the hunger among Pakistanis for films depicting their cultural milieu, their stories, and questions central to their existence.

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