Although I grew up watching Indian movies, and enjoy watching world cinema, I have never – until now – seen a Pakistani film. I am not sure why this is. Perhaps I didn’t think that much of value in the visual arts could emerge from a country that to the casual observer appears so dominated by right-wing religious hardliners.
Well, it is nice to be proven so wrong. Bol (2011) is the story of a young Pakistani woman, Zaynab Khan, who is on death row and is due, before dawn, to be executed for the crime of murder. As she stands before the gallows she requests that she be allowed a little time to tell the awaiting journalists and cameramen her story.
She starts by introducing her family. Her father – a Hakeem (herbalist) and a religious obscurantist – emigrated from Delhi to Lahore at the time of the 1947 Partition of India. Here he married a local woman and they went on – to his evident dismay – to have seven consecutive daughters rather than any sons. To add to his sense of shame, their eighth child is born a hermaphrodite. The father only allows the child to live following fervent pleas from the mother and a promise that she would keep the child – named Saifullah (or Saifi) – hidden from the public so as not to bring shame on the father.
As the years go by, the family’s financial position – which was modest to begin with – gets steadily worse. The Hakeem complains that the newer generation of Pakistanis seem to put more faith in trained doctors than the traditional Hakeems. To compound the problem, he refuses to allow his daughters to search for work, saying that there is no honourable work that they are capable of doing. Zaynab tells us that her father had not allowed any of the daughters to be educated beyond the 5th grade (presumably the equivalent of the UK’s primary school level).
As their position becomes ever more desperate, Zaynab arranges – without her father knowing – for Saifi, who displays some talent at drawing, to go to work in the employ of a local artist. Saifi is teased by his fellow workers and then raped. The father’s shocking response to this tragic event serves to then shape the rest of the movie.
It is an extremely harrowing tale. The director, Shoaib Mansoor, clearly has his heart in the right place. He takes aim at Pakistan’s overpopulation, bureaucratic corruption, out of touch politicians and religious dogmatism. Mansoor manages to score a bulls-eye pretty much every time.
Despite the depressing storyline, there were a couple of moments that brought a wide smile to the face. The first was when Aisha, Zaynab’s younger sister, picked up a guitar and started singing along to a song with her neighbour (played by Atif Aslam) who had taught her how to play. I can’t think of many things that look cooler than a Muslim woman picking up and playing a guitar! The second was when the father complained to some of his friends that his eldest daughter, Zaynab, was advocating some liberal views. The horror!