There's no escaping Ho Mann Jahaan — posters bearing the faces of stars Mahira Khan, Sheheryar Munawar, Adeel Husain and Sonya Jehan dominate every nook and cranny of Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and beyond, reminding us something big is in the offing.
It might be accidental, but the pervasiveness of Ho Mann Jahaan's promos hints at the kind of world the film will try to sell to us: one where familial unpleasantness is quickly glossed over and messy, real-world problems like classism and sexual jealousy gently recede into the background. Much like a glitzy hoarding covers up the decrepit building it's hung on, Ho Mann Jahaan soothes our overwrought nerves and is an escapist's fantasy come to life.
Is that a problem? In theory, no — a single film, that too one dubbed a mainstream romantic drama, shouldn't have to bear the burden of exposing our every grievance. But in practice, if you're heavy-handed with feel-good fairy dust, your film risks appearing hollow.
Ho Mann Jahaan walks a fine line between these two positions.
What it's all about
Ho Mann Jahaan follows the lives of three young people, Manizeh (Mahira Khan), Nadir (Adeel Husain) and Arhan (Sheheryar Munwar), as they graduate from college and try to find their way in the 'real world.' The three friends are musicians who've decided to form a band post-graduation.
Their family lives are fully fleshed out: Manizeh is a child of divorce and lives with her eccentric, bubbly artist mother (played by Nimra Bucha), Nadir is a rich kid with a heart of gold who lives with overbearing parents (played by Bushra Ansari and Arshad Mehmud) and Arhan is from the wrong side of the tracks (i.e. he lives 'across the bridge' in Saddar, Kharadar or similar) and can't wait to escape his demanding father and humble background.
Manizeh, Nadir and Arhan spend all their time together and are true chums.
Ho Mann Jahaan's first half devotes itself to lionising their friendship, which appears bulletproof even as Nadir and Manizeh inexplicably pair up and get engaged, leaving Sheheryar to sportingly engage in what I can only describe as extreme third-wheeling.
Trouble comes in the form of Nadir's overprotective mother, who decides Arhan is a good-for-nothing social climber intent on using her poor son for money and connections and Manizeh is, well, the daughter of an artist and therefore not marriage material.
Manizeh, Nadir and Arhan are true chums... at least, until Nadir and Manizeh inexplicably pair up and get engaged, leaving Sheheryar to sportingly engage in what I can only describe as extreme third-wheeling.
At the same time Arhan, frustrated by his father's constant taanas and desperate to rise above his circumstances, walks out of his home and has to be taken in by either Manizeh or Nadir.
Neither option is viable (see overprotective mother, above), so Arhan takes a job playing guitar at a local eatery owned by Sabina (played by Sonya Jehan), an elegant, alluring older woman who's also just lonely enough to offer him the use of her guest room.
The trio wants to pursue their musical agenda but Nadir's parents insist he choose between marrying Manizeh and being a drummer. So Nadir chooses Manizeh (unbeknownst to her, of course) and gives up his passion to slave away as a corporate drone. In the process, he alienates his wife-to-be and his best friend Arhan, who, it must be said, has started acting like an entitled brat.
The friends are tugged apart by competing loyalties to family, friendship and career and their own burgeoning egos. Will they ever be able to see eye to eye again?
A cast well selected
As its plot suggests, Ho Mann Jahaan is contained within a world of family gatherings, friendly jam sessions and the occasional chai dhaba. It's poles apart from the grit depicted in a film like Jami's Moor or Adnan Sarwar's Shah.
The cast acts accordingly, and within the narrow confines of this happy-go-lucky existence each actor manages his or her character well.
Sheheryar Munawar's performance as Arhan really stands out. Utterly believable as the angsty, rough-around-the-edges home boy with a sense of humour, Sheheryar makes the role his own. Arhan is arguably Ho Mann Jahaan's pivotal character and Sheheryar does him justice with authentic emotion. In a previous interview, the actor said Adeel Husain was initially meant to play Arhan; I'm glad that decision was reversed because I just can't see serious, stoic Adeel playing Arhan.
Sonya Jehan as the cool older woman is a breath of fresh air. She proves sex appeal is timeless.
Adeel Husain as Nadir is competent but predictable; perhaps this owes more to the role (quintessential tortured acha bacha) than to Adeel's acting prowess.
Mahira Khan as Manizeh is a bit of an enigma. Not too far removed from roles she's played before, Mahira's Manizeh is an essentially 'good' character who reacts to situations rather than being their catalyst. This unsullied 'goodness' is evident in her romance with Nadir which is utterly devoid of chemistry. I mean it: even a parked car has more spark than Nadir-Manizeh in love. I was pretty surprised when Manizeh accepted Nadir's marriage proposal; up until she said yes I thought she'd placed Nadir firmly in the friend zone. I thought Manizeh had more zsa zsa zu with Arhan, and I was not-so-secretly rooting for them as a couple.
Mahira looks great onscreen — she has a certain magnetism and obviously, the camera loves her. And she's convincing as the good girl. But I have to wonder whether she isn't selling herself short by playing Pakistan's sweetheart in an endless loop.
Sonya Jehan as the cool older woman is a breath of fresh air. She proves sex appeal is timeless. Her character Sabina has an easy, believable connection with Arhan. This is another couple I was rooting for.
Ho Mann Jahaan's supporting cast is excellent and the cameos are a delight. To all you Fawad Khan fans out there: he makes a brief appearance as Sonya's friend Raphael, a dapper, established musician/actor. Especially fun is Hamza Ali Abbasi's turn as a faqir — you'll have to look closely as he's almost unrecognisable!
Social commentary is hit and miss
Though Ho Mann Jahaan isn't super ambitious in terms of driving home a hard-hitting social message, it does reference several social issues that shape our everyday lives.
A dominant theme is Pakistani society's deeply entrenched classism, evident in how Nadir's mother looks down on Arhan for his lesser socio-economic status.
However, what I thought was interesting is that the film correctly illustrates that in today's Pakistan, pursuing and succeeding in an artistic career (no matter whether it's music, acting or art) allows for social mobility.
The film correctly illustrates that in today's Pakistan, pursuing and succeeding in an artistic career allows for social mobility: that platforms like Coke Studio and local films can lift a talented young person clean out of humble circumstances and move them towards something like stardom.
No longer are musicians relegated to the back of a shaadi hall — in a self-referential move, Ho Mann Jahaan makes clear that platforms like Coke Studio and local films can lift a talented young person clean out of humble circumstances and move them towards something like stardom and subsequent social 'acceptance'. By the end of Ho Mann Jahaan it's clear that Arhan, if he continues to succeed in music, will soon become Nadir's equal.
And that's very refreshing to see onscreen.
A more disappointing message from the film is its reinforcement of the all-too-common perception that men and women can't be 'just friends'.
It's frustrating to see this played out yet again on the big screen: the idea that perfectly reasonable men and women may meet, trade ideas and ambitions, have independent hopes and dreams, and yet still not be able to escape 'falling in love.'
A more disappointing message from the film is its reinforcement of the all-too-common perception that men and women can't be 'just friends'. It fuels the oppressive, suspicious attitudes of parents who refuse to send their girls and boys to school/college/co-ed hanging sessions because they're wary of gasp 'pyaar.'
I wouldn't have minded much if only Nadir and Manizeh fell in love, but (spoiler alert!) unfortunately, by the end of the movie Arhan is in love with Manizeh too.
There's something quite icky about this love-triangle, and not just because it fuels the oppressive, suspicious attitudes of parents who refuse to send their girls and boys to school/college/co-ed hanging sessions because they're wary of gasp 'pyaar.'
To all filmmakers out there, I'd like to say: relax with the whole love angle. Friendship/camaraderie between men and women based on an intellectual connection can and does exist and it's regressive to definitively say otherwise.
High -gloss finish
Asim Raza's direction mirrors the cozy, insulated bubble of Ho Mann Jahaan's universe.
All bright colours, sharp edges and clean, crisp shots, Ho Mann Jahaan lacks what I can only describe as atmosphere. If you can get past that, the overall effect is pleasing: everything glows, even Karachi.
However, the film's music sequences could've been integrated more effectively. To have the main characters plucked out of Karachi and placed smack in the middle of Chitral as a one-off for a single song is jarring. The film's opening number which situates Manizeh, Nadir and Arhan at college during a water fight works much better.
The final verdict
I would've felt more enthusiastic about Ho Mann Jahaan if, by the film's end, it hadn't devolved into TV drama-level cheesiness.
Unfortunately, it does. I won't give too much away but I will tell you that one character winds up in the hospital, someone dies, many tears are shed, much drama ensues.
Our predilection for grand displays of emotion is a consequence of an underdeveloped film industry — we simply don't have the courage, experience or faith in our audience to believe subtlety can get a point across.
I can't fully blame Ho Mann Jahaan's team for this. Our predilection for grand displays of emotion is a consequence of an underdeveloped film industry — we simply don't have the courage, experience or faith in our audience to believe subtlety can get a point across. The problem is also one of numbers: with so few films in production one can understand a team's impulse to pack several plot twists and messages into a single venture.
On the whole, though, I enjoyed Ho Mann Jahaan. It lives up to its billing, that is, family entertainment. The young cast is endearing, funny and gloriously handsome.
And hey — so what if it glosses over most of life's unpleasantness? As Sheheryar's character Arhan points out at a crucial juncture, "In this country people never rejoice at someone else's success." This is very true, so in closing I'll say only this:
Ho Mann Jahaan succeeds in it's aim to entertain, and I'm happy for everyone involved. Go watch the film, you'll like it.