I'd write "Warning: spoilers ahead!" here in all capitals dramatically but I'm not sure if there's anything worth spoiling here.
Okay, that's a little too harsh. Admittedly, directors Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi had some big shoes to fill.
The duo's debut directorial venture was Zinda Bhaag, the 2013 movie that became the first Pakistani film to be submitted for Oscar consideration in five decades. It also made it's way to being featured on Netflix and gained a colossal cult following along the way.
They've already made history with their next; Jeewan Hathi is the first short film to be released in cinemas like a feature length production.
A satirical take on our 'morning show' obsession, the movie is a timely one. The premise sets us up to expect some sharp, crisp analysis on phenomena that is Pakistani morning shows - television programs (most often hosted by women) that routinely yank people out of their worlds and place them in the spotlight to give them their 15 minutes of fame.
Just recently, the attention Arshad Khan aka Chaiwala got on a morning show is a testament to that.
But does Jeewan Hathi have the makings of a classic? Not exactly. Will it stay with you long after you've left the cinema? It's possible... but you know what will stay with you for sure? This one shot of Samiya Mumtaz showing the camera the middle finger.
Now that's something I NEVER thought I'd see.
What's the story about?
Jeewan Hathi is the story of Natasha (Hina Dilpazir), an "overweight, overage" morning show host whose ratings are plummeting. Her former husband Tabani (Naseeruddin Shah), who's also the owner of the network, has her replaced, palming off her coveted time slot to a younger television show host, Simmy. As if that wasn't enough, he also plans to marry Natasha's replacement.
Heartbroken and distraught, Natasha begrudgingly accepts the offer to host a late night show slot instead called 'Jeewan Saathi' which will test how well real-life spouses know each other.
Enter two vastly different couples.
We're introduced to Siraj (Fawad Khan) and Khalida (Kiran Tabeer), a lower middle-class couple who are insanely in love with each other, despite having little to their names except big dreams and a small television — a fate they want to change as the winner will bag a 60 inch LED television.
Then there's Farhan (Adnan Jaffer) and Samiya (Samiya Mumtaz), who come from the upper echelons of society, are obsessed with their social media footprint and keeping up appearances and only decide to partake in the show because they're related to the producer, ATM (Saife Hasan).
Right off the bat, we see the strain appearing on the show puts on both couples.
Natasha grills these couples with tough questions, making them reevaluate their respective relationships; it's unclear whether she does so just to get her ratings up and knock out her competition (Simmy) or whether it's the frustration she feels with her own love life or lack thereof that she's taking out on these two couples.
While the first half of the movie is filled with some crude LOL moments and is devoted to presenting each character, not fully fleshing them out but giving us just enough insight to look at all of them empathetically, the second half of the movie is where chaos ensues.
I won't give too much away but people get angry, divorce is on the cards, the jokes stop being as funny and the filmmakers kind of lose the plot, leaving you a little puzzled. I think a lot of it could have to do with the fact that they tried to cram the moral of their hyperreal story in the last half and they were pressed for time. If only it had been longer...
Was the cast Jeewan Hathi's saving grace?
Comedy, or dark comedy in this case, is not an easy genre to do; pair that with delivering a social message (which I'll get to later) and the actors have got a challenge on their hands.
Let's give credit where credit is due: the cast acts accordingly, with no weak link in sight.
Fawad Khan (nope, not that Fawad!) in particular jumps off the screen; not his character but him. Siraj is timid, gullible and Khan plays him with authentic emotion. The few intimate moments Khan and Tabeer share onscreen are electric and the camera obviously loves them together.
I'm telling you ladies, there's space for two Fawad Khans in your life.
He's a loving husband, even if he does lash out a little at Khalida a couple of times for merely threatening to talk flak about his sisters or when she says if India and Pakistan were betrothed, India would be the husband. Typical desi husband behaviour basically. Things do take a turn for the worse but I'll let you watch the movie to see how that happens.
Tabeer as the morning show obsessed housewife is also extremely likeable; she shines bright in a role that's stuck in the confines of a patriarchal society and manages to hold her own, trying her hardest to not be a damsel in distress.
Adnan Jaffer and Samiya Mumtaz play the elite couple role well; there's clearly no love lost between the two who are together out of convenience and class. When Samiya accidentally ends up drinking Natasha's drink mixed with sleeping pills, she falls into an intoxicated stupour, unable to hold her tongue anymore; her honesty will definitely garner a few laughs.
Jeewan Hathi has a stellar supporting cast, with a bunch of endearing wacko female characters. While everyone knew about Naseeruddin Shah's cameo in the movie (the filmmakers never let us forget it during promotions!), there's another particularly fun guest appearance — for all you Nimra Bucha fans, the Manto actress makes a delightful brief stint in the movie.
Does it deliver the social commentary it promises?
In one word, yes.
The name of the movie loosely translated refers to 'the elephant in the room' i.e our televisions. It made me a little uncomfortable watching the media team behind the camera, as well as Natasha manipulate the people in front of it like circus animals but I think that was precisely what Meenu and Farjad aimed to do, to explore and unpack the dark underbelly of talk shows, particularly in Pakistan and lay it out in front of us.
At one point, one of the producers screams "drama! badtameezi! behoodgi!; it drives home the perception that sex and masala sells but instead of just putting the onus on the "evil people" producing this content, the movie shows us the mirror and makes us check ourselves. We consume this garbage, often at the expense of real people.
It makes you think: would there would be no supply if there was no demand? Or would television channels figure out a way to create the demand, by exploiting the more scandalous topics human beings are usually drawn to?
Another great thing about the movie was that it didn't victimize its female characters. Where the script silences Khalida to an extent, the story has other strong women to compensate for it.
Natasha for instance, even though it doesn't seem like it initially. When she finds out she was being replaced, she goes to her vanity room and cries, thinks about killing herself and then backtracks. It was the perfect "you get 5 emotional minutes a day and then you gotta be gangsta" moment. She takes it in her stride, tries to own the cards she's been dealt, even if she looks silly while doing so.
Her vulnerability is why you don't hate her for being manipulative, not to mention, it was so refreshing seeing an older woman basically be the lead protagonist onscreen. More Pakistani films are now casting unconventional actors in the leading roles and it's a welcome change from the chocolate boy heroes and cookie-cutter good girls.
Natasha also sheds light on how women are treated in the world of broadcast television. Her producers call her names and mock her behind her back and granted, she's a few fries short of a happy meal, it's actually more about the fact that she's a woman and she has to work that much harder, that much smarter to gain the same respect a man would.
When recently a female news reporter was assaulted by a security guard she was interviewing, many people justified the officer's unwarranted response, saying she had tugged on his shirt and she was asking for it. While it's true media personnel should be given proper guidelines to not sensationalize news or to ambush people, I can bet everyone's reaction would have been different if the reporter had been a man.
The final verdict?
So should one watch Jeewan Hathi at all? Yeah, it's worth a viewing. There is a dire need for better editing and more lucid storytelling but the indie flick has it's entertaining bits and definitely makes you reflect on the role media plays in your everyday life.
The movie was commissioned as part of ‘Zeal for Unity’ short film initiative by an Indian TV channel. In light of recent events, Jeewan Hathi will not be showing in cinemas across the border, uncertain if they'll air it on television.
Read more: A brief history of Pakistan-India cultural ties
But did it warrant a theatrical release? No, I personally don't think so.
While innovative, you go to the cinema to watch a movie, not a short film. The makers could have easily split it into three parts and made it into a web series. And I think Meenu and Farjad knew this too; that's why popcorn and a drink is included in the ticket price when you go see Jeewan Hathi.