Balu Mahi proves Pakistan can't stomach love without marriage
In Balu Mahi, we see the blooming of an accidental love.
Balu (Osman Khalid Butt) crashes the wrong wedding and professes his undying love to the wrong bride, that is, Mahi (Ainy Jaffri Rahman, while she’s hidden under a ghoonghat). Mahi isn’t too keen on her husband-to-be (or marriage at all, for that matter), so she runs away with him anyway.
So starts the adventure of Balu Mahi — a long-winded, two-part journey that takes the duo through old Lahore and beyond with Mahi’s family of quasi-goons in hot pursuit. Mahi just wants to live her own life, not what her traditional family demands of her. Balu follows her around, partly because he feels responsible for her safety and partly because he is fascinated by this strange ebullient being who is unconsciously healing his broken heart.
The adventure stretches over two and a half hours, during which we see some song and dance sequences, a fair number of LOL moments and lots of pretty shots of Pakistan. All the while, the film’s message about women’s rights is intermittently hammered into the script.
The film thus tries to balance Balu and Mahi’s role as its didactic mouthpieces with the more fun parts of the narrative, making it a fairly solid commercial fare. But it drops the ball at a few places — and quite noticeably so, which mars our overall enjoyment of the film.
But first, the good parts...
Balu Mahi's actors might be the best part of the film
It has to be said that Balu Mahi owes its success to good casting.
Both Osman and Ainy did justice to their main roles. They look good, they dance well and portray their respective roles with honesty. And they made us happy that the filmmakers took a chance on this first-time couple.
But at times, Osman and Ainy are beleaguered by unnatural dialogue, for which their performance suffers.
This is most evident in Balu’s last sermon (you’ll know it when you see it) where he launches into a speech about women’s rights. This was a message that was better subtly shown, not told. The film was doing an adequate job of doing so until this point, and his final sentimental outburst lent the film a kind of preachiness that partly undoes its efforts to make it a fun watch.
It’s like the OKB we see on TV. We know he’s a great actor, but what can the man do when he’s handed a script full of trite lines.
Ainy charms us with Mahi's spunky spirit, but if her portrayal had a hint of vulnerability that a runaway bride must feel, it would have made her character more relatable.
A lot of eyes were on Sadaf Kanwal, who makes a confident debut as the seductive Sharmeen. Her performance is mostly consistent and she thankfully saves us from cringing through the racier parts of the film. Khurram Patras manages to portray the captain’s quietly simmering rage at the sudden rise of new boy, that is, Mahi in disguise. Mustafa Ali Khan buoyed up the film with his comic ability and the cameo by Javed Sheikh had the desired comic effect too.
Hits and misses in the soundtrack
The title track turns out to be quite the infectious earworm, particularly because it’s accompanied by high-octane performance. Rahat’s qawwali is great, the soft, lilting 'Tu Kya Janay' also doesn’t offend.
However, the post-interval 'Bechaniyaan' is so sappy that Mahi would have retched like the time Balu told her he’s still in love with his college sweetheart. The song plays out almost like Osman and Ainy’s mock cover letter to Bollywood. There's no clear purpose to its existence, except as plug in for a time lapse and there are more effective plot devices for that.
Now, on to the not-so-great...
Balu Mahi is a rom-com with some dark, dramatic moments, but perhaps it’s better described and digested as a fantasy film.
I say this because within the context of the fantasy genre, a lot of the director Haissam Hussain and writer Saad Azhar's liberties with the real world would be acceptable. Otherwise, some events are too implausible, even for our state of suspended disbelief.
[SPOILERS] While we can stomach the script’s many departures from reality like a bride charging out of her wedding venue on a horse or her impromptu casting in a dance sequence, for example; it’s too much to expect the audience to disregard facts as glaringly obvious as the human anatomy.
Ainy Jaffri really didn’t look like a man (when the second half of the film demands that she be in disguise as a male polo player). And it’s a really strenuous stretch of the imagination to believe that: a) a team of testosterone-charged polo players failed to notice she wasn’t a man; or b) they did not bully her for appearing effeminate; or c) she felt secure enough to discard her disguise in her tent during the night.
This occasional laxness in the script is likely to exasperate the viewer. No one expects realism from a rom-com, but the script shouldn’t assume the viewer is well, stupid.
Inevitability of marriage
We get it. Audiences love a happy ending and those don’t happen without a spouse in the bag in the Pakistani imagination. [SPOILER] So, in a crowd-pleasing move, Balu Mahi ends quite predictably — with a declaration of love and shaadi plans. No points for guessing who’s the happy couple.
We can’t fault the filmmakers for wanting to meet audience expectations, but we have to ask: Can Pakistan not deal with love without marriage? Why does (almost) every love story culminate in a wedding?
This is especially true for Balu Mahi where the heroine Mahi is quite vocal about not being keen on marriage, and though she says she wants to marry on her own terms one day, she’s shown to warm up to the idea pretty darn fast. Two months and some days, to be exact.
Is it really too early to expect a writer to flip conventions? Can we have a rom-com where two people don’t end up in love... or fall out of love... or love each other, but don’t marry? Is it too soon to take that risk?