What came first, the agenda or the script?
That's just one of many pressing questions that must be asked after viewing Chalay Thay Saath, a film directed by Umer Adil that's been widely anticipated by virtue of it being local darling Syra Shahroz's big-screen debut.
The film's pre-release hype made much of the inclusion of Kent S. Leung, a Canadian actor who plays Syra's Chinese love interest. What with CPEC placing Pak-China dosti squarely in the center of national discourse and with 2017 being a relatively slow year for Pakistani cinema, I was rooting for a fresh new take on friendship and cross-cultural romance delivered via Chalay Thay Saath.
Here's what I got instead.
In Pakistani cinema today, road trips are the preferred vehicle to promote the three Ns we've apparently deemed vital to a movie's legitimacy: Nationalism, Nuptials and - if I may - iNdependant Women.
And so Chalay Thay Saath introduces us to four friends travelling to the mountains together.
Resham (played by Syra Shahroz) is a diligent diary-writing young doctor who's going to be reunited with her father up north, Tania (played by Mansha Pasha) and Zain (Osama Tahir) are a married couple on the verge of divorce and Zain's friend Faraz (Faris Khalid) is your quintessential 'burger bacha' freshly returned from America.
The four friends embark on a tour of Gilgit during which they're thrown together with an older woman travelling alone (Shamim Hilali) and, at the last minute, a backpacker from China called Adam (played by Kent).
Adam's translation app is so crucial to the film's narrative that very early on I came to see it as a member of the cast. My impulse was validated when the translation app was awarded its very own Hindi soap opera-esque sub-plot: it dies, comes back to life, betrays its best friend, disrespects an elder... and so on.
As Adam speaks no English and the four friends don't know Chinese, they communicate almost exclusively through meaningful glances and a translation app on Adam's phone.
This translation app is so crucial to the film's narrative that very early on I came to see it as a member of the cast. My impulse was validated when the translation app was awarded its very own Hindi soap opera-esque sub-plot: it dies, comes back to life, betrays its best friend, disrespects an elder... and so on.
As this motley crew progresses through Gilgit towards some as-yet-unknown destination, tensions run high. Tania and Zain are constantly at each others' throats, the mildly racist Faraz believes Adam is at best a spy and at worst a randy, diary-thieving philanderer and Resham wonders why they can't all just get along.
A day or so into the trip it becomes clear that Adam is besotted by Resham, who it must be said looks very pretty. Their bumbling attempts to connect despite their language barrier are quite sweet, and during the film's first thirty minutes or so I was optimistic. Unfortunately that didn't last.
Halfway through the film I began to wonder whether the script had been written in service to a coherent cinematic experience (as it should've been) or in service to an agenda or extensive checklist that Chalay Thay Saath's young filmmakers had compiled long before they started shooting.
It felt like the latter, and it felt this way mostly because in taking on too many characters and exploring too many story arcs, the film couldn't do justice to any of them.
Chalay Thay Saath establishes its main characters well at the outset, with a reasonable backstory for the four friends and Adam. But as the film progresses the addition of every new character is either unnecessary to the central story and just ends up being a distraction (like Zhalay Sarhadi's divorcee, who inexplicably appears to play Faraz's love interest) or is poorly fleshed out and so, a total missed opportunity (like Shamim Halai's mature adventuress).
When the film reaches its climax we have to face the fact that this sweetly simple love story also intends to be a commentary on IDPs, patriarchy, the history of Pak-China dosti and more. A film helmed by an experienced team might be able to juggle all these themes. Chalay Thay Saath can't.
Written by Atiya Zaidi, Chalay Thay Saath's script just can't keep up with the demands that each additional character imposes upon the narrative. At no given moment could I be entirely certain why a given character was doing what they did.
And though the film does try to address these lapses with important revelations peppered throughout the script, these revelations are ill-timed -- like Tania and Zain's big fight that reveals why they've been arguing so bitterly. The knowledge we gain here comes too late, so late that I'd already lost interest in their story.
It doesn't help that team Chalay Thay Saath's checklist appears to include 'natural disaster' and 'complicated bereavement'. When the film reaches its climax we have to face the fact that what we thought was a sweetly simple love story also intends to be a commentary on IDPs, the patriarchy, the history of Pak-China dosti and more.
A film helmed by an experienced team might be able to juggle all these themes. But a less experienced team like Chalay Thay Saath's would fare better if they kept it simple.
Skilled editing might've helped prop the film up, but even here quality falls short as the film's pacing is terribly erratic. Nothing happens for long stretches of time and then - everything happens all at once.
So what works?
The bright spot in all this is that I genuinely liked each actor's performance.
Yes, the film lacks a clear vision. Yes, the script reads more like a collection of sketches than a cohesive unit. But within each sketch each actor finds an opportunity to shine.
Syra is charismatic and holds her own on the big screen. Kent's comic timing is impeccable; not having much to work with in the way of dialogue his is the film's most challenging role and he fully does it justice.
Mansha Pasha and Osama Tahir do a fabulous job as a troubled young couple and Faris Khalid is hilarious - definitely one to watch.
As an industry we're somehow unable to get a grasp on filmmaking's most essential element: storytelling. Storytelling is a craft that requires filmmakers to sacrifice their egos in service of a fiction. It requires filmmakers to slash scripts, chuck non-essential characters out, to accept that some scenes, no matter how much effort they took to shoot -- are best left on the floor.
This proves we clearly have no problem with sourcing acting talent. I don't doubt Pakistan could breed some of the best entertainers in the region.
But as an industry we're somehow unable to get a grasp on filmmaking's most essential element: storytelling.
Storytelling is a craft that requires filmmakers to sacrifice their egos in service of a fiction. It requires filmmakers to slash scripts, chuck non-essential characters out, to accept that some scenes, no matter how much effort they took to shoot -- are best left on the floor.
That key process of cutting down and letting go is something Chalay Thay Saath's team couldn't quite get a handle on. Perhaps they lacked distance from the project -- in which case they should've relied on consultants or focus groups to provide feedback.
But now, unfortunately, it's too late. What we're left with is a film that falls apart.