Updated Aug 18, 2017 10:48pm

Chain Aye Na promotes violence against women and domestic abuse. It sets Pakistani cinema back a decade

Until I watched Syed Noor's latest production Chain Aye Na last night I'd never truly been ashamed of Pakistani cinema.

Yes, over the past few years we've produced films that are corny, tacky and flawed. But we've also come away with movies that are original, entertaining and full of promise, and as such, until a day ago I could say I was proud of Pakistani cinema's halting achievements.

Chain Aye Na sets back all our progress by at least a decade if not more.

To sit through the film is to endure two-plus hours of pure unadulterated misogyny, sexism and classism. The film promotes violence against women, glorifies abusive relationships, encourages stalking and emotional manipulation and normalises a culture of non-consent.

It is relentless in its portrayal of women as being deserving of whatever violence is done to them, to the extent that I can only conclude Syed Noor harbours a previously latent and now entirely obvious resentment against the female sex.

Regressive in both its politics and its aesthetics, Chain Aye Na is the most deeply irresponsible act of filmmaking I've had the misfortune to experience.

In this film's universe no means nothing if it's said by a woman

At the outset we're introduced to female lead Ruba (played by Sarish Khan) who bumps into young musician Rayan (played by Shahroz Sabzwari) at a wedding.

Spoilers ahead

A mere glance and one dance is enough to convince Rayan that he's madly in love with Ruba. When he confesses his love to her she brushes him off. She's very pointed in her dismissal but crucially, she frames her disinterest as a product of being engaged to another man, Murad (played by Adil Murad), rather than as her exercising her own free will to accept or reject a suitor. More on this later.

Rayan refuses to accept this state of affairs. He exhibits classic stalker behaviour -- he tracks down her phone number, shows up uninvited at her home and repeatedly invades her personal space. All this despite knowing barely anything about Ruba, who again is adamant that he should leave her alone.

At this point Rayan's near-pathological obsession with Ruba makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing. Without a backstory or any character development to prop him up, Rayan is the embodiment of male entitlement.

Rayan obsessed with Ruba, loses his calm when she says she doesn't love him back
Rayan obsessed with Ruba, loses his calm when she says she doesn't love him back

He cannot fathom that no means no. To him Ruba is little more than an object he can demand to own just because he desires this to be so. This notion that women are objects, little more than collectible items to be traded or discarded by men at will, is reinforced throughout the movie -- for example, at one point Rayan's friend ogles a picture of Ruba and says "Jis ko pehlay mili us ki."

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I had the distinct and discomfiting sense that I was witnessing the prelude to violence, because as we all know, in a world where men feel entitled to receive a woman's attention or affection there is usually only one way rejection plays out - with murder.

One creep isn't enough, apparently

Murad ups the creep factor considerably.
Murad ups the creep factor considerably.

My sense of impending doom was validated when the other man in Ruba's life enters the picture -- her fiance Murad.

I still can't decide which leading man in Chain Aye Na is more repellent: Rayan the creepy stalker or Murad the cheating control freak.

Murad is the hard-drinking, womanising son of a sleazy politician. His marriage to Ruba is a political union; Ruba's mother, also a budding politico, is eager to sell her daughter for political gain.

As the film advances we see Murad is involved with another woman, Dolly. Despite his philandering ways, Murad is deeply possessive of Ruba, treating her as an object in the same way Rayan does. He monitors her phone calls and asks after her friends. He overrides her every opinion, at one point convincing her to drink against her wishes because it'll make her feel better.

If the film intended to present Murad as a villain it fails to do so. Murad is never convincingly cast as the bad guy; the script panders to him and his whims instead. What we're left with is a sense that this is just how men are, and that Ruba being caught between two unstable individuals is a fate we - and she - must accept.

The glorification of violence against women begins with a slap...

Halfway through the film I was prepared to accept Chain Aye Na as nothing more sinister than the flawed product of an unoriginal mind. It was mildly offensive, yes, but not outrageously irresponsible or downright dangerous.

My opinion was changed with the slap.

In what I consider the film's defining and most disgusting moment, Rayan accosts Ruba at a golf club where she's jogging. He taunts her again, saying she'll fall for him soon. Ruba is understandably upset that he's stalking her and forcefully rejects him verbally. As she walks away Rayan grabs her arm and to loosen his grip, she slaps him twice.

In a shocking display of violence, Rayan slaps her three times across the face. After this he intimidates her physically, refusing to let her go. Ruba's fear is evident on her face, yet Rayan sees his actions as the logical outcome of his love for her, "Do thappar jawab they, aur teesra sawal... tum sirf meri aur meri ho."

Following this Rayan slashes his hand open as penance for his violence. And yet, even after this shocking display, he has the audacity to show up at Ruba's home the next day to goad her further. He blames Ruba for the slap and the cut on his hand, saying both are the product of her non-compliance.

In a shocking display of violence, Rayan slaps Ruba three times across the face. After this he intimidates her physically, refusing to let her go. Ruba's fear is evident on her face, yet Rayan sees his actions as the logical outcome of his love for her.

Anyone who is even slightly familiar with the psychology of domestic violence will understand how problematic this is. Abusers routinely blame their victims for 'making them do it,' making it impossible for a victim of abuse to speak up without bearing a burden of shame.

That a movie should promote these values today makes me sick. As Rayan's slap resounded throughout the theater my colleagues and I could only gaze at each other in disbelief. I felt nauseated and unwell, thoroughly shaken up.

Unfortunately, this wasn't the last act of violence Chain Aye Na would celebrate.

...and ends with murder

Murad tolerates his side chick until he can't control her anymore.
Murad tolerates his side chick until he can't control her anymore.

As it turns out Murad is no slouch when it comes to perpetuating violence either. Near the film's close he tries to break off his affair with Dolly. Because Chain Aye Na is so committed to portraying women as objects that have value only in relation to men, Dolly threatens to kill herself if Murad rejects her.

Murad is not terribly concerned by the prospect of a young woman taking her life. In fact, when Dolly presses a gun into his hand and asks him to choose between being with her and shooting her - he shoots her dead. And because Chain Aye Na would have you believe that without the attention of a man a woman is better off dead, Dolly's last words to her murderer are "Thank you."

Because Chain Aye Na is so committed to portraying women as objects that have value only in relation to men, Dolly threatens to kill herself if Murad rejects her. And because Chain Aye Na would have you believe that without the attention of a man a woman is better off dead, Dolly's last words to her murderer are "Thank you."

When Murad calls Ruba to confess his crime he doesn't express remorse at murder - he only regrets that Dolly "tried to create a wall between us." Following this Murad's politician father enters the scene and instructs his goons to throw Dolly's body in a ditch.

With the inconvenient female conveniently dispatched, Chain Aye Na proceeds to normalise her murder with shocking nonchalance. Dolly is never mentioned by name again. Despite knowing that Murad has most certainly murdered a woman Ruba agrees to marry him anyway to preserve her family's izzat.

When it is revealed that Dolly's sister is trying to pursue a case against Murad, Murad's father calls her a r*ndi.

Yes.

This was the point at which I began gathering my things to leave the theater.

A failure on every level

Ruba is the most regressive female lead I've seen yet.
Ruba is the most regressive female lead I've seen yet.

Sometimes films that fail in their politics achieve success in other areas - like acting, cinematography or direction. If this is the case I'm not opposed to critiquing a film's artistic merits independent of the philosophical universe it inhabits.

But this isn't the case with Chain Aye Na. Every single moment of the film is saturated with misogyny and latent aggression towards women, from the songs to the jokes to the character development, making it impossible to form objective opinions about any one aspect.

Perhaps the single greatest failure here is Ruba's character. Ruba is consistently spineless and lacks any identity of her own. She exists only to please her parents and whoever they choose to wed her to.

The lack of self-awareness exhibited by every single member of the cast is deeply shocking. I can't quite fathom how an all-star ensemble could agree to feature in a film so regressive and distasteful.

However, most vitally: the film doesn't make her out to be a victim. It insists that she's chosen this fate, that she's chosen to be abused. She is ok with marrying a man who murdered a woman, and then she's equally ok with (spoiler alert!) falling in love with a man who slapped her in public too.

In her act of normalising this cycle of violence she is the opposite of a role model for women. A newcomer to Pakistani cinema, Sarish Khan has previously said she's a champion of women's empowerment, so it shocks me that she agreed to a role that so obviously glorifies a culture of abuse.

Even when the film attempts to depict 'powerful' women it does so in a way that makes clear that power in the hands of a woman is a corrupting influence. Ruba's politician mother is shown to be manipulative, mercenary and morally bankrupt, and in the absence of any other female characters we're left to believe that a woman must submit to male will or choose between one of two options: death or damnation.

I'm afraid that even one screening later, the damage is already done. When Rayan slapped Ruba onscreen yesterday, a group of men sitting next to me in the cinema broke out into applause. Acha kiya! exclaimed one of them.

I'm also shocked that Shahroz Sabzwari chose to make his film debut as an abusive stalker with zero depth and naunce. I kept waiting for the film to reveal that Rayan suffered from psychological issues, because that is really the only way to explain Rayan's behaviour. Unfortunately, that moment never came, and I realised that to Sabzwari and the rest of the cast Rayan is a perfectly acceptable romantic hero.

This lack of self-awareness, mirrored by every single member of the cast, is deeply shocking. I can't quite fathom how an all-star ensemble could agree to feature in a film so regressive and distasteful.

At the end I'm forced to conclude that Chain Aye Na is the fantasy of a man who, upon witnessing his gradual displacement and growing irrelevance in Pakistani cinema's fairly progressive revival, yearns to return to a time when ageing men held all the power, when women were subservient pawns and where critics turned a blind eye to sexist narratives.

This era Syed Noor yearns for is almost gone, and good riddance to it. However, we're not out of the woods yet. Irresponsible films like Chain Aye Na will seduce those who harbour nostalgia for that era, whispering to them that misogyny and violence are warranted sometimes.

I'm afraid that even one screening later, the damage is already done. When Rayan slapped Ruba onscreen yesterday, a group of men sitting next to me in the cinema broke out into applause. Acha kiya! exclaimed one of them.

"Shame!" I called out in return.

People turned around to look at us, two opposing viewpoints sitting side by side, bristling at each other.

Meanwhile the catalyst for our disagreement glowed larger than life in front us, either a stain or a vindication, depending on how Syed Noor you are.

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