Updated Aug 30, 2017 07:14pm

In Punjab Nahi Jaungi a wadera tries his luck at modern love and wins us over

Would you expect Humayun Saeed to jump at the chance to poke fun at himself? I wouldn't.

Now one of Pakistan's most bankable actors and a power player behind the scenes to boot, Humayun's off-screen persona is dignified and his choice of lead roles tends to favour the serious, brooding grown-up romantic male lead too.

So I was pleasantly surprised by how well he adapted to playing a bumbling Faisalabadi waderey ka pota who always seems to be two steps behind, well, everyone.

The waderay ka pota dreams of modern love

Humayun Saeed's incredibly earnest portrayal of Fawad Khagga makes him easy to love
Humayun Saeed's incredibly earnest portrayal of Fawad Khagga makes him easy to love

In this Eid's hotly anticipated Punjab Nahi Jaungi Humayun is Fawad Khagga, the ladla of a high-strung yet loveable feudal family. The film opens with a huge celebration feting his return from college with a degree that took nearly a decade to earn. I'm glad this was explained to us, because as we all know Humayun does not look like a recent college grad.

Anyway, questionable timelines aside, PNJ assembles its main players efficiently and clearly. Within the film's first fifteen minutes we know the Khagga family's dearest relations are elderly Bebo and her granddaughter Amal in Karachi.

Amal, played by Mehwish Hayat, has also just wrapped up her degree — but in stark contrast to Fawad, she's graduated from a fancy college in London and is very much the urban princess with a strong sense of self.

In a variety of very funny exchanges between Fawad and his motley crew of wannabe wadera friends led by Ahmed Ali Butt as Shafique, PNJ makes sure to stress that Fawad and Amal are not an ideal match. After all, Fawad only recently ran over and killed the very stray dog Amal nursed back to health on a visit to his palatial home a few years ago. After all, Amal speaks English where Fawad speaks Pinglish.

But the heart wants what it wants, and Fawad, upon seeing a picture of Amal all grown up, decides he wants to marry her.

Amal, being a woman of the world, is having none of it. He has a mooch, for heaven's sake. Besides, she already has an 'understanding' with a male friend in London.

Being the entitled brat that he is, Fawad travels to Karachi to woo her anyway. How will this culture clash play out?

Humayun Saeed made me root for a wadera and other revelations

Most of PNJ's most memorable moments occur when Fawad fully expects to get his way and doesn't
Most of PNJ's most memorable moments occur when Fawad fully expects to get his way and doesn't

In order to be successful a film like Punjab Nahi Jaungi must overcome two challenges: first, it must transform a generally repugnant figure - in this case, the feudal lord - into someone an audience can love.

Second, it must be funny without falling back on humour that exploits ethnic stereotypes.

Spoiler alert: despite skating very close to failure a few times, the film wins on both counts.

Written by Khalil Ur Rehman (of Sadqay Tumhare and Pyarey Afzal fame) the script cleverly uses key plot developments and well-timed jibes by other characters as counters to Fawad's entitlement, ready to cut him down to size whenever he gets too puffed up.

Humayun Saeed's incredibly earnest portrayal of Fawad Khagga obviously helps here. The actor doesn't falter once; everything from his body language to his comedic timing is on point, and ultimately Fawad is a reminder of the heights cinema can reach when a screenwriter and an actor share the same vision.

In fact, most of the film's most memorable moments occur when Fawad fully expects to get his way and doesn't. In one scene, Fawad's attempt to physically drag Amal out of Karachi gets him thrown in jail. It's a humbling this wadera has never reckoned with before, and it puts him in his place. By the film's close Fawad understands that the world is not what it once was, and that his brand of masculine swagger won't win him any points from anyone.

In a nutshell, he gains self-awareness. I almost can't bring myself to say it but — even in a wadera, self-awareness is hard not to love.

Humayun Saeed's incredibly earnest portrayal of Fawad Khagga obviously helps here. The actor doesn't falter once; everything from his body language to his comedic timing is on point, and ultimately Fawad is a reminder of the heights cinema can reach when a screenwriter and an actor share the same vision.

Similarly, Punjab Nahi Jaungi's comedy works because it pokes fun at the powerful, not the weak. The grosser aspects of feudal culture are heavily mocked and tired, cliched 'Punjabi' jokes are mostly avoided.

The slap that almost ruined it all

In one scene, Fawad's attempt to physically drag Amal out of Karachi gets him thrown in jail
In one scene, Fawad's attempt to physically drag Amal out of Karachi gets him thrown in jail

Unfortunately, PNJ's script does have its flaws. I only just recovering from the three slaps delivered by Chain Aye Na, so when a similar slap made an appearance in PNJ I blanched.

For me this act of violence by Fawad almost ruined PNJ. The film only bounces back because every other character is firm in their condemnation of the slap, and also because Fawad has to suffer very real consequences for his transgressions.

Still, the film could have gone much further in denouncing domestic violence. Amal could have been much more vocal about the slap, but she wasn't.

In this way PNJ missed an opportunity to decisively take a stand.

Amal lets Mehwish Hayat down

Mehwish Hayat's character Amal could have benefitted from a little more depth
Mehwish Hayat's character Amal could have benefitted from a little more depth

As PNJ progresses we totally get why Fawad wants Amal. She's beautiful, she's accomplished, and she represents the one thing Fawad's money can't buy: a progressive mindset.

But why does Amal want Fawad?

This question is never convincingly answered, and that's a shame this lack of character development prevents Mehwish Hayat from turning in a truly great performance. Sometimes we're led to imagine Amal wants Fawad for his money. Sometimes we're shown that she's attracted to his Punjabi passion. Mostly, we're asked to believe that it's just lurve.

But is it really plausible that a sensible woman in an equal relationship with a man she's known for years will jump ship at the mere sight of a twirled mooch?

I can only conclude that we will continue to see Amals fall for Fawads until we get more women writing scripts for cinema. After all, Punjab Nahi Jaungi is written by a man, produced by men and directed by a man. It stands to reason that these men gave little thought to the inner workings of Amal's mind.

Mehwish and Humayun have great onscreen chemistry so I figured that for Amal, her decision must've come down to raw sex appeal. My assumption was overturned when Fawad reveals to Shafique that he and Amal barely ever have sex. Weird.

I can only conclude that we will continue to see Amals fall for Fawads until we get more women writing scripts for cinema. After all, Punjab Nahi Jaungi is written by a man, produced by men and directed by a man. It stands to reason that these men gave little thought to the inner workings of Amal's mind.

And it's a shame, because the whole movie suffers for their blindspot.

Urwa Hocane as Durdana (the 'other woman') is wholly convincing and does a great job
Urwa Hocane as Durdana (the 'other woman') is wholly convincing and does a great job

In contrast, Urwa Hocane as Durdana (the 'other woman') is wholly convincing and does a great job. True, her character is paper-thin so she has less work to do — but she makes the most of her screen time and comes out on top.

What does Fawad really represent?

I should warn you that Punjab Nahi Jaungi is a looong film. It's latter half morphs into a twisting narrative more suited for TV, which is a nice way of saying the film could've been 30 minutes shorter. But on the plus side, those extra 30 minutes do give one time to drift away and reflect on everything just witnessed. Or you could just take a bathroom break.

Though Punjab Nahi Jaungi is essentially a mainstream rom-com, to me Fawad's bumbling attempts to embrace modernity reflect young Pakistan's very real struggle to transcend its conflicted, complex, regressive origins and burst into the future with greater knowledge and self-awareness.

The events and characters in PNJ make clear to Fawad that the world his father and grandfather grew up in is no more. In this new reality Fawad can't bully women and get away with it, he can't demand love and expect it'll be returned, he can't make someone else do the grunt work and be crowned CEO.

He may not like the way things have turned out but he's ready to suck it up. This to me signifies optimism and hope for our 'real' future, a future that recent events give us reason to believe will be fairer than the past.

It doesn't hurt that PNJ isn't heavy-handed in delivering these lessons.

The film's message is there if you choose to see it, if you're not interested, that's cool too.


Punjab Nahi Jaungi hits cinemas on September 1

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