“Help me, Durdana. Mera dil toot gaya, cousin.”
Humayun Saeed (i.e. Fawad Khagga) begs Urwa Hocane to heal his broken heart while they both get drenched in a downpour. It’s a scene that could be sappy, melodramatic, maybe even a little heart-wrenching — but Punjab Nahi Jaungi’s audience guffaws at their exchange.
Maybe because Urwa follows up his request with this kookily worded admission: “It [i.e, his romantic overture] was long-awaited, Fawad.”
Punjab Nahi Jaungi premiered to rave reviews last Tuesday night and the audience seems to have lapped up the rom-com as a laugh riot.
The film opens in Faisalabad as the Khagga clan gets ready to celebrate Fawad's homecoming from Lahore, where he spent the last 10 years getting his MA degree. He's the first in his family of feudals to get a college education, so they leave no stone unturned for the fete. The Khagga Palace is decked to the nines, mujras are the order of the day and Fawad gets a gaudy, gold crown by the end of it all.
Is that all his degree was for? Not quite.
Fresh grad Fawad likes to give proof of his academic accomplishment by intermittently breaking into spurts of stilted, thickly accented English. His family often follows suit. A bulk of the film’s humour relies on the comedic effect of this family attempts to be 'modern'.
Like, Fawad has a catchphrase that goes like: “Good question, very good question. And the answer is...”, lines he’s probably picked up from one of his MA professors in Lahore.
“Gosh!”, mutters his otherwise mostly Urdu/Punjabi-speaking Abbajee when Fawad's lady love Amal (Mehwish Hayat) walks out on him.
At one point, Fawad says to his friend Shafiq (Ahmed Ali Butt), “You live in fool’s paradise, oyyye!”
The punch of these funny lines is lent by the actors’ spot-on delivery and timing, so much credit is due to them.
But with the heavy focus on the characters’ inability to speak English as fluently as us city slickers, one wonders if the film’s humour is elitist, in that it’s meant to be appreciated exclusively by an ‘English-medium’ crowd.
One could argue that that’s who we’re making films for now... the multiplex crowd, whose buying power reaps much of the local box office's earnings. For this audience, deep down, perhaps the humour of the Khagga clan’s poor English is rooted in taking secret pleasure in their inferiority to 'educated' folk.
The key question then becomes: does the film allow everyone to revel in the Khaggas' ineptitude or just cause some to feel their own?
To be fair, the film also flips the jokes once and cracks one at the expense of BBCD-esque Vasay (Azfar Rahman), who rather stupidly asks “Who’s Lara?” when Fawad tells Amal that all her boyfriend could only give her is "a lara", as in trick her with deceit.
'Paindu jokes', 'Pathan jokes' and its other ethnically inspired forms are among the most popular brands of humour in Pakistan. While their inappropriateness is slowly dawning on the entertainment industry, it's obvious that the 'paindu jokes' are still considered fair game and PNJ does rely on those for its comedy.
Still, I feel it would have been a graver offence if PNJ alienated a whole group of people by whitewashing a vast ethnic group like Punjabis as rural bumpkins. It instead skewers the follies of a subset of Punjabi peoples, that is, its land-owning gentry that is well, infamous for the things that the films takes them to task for: mujra-watching, womanising, mistreating their wives, etc.
It's for this reason that PNJ doesn't offend so much because the butt of the jokes are usually the privileged Khaggas, not the film's side characters.
Some of the film’s funniest moments occur when the Khagga clan’s men are reduced to grovelling and ‘doing tobah’ as they renounce their old ways. The film does a balancing act by also showing the feudal lords' capacity for reform. The film shows Dadajee (i.e. Fawad's grandfather and head of clan) at his progressive best. For instance, he appoints his granddaughter-in-law Amal as the CEO of their dairy business that she she revamps, insisting that the kursi ought to go to the person who put in all the work. Hearing words about meritocracy from the mouth of a feudal was refreshing to say the least.
Pakistani entertainment industry has not always been so subtle or incisive in its humour, with films like Karachi Se Lahore or recent award shows coming to mind where the worst of ethnic stereotyping is employed with little remorse. It’s fair to say we’ve grown tired of Pathan jokes and we’re glad that PNJ didn’t sell out and just hash out a script based on cliches about the people of Punjab.
Of course, that would have also been a bad business decision.