Verna gets dirty politics right but it gets rape all wrong

Verna gets dirty politics right but it gets rape all wrong

Shoaib Mansoor has created a new breed of rape survivor: the fearless warrior. In doing so, he trivialises rape's trauma
Updated 18 Nov, 2017

Minutes after the CBFC announced its decision to clear Shoaib Mansoor’s latest film Verna without cuts on Friday morning, I was booking a ticket at a Karachi cinema.

It turned out I wasn’t alone in my curiosity to learn what made this movie so objectionable the censor board had attempted to ban it – although it was 4pm, an awkward time to sit through a two and a half hour movie, the theater was at least half-full.

So what did I discover?

The plot

Verna introduces us to a newly married couple, Sara (played by Mahira Khan) and Aami (played by Haroon Shahid), whose lives are thrown into chaos when two armed thugs kidnap Sara in broad daylight.

Spoilers ahead

These thugs tell Aami they’ll kill Sara if he reports his case to the police; it is clear that they’re acting on the orders of an influential person. For this reason, and also because Aami belongs to a conservative Pathan family which considers rape victims to be disgraced or dishonored, he does nothing for the few days Sara is missing.

When Sara is ultimately returned by her captors, she endures two weeks of being hushed up by her family and disrespected by her husband until she finally musters the courage to consult a lawyer.

Supported by her lawyer, Sara decides she will do everything she can to bring her rapist to justice. But as she soon learns, in Pakistan truth is not power. Only power is power.

Verna succeeds in displaying just how rotten Pakistani politics is

The CBFC has said it objected to Verna because of its “scenes and dialogues.” Allow me to ignore this hilariously vague admission and posit my own theory: I believe the censors didn’t like Verna because it showed how politicians at every level are complicit in promoting corruption to protect their own interests.

In Verna, Sara’s rapist is a Governor’s son. This Governer’s support is what enabled the ruling party to form a coalition, so the Prime Minister is indebted to him.

In essence, this means Sara is up against agents within the government who will do anything they can – bribe witnesses, steal evidence, slander families and more – to prevent Sara from getting justice.

In Verna no one is left unnamed. The FIA is culpable, so is the Prime Minister’s office, the interior ministry, the police and more.

Verna’s depiction of this abuse of power feels authentic. Where other films use vague terms to describe official organisations and shady interest groups, in Verna no one is left unnamed. The FIA is culpable, so is the Prime Minister’s office, the interior ministry, the police and more.

Team Verna deserves credit for sticking to their guns; if it was unsettling for me to witness just how many odds are stacked against rape victims in Pakistan, I can imagine it’d be a slap in the face for those parties who enable this perversion.

In terms of performances too, the villains shine. Zarrar Khan, who plays Sara's rapist and the Governor's son Sultan, is very convincing as the entitled brat turned sexual predator.

Unfortunately, this is about the only angle Verna gets right.

Verna doesn’t do justice to survivors of rape

Shoaib Mansoor is known for writing his scripts alone, by himself, with no outside help or consultation. He says his process for Verna was no different.

Ultimately, I believe this is what caused Verna to fail.

In previous interviews Mahira Khan said "there's no nice way of depicting sexual harassment and rape." I agree; there's no way to soften the edges of such vicious, ugly crimes. I'd also argue that there's no single 'right' way to write a rape scene or a rape victim for cinema.

In Verna, Shoaib Mansoor has created a new breed of rape survivor: the fearless warrior. And in doing so, he ends up trivialising the physical and emotional trauma of rape.

However, writers can take care to capture the varied and often conflicting feelings and emotions of those who suffer sexual violence. The aim should be to humanise the victim, because in the real world and in popular culture, rape victims are all too often forced to conform to narrow archetypes: the strong survivor set in opposition to the silent sufferer, for example, or the bitter wretch to the hopeful waif.

In Verna, Shoaib Mansoor has created a new breed of rape survivor: the fearless warrior. An in doing so, he ends up trivialising the physical and emotional trauma of rape.

Even as a woman personally unfamiliar with sexual violence, I found Sara's rape and her response to it wooden and static.

I felt Shoaib Mansoor had no real understanding of how a rape survivor might react in the hours, days and weeks after her ordeal. A mere 12 days after she is kidnapped, tied up by thugs and raped for three days, Sara is willing to confront her rapist (alone!) in a daring move to entrap him. This might make for a convenient plot point, but Mahira's admission that Sara's character is "a woman without fear in her DNA" did little to convince me that Sara is more than a male director's fantasy female avenger.

This could have been avoided Shoaib Mansoor had consulted someone other than himself when the script was down to final edits.

My fear is that those watching Verna will walk away believing every woman can overcome the trauma of rape as easily as Sara can. If so, the film will end up doing the opposite of what it intended - that is - to depict rape as a terrible crime.

Recovery is shown to be easy, and that's a problem

The film message is lost in more subtle failures too. We're subjected to lengthy scenes where Aami blames Mahira for the rape, or when Aami's family justifies why Sara should just forget the whole thing. While it is important to show Pakistani society's callous attitude to rape victims, it is equally important to show how these attitudes can be overcome.

Yet in Verna we see no roadmap for how healing or reconciliation may take place.

A few brief shots of Aami visiting a psychologist or Sara running on a treadmill didn't cut it. The film badly needed a scene where Sara expressed to Aami what exactly she went through and Aami responded with affection and empathy as a loving husband. This never happened.

Verna wants to be a film, but really it is just a public service announcement

Shoaib Mansoor’s projects have always been ‘social messages’ first and ‘films’ second. Yet this split is even more pronounced in Verna than his previous work.

Stylistically, Verna lacks the character, soul and imagination required to truthfully label it a feature film. Its lighting, direction and sound editing reminded me more of a TV drama or a TVC than a dark revenge thriller, all lacked that inexpressible something called atmosphere.

Verna shows us that in Pakistan, truth is not power. Only power is power.

Worse, the script is painfully heavy-handed in doling out its chosen messages. We're subjected to lengthy monologues by Sara and her lawyer (the only moral compasses in the film) about how a woman's honour doesn't reside in her body. We may as well have been watching a PSA. These monologues, delivered in stilted language in antiseptic settings, had almost zero emotional impact.

The project could've been elevated if it'd been written in more expressive, poetic Urdu, but it sticks to a painfully mundane, over-simplified idiom. Certain phrases (like 'fragile masculinity') are translated much too literally to take seriously. That the worst insult Sara can hurl at her rapist is "kutta" and "ganda aadmi" reveals a major lapse in imagination.

With all these flaws, minor and major, it's unrealistic to expect Verna's acting talent to blow us away. But Mahira Khan and Haroon Shahid do well enough with the material they've been given.

Mahira's performance is commanding but not transformative. It is becoming clear that Mahira's distinctive inflections will bleed into any character she inhabits, meaning Mahira has always played some iteration of herself. Will this ever change? Only if she works with a more evolved script.

Haroon Shahid is likewise competent in the role he's been given. He's a convincing immature husband, and unfortunately that's where he remains.

I'm glad the movie was not banned, or cut, or censored in any way, because its message about Pakistani politics needs to be heard. But on all other counts -- better luck next time.