What are our expectations from an animated children’s movie made in Pakistan?
That the film should spark the imagination of its young viewers? That its story should inspire them? That its visuals should look better than Commander Safeguard?
In Allahyar and The Legend of Markhor (Allahyar), an unlikely group unites in the jungles of north Pakistan to stop a pair of poachers — Mani (Ali Noor) and his reluctant sidekick Babloo Chacha (Arieb Azhar) — from hunting down markhors on the mountaintop of Sia Koh.
This group consists of our young hero, Allahyar (Anum Zaidi); his spirited markhor friend, Mehru (Natasha Humera Ejaz); a rather entitled snow leopard, Chakku (Abdul Nabi Jamali); and the always amorous Hero (Azfar Jafri), who’s a chukar, i.e., a partridge native to north Pakistan.
Allahyar may check the above boxes, yet leaves a fair bit to be desired.
Allahyar has a naughty streak, but is otherwise quite the model boy. So he is heard spouting platitudes like ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ on the regular.
Perhaps the most important message that he vocalises is that of the need to overcome our differences. We see animals from across the wilderness come together, regard each other with suspicion and realise that other species aren’t so bad.
The fact that Allahyar delivers rote-learnt lines to the effect of ‘One shouldn’t judge a person on the basis of their religion, nationality or colour’ really hammers that point home, which is fair given that this is a lesson not necessarily taught in every home. In the violent, divisive times that children are now growing up in, we really can't say this enough.
These messages could definitely have been woven more subtly into the film’s narrative, but perhaps it was a deliberate attempt of the director to familiarise the audience with the Urdu versions of these popular sayings. In interviews, director Uzair Zaheer Khan has said that he works with a Urdu curriculum company and even includes a tangential scene that pointedly highlights the lack of regard for Urdu in our school curricula.
That the film tries to foster a desire to care for Pakistan’s wildlife is immediately obvious.
Through the course of Allahyar's narrative, it is emphasised that the only acceptable reason to hunt animals is to feed ourselves (the vegetarian Mehru of course disagrees) and that killing animals for sport or a show of skill isn’t cool. The film also talks about wildlife as a source of national pride; at one point, Allahyar’s father says that anyone who sells markhor essentially sells the nation.
These are all ideas worth reinforcing, but do they really inspire the audience to reevaluate their role in protecting the animals around us?
Allahyar misses the opportunity to take a stronger stand for animal rights through the very interesting character of Babloo Chacha. This Chacha, who is an almost unwilling accomplice to poacher Mani’s crimes, has ambivalent feelings towards violence and holds the view that taking an animal’s life is a lesser evil than taking a human’s. This is a fairly accurate reflection of Pakistani society.
Chacha could have matured in the film to empathise with animals’ suffering, but that doesn’t happen. [Spoiler begins] In the end, Babloo Chacha turns his back on Mani to save Allahyar’s life; he doesn’t take this bold step when a markhor is under threat. [Spoiler ends] The film thus stops short of sending a more decisive message about the value of animal lives.
Ironically, it’s the evil poacher Mani who has the right idea — a life is a life — but the wrong intention — he preys on human and animals equally!
Allahyar meets the current industry standard of animation, but didn’t push that envelope further, even though director Uzair promised he would. There is an obvious lack of consistency in the animation style; and basic issues like lipsyncing errors and clumsy transitions and cuts mars the overall presentation of the film.
While the terrain and environment detail was nice, some of the animal characters needed more variety in movement, although it has to be said that they got the markhors right — strong and surefooted. The rabbits were cute but far less true-to-life than the rest of the characters. They were almost puppets.
That being said, the film is colourful and situated in the beautiful north, which means there is enough visual splendour to sustain the audience through the film's short 90-minute or so duration.
What people will recall is the film’s funny moments, like Hero the chukar, whose amourous antics are hilarious (even though they may be normalising harassment for the film’s young audience!). It was welcome relief to connect with and look forward to a character, especially in the absence of an emotional connection with the two main charcaters, Allahyar and Mehru. Equally funny is the appearance of a pair of rabbits (played by Parchi stars Hareem Farooq and Ali Rehman Khan). Don’t miss out.