Review: Cake raises the bar for Pakistani cinema and left me wanting more

Review: Cake raises the bar for Pakistani cinema and left me wanting more

What sets Cake apart is that it introduces us to women for whom romantic love and marriage are not central concerns
Updated 01 Apr, 2018

How's this for a parting shot: Cake's closing scene features lead actress Aamina Sheikh flipping off the camera.

Who's she targeting though? Is it the inquisitive auntie within the film who's silently judging her? Or has director Asim Abbasi broken the fourth wall at the very last minute as an answer to those who predicted Pakistani cinema could never produce intelligent, international-standard feature films?

I'd like to believe it's the latter because the team behind Cake has every reason to be smug.

As I watched Cake I realised it fulfilled every promise made by its team in the months preceding its release.

Yes, the film is better than the trailer, just like Abbasi said it would be. Yes, Pakistani audiences will agree that they haven't seen a film like Cake before, just as cast member Adnan Malik predicted. And yes, it doesn't feature any 'masala,' or 'lip-syncing' or 'dance numbers -- and it's a better film for these omissions.

The plot

At its most basic level Cake is a family drama. Unlike the feature films our industry has recently birthed, its focus is not a pair of lovers or a 'social issue' of national importance. Instead Cake draws us into a household held together by Zareen (played by Aamina Sheikh), who nurses her eccentric, ailing parents (played by Mohammed Ahmed as the father and Beo Rana Zafar as the mother) while her siblings Zara (played by Sanam Saeed) and Zain (played by Faris Khalid) pursue their lives abroad.

A medical emergency serves as a catalyst for a reunion, bringing back not just Zara and Zain, who've been absent from Karachi for a long period, but also Romeo (played by Adnan Malik). As the now-accomplished son of the household's longtime Christian support staff, Romeo must delicately navigate his changing status within this complicated family.

Perhaps 'colourful' is a more accurate term. Cake's central family of five is teeming with strong personalities; everyone from the dramatic, flamboyant mother to tightly wound, guarded Zareen is feisty in their own way. As these personalities rub up against each other resentments begin to surface and carefully preserved secrets threaten to be revealed.

The film's central question then becomes: will this family survive the trial it's been confronted with? Or is love not enough after all?

What makes Cake work?

While crappy films take varying routes to achieving crappiness, good films tend to succeed for the same simple reason: everything works.

By this I mean every aspect of the production succeeds in its own sphere and then proceeds to support what surrounds it. In Cake, this means an intelligent, modern, engaging screenplay is supported by a directorial vision that values intimate, understated shots and sequences over flashy gimmickery. Authentic acting is supported by realistic set design, believable styling and relatable props.

The result is a film that feels less like a production and more like a window into your noisy neighbour's life, that noisy neighbour you curse at 3am but want to visit the next day for your regular dose of gup.

In international media much has been made of Cake's commitment to featuring 'strong women.' But I don't think this is the film's major selling point at all. Plenty of Pakistani films have featured women who we've come to label as 'strong' -- women who shout, women who argue, women who stand by their own choices, or simply choose to exercise their own choices at all. We just saw Mahira Khan as Sara in Verna and before that Ainy Jaffri was suitably strong as Mahi in Balu Mahi.

It was a pleasure to watch a Pakistani film celebrating the sisterhood of women, those secret moments and close conversations we thrive on every day yet don't see in popular TV or cinema.

So no. What actually sets Cake apart is that it introduces us to women for whom romantic love, marriage and commitment are not central concerns.

The women in Cake - Zareen and Zara - do not pique our interest because of their messy love lives. Their love lives, if those lives even exist, are secondary to their passions, goals and insecurities as individuals.

Shedding our national obsession with larka and shaadi is what makes the female leads in Cake revolutionary, not their so-called strength, which in any case is a word emptied of meaning through careless overuse.

I was thrilled to watch whole scenes where Zara and Zareen spoke not of their relationship to men, but to each other and to their own selves. It was a pleasure to watch a Pakistan film celebrating the sisterhood of women, those secret moments and close conversations we thrive on every day yet don't see in popular TV or cinema. In this way Cake more than passes the Bechdel Test, and Aamina Sheikh and Sanam Saeed both rise to the occasion.

I don't want to say too much, but I will say this: what I liked most about Cake's portrayal of women is that, at the end, for once, we're shown that a woman's redemption or personal growth isn't achieved through marriage.

Adnan Malik underplays Romeo to much success. However, if I had to choose I'd say it is Aamina Shiekh who really stands out. She's undoubtedly the star of Cake.

And where were the men in all this? Well, we can turn to Romeo for answers.

As the houseboy-turned-medical assistant Romeo is both an insider and an outsider, which means he's perfectly positioned to serve as the film's moral compass, which he does with subtlety and finesse. His being sketched as a minority adds to his remove and accentuates his ability to comment on the family from a distant perch. Importantly, he never pushes his opinion with arrogance -- his status doesn't allow him to anyway -- which means we're viewing a male lead who is poles apart from the aggressive type-A brats we've seen before.

He is a romantic interest -- I won't say for whom -- but this romantic connection is soft, tender and fragile, and again, secondary to the film's main conceit. The result is a romantic hero who isn't pushy, isn't shouty -- he's just present. And Romeo becomes all the more compelling for this, because isn't that the soundest basis for love -- just being there?

Adnan Malik, who's often taken flak for his acting, underplays Romeo to much success. As a minority and as an observer to the household Romeo has had to exercise restraint all his life, and Malik seems to understand this. The result is a solid performance.

In fact, practically every performance in Cake is solid. However, if I had to choose I'd say it is Aamina Shiekh who really stands out. She's undoubtedly the star of Cake, holding it all together with a performance that's always believable, always compelling.

So what's next?

There's a lot I haven't said about Cake. I haven't touched on how its thematic concerns are the gold we haven't mined enough, or how effectively it employs its soundtrack, or how Asim Abbasi thoughtfully resists the impulse to tell us everything all at once.

Instead, I'll say that I hope Cake serves as a roadmap for other Pakistani filmmakers and inspires them to broaden their horizons. I hope Cake encourages more collaborations and more conversations. I hope it encourages more investment.

And I hope it encourages more writers to come forward with stories from our mundane everyday, simple stories of family feuds and sibling rivalries and petty jealousies that we didn't know could be so engaging until we saw them brought to life in Cake.


RWS Mar 30, 2018 04:06pm
Is it getting released in US (California)?
BS Mar 30, 2018 04:11pm
@RWS Playing in theaters
kash Mar 30, 2018 04:42pm
it seems like Kapoor & sons
Amira Mar 30, 2018 04:54pm
It reminded me of kapoor and sons movie while watching it.
Erum Ali Mar 30, 2018 05:50pm
Just watched the movie in hoyts cinema, Melbourne, Victoria. Cake... Excellent movie portraits the culture, traditions and emotions of relationships along with the requirements and demands of modern age in today’s Pakistan though few things didn’t need to be showed in the movie like extraordinary smoking. A subjective movie with high standard of filming beautiful spots of Pakistan. Yes we need to be grateful to the minorities and non Muslims for their act of kindness and treat them like equal citizens in Pakistan. Yes we need to show respect and love to the people who plays grate role in our lives irrespective of religion.
Adil Mar 30, 2018 06:11pm
Kapoor and sons part 2.
Abdul Rafay Mar 30, 2018 06:42pm
It is a waste when you good acting and good direction, paying for a copycat plot. Pakistani cinema could do better.
Bhoy Indian Mar 30, 2018 07:08pm
After some of my Pakistani friends recommended me about this film I watched it. It is a good film. Yes it is like Kapoor & Sons. A lot of similarities. But the movie was enjoyable. All 3 female actors were very good. It will be good if Pakistani cinema promotes proper actors rather than casting Mahira Khan in every film.
Asim Mar 30, 2018 08:00pm
I just watched it. Earlier I thought its going to be a mixture if 'Kapoor & Sons' and 'Piku'. But I was so wrong. This was one of the best movies I have ever watched. The chemistry shown was just magical. Story is as gripping as the storytelling. Clearly somebody's lifetime worth of work. Just one comment for this article, why not a SINGLE mention about the parents? The parents were the center of the story. And they were the best of all. Just the best! Being away from Pakistan, we were relating to so much! Bravo! Thanks for making such an amazing movie..
Omar Mar 30, 2018 10:15pm
Kapoor and sons remake
Ahmad Gul Mar 31, 2018 12:10am
I have seen this movie today and I love the way all actors play their roles. All actors did justice . This movie has left a Mark when I left the cinema hall.
Ehsan Mar 31, 2018 12:27am
Don’t understand why everyone keeps comparing lollywood with Bollywood. The comments below are annoying.
Khan Mar 31, 2018 02:25am
Cake takes the cake!!!
Danish Mar 31, 2018 07:35am
Saw the movie, it was do-over of kapoor and sons. Need to bring in creativity and originality, only post it will comparison end.
Raza Mar 31, 2018 08:11am
Good to see an offbeat film in Pakistan, a country that has been through harrowing experience of existence. Perhaps it is these hard times that filter us into a more pure expression in art and creativity. Best of luck Pakistani actors and film makers...but the bigger chunk of pleasure rests with us, the viewers.
Ali Mar 31, 2018 08:49am
Copy paste kapoor& sons.
Speak_Truth Mar 31, 2018 09:17am
Do new-age Pakistani films need to have gestures of profanity to be considered authentic ? Pathetic.
SPINOZA Mar 31, 2018 05:16pm
Excellent work. Acting, Direction, Story, Sound, Cinematography, all clicked which is a rarity in Pakistani movie. Hope to see more such movies from Pakistan in future.
AIJAZ GUL Apr 01, 2018 10:29am
Films films like Cake around, it is pity that film going is no longer a mass entertainment. Just six or seven stations for film release do not constitute Pakistan. With low means of earning, more cinemas nationwide with affordable admission price is my dream for the coming years. My best wishes for the film team of Cake with the hope that they would continue with films where we don't have to leave our brains outside the auditorium.
Maria Apr 01, 2018 05:36pm
Aamina sheikh is an amazing actress! Loved the film
Maria Apr 01, 2018 05:37pm
I had in my head compared it to kapoor and sons but no I was wrong gladly so and I’m just happy that I enjoyed a good film after ages
Irfan Apr 01, 2018 07:18pm
Can't appreciate movies when it's copy of other movies. Copies don't make best direction, cinematography because it is taking of others work. Adding few embellishments won't hide that. Need of the hour is to be original.
Nithin Apr 01, 2018 09:35pm
Very good guys...keep it up
mahmood anwar Apr 02, 2018 02:02am
Is it getting released in US (Washington DC, NYC)?
Shabnam Raza Apr 02, 2018 08:27am
Its a beautiful movie about every family....presented and acted brilliantly by our actors...enjoyed every moment of it...yes its unique.
Glen D'Abreo Apr 03, 2018 08:35am
When is the US release CA is April 13th. When these pics get released the marketing department should target advertising San Francisco as these type of films will gain massive audience. A cheap way is to use social media to direct the Pakistani groups in all cities this will create an interest and make Pakistani movies more audience worthy.
Abdul Haseeb Apr 03, 2018 09:18am
@kash that's exactly what I thought while watching the trailer.
Alanore Apr 03, 2018 01:32pm
I saw this movie over Easter weekend. I must say it was a good film. But there are some parts i dont agree with.
Shahzad Akhund Apr 04, 2018 02:07am
After hearing so many good reviews, I guess it's a must see movie. So I will watch it soon.
Zak Apr 07, 2018 01:31pm
@kash You make Comments, even before you have seen it. This is Pakistani cinema.
Zak Apr 07, 2018 01:33pm
It was well known, that given some time, Pakistani cinema and TV productions would reach international standards. And that is happening. This industry will soon be a big foreign exchange earner.
hyat Apr 08, 2018 04:27am
good effort better than watching Indian movies.