The women in Cake - Zareen and Zara - do not pique our interest because of their messy love lives.
The women in Cake - Zareen and Zara - do not pique our interest because of their messy love lives.

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.

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