Cake set the bar high after its trailer release but the film was still better than I had anticipated. It moved me to tears.
In a nutshell, Cake is about an estranged family coming together under one roof. Zareen (Aaminah Sheikh) contacts her siblings living abroad, Zara (Sanam Saeed) and Zain (Farish Khalid) to inform them of their father's deteriorating health. They rush back to their hometown to be with the parents. Within this household is a Christian support staff Romeo (Adnan Malik) who gets caught up in the family drama as past incidents, including a death, unfold and set the family up against each other.
The film resonated with me, I say this not because the movie's storyline mirrors the dynamics of my household, but because there is a sense of familiarity about the relationships shown.
And that's just the surface that Cake scratches; the film leaves you with a lot more substance to walk away with because it holds a mirror up to the audience and forces them to question a lot of things. Here are a few important themes I found in the film that may not have been obvious at first.
1) In Pakistan, we ignore the small, everyday insults minorities endure
One of the factors which breathe life into Cake is the representation of minorities in our country. Romeo's inclusion in the film is not to change people's perception of Christians/Hindus/other minorities in Pakistan. No, it doesn't aim to be preachy, we already have an awareness of the blasphemy law and our mistreatment of minorities. Rather, the film shows the small, daily-life interactions we have with them that go unnoticed.
Abbasi skillfully shows us a scene between Romeo and a tuck shop owner, who deliberately tells the boy working for him not to sell their products to "in jaison" (these people) while Romeo is within earshot. Romeo looks towards the owner and then walks away, aware of his standing in society and helpless in his situation.
The short exchange between Romeo and people in his surroundings is enough to put across the ill-treatment of minorities at the hands of the majority on an everyday basis.
Also read: Where should a Pakistani Hindu go?
This may seem rather insignificant but this example of othering shows our clear disregard for sensitivities on the basis of belief and it immediately forced me to analyse and acknowledge our behaviour towards minorities in our day to day lives.
2) Love stories aren’t just for the young
It's refreshing to see old people in love and Cake does a remarkable job of showing a firecracker wife who doesn't take a moment's break from teasing her mellow husband. This isn't to say they don't have their fair share of fights or disagreements, like all romantic relationships they too have ups and downs, but they make up for them after.
Abbasi shows their affection by highlighting the importance of sharing a bed between a married couple. The two always go to bed together and share the same bed. Even when the husband has to sleep on a hospital bed at home, the wife sleeps beside him on the same bed. It shows a level of intimacy and trust between the partners, even in old age. Sharing a bed isn't only about physical proximity between two people, it also shows an acceptance of the other, allowing them space into your life.
She showers him with rose petals when he is discharged, they talk to each other about their hopes and dreams in their remaining few years, there is healthy communication between them and an urge to share their thoughts. They never discuss problems and life in front of their children, they only discuss them when they're by themselves, which creates a sense of confidence in each other. They know that they will not have always have their children by their side, but they will always have each other.
There is also a realisation that old age gives you the free pass to do as you please; the need to live in the moment and express oneself for who they are as 'log kya kahengay' goes out the window. The mother is unabashed in her behaviour in a public or private setting and the husband is accepting of that, never once embarrassed (rather it's the kids who unsuccessfully try to calm the mother).
The couple give off a sense of acceptance and appreciation and I admired that. Their old age romance is endearing.
3) We have a warped idea that only sacrifice is what makes family life work
Our social setup teaches us that sacrifice is the ultimate form of love.
In Cake, Zareen is the one who makes the ultimate sacrifice. Although the parents never stopped their kids from living their lives, they privately express their desire to be around their children, so much so that the father denies the mother's wish to move to their farmhouse because their children were only likely to visit them in their city home.
Fingers are pointed at Zain, the eldest son, for not taking on the responsibility of the parents as society dictates the son to. We are shown a narrative where the key to a happy life is sacrifice, but Zareen, who has had to let go of a life of her own, is the least happy of the lot; she puts everyone before her and forgoes her dreams, her love and her ambitions.
In each scenario, sacrifice came at a cost and that is one's own happiness.
Which made me question: To what extent should one sacrifice their life in order to make family life work? And is this the right approach?
4) Because at the end of it all, we're a country for the privileged
Cake also sheds light on a dark theme. When one of the siblings commits a terrible crime, the immediate reaction of the family is to protect the child and make sure the incident goes unnoticed. Unfortunately it's Romeo who ends up paying for it.
This speaks of three things often found among the privileged in Pakistan:
1) Baat daba do: The family had hoped the crime would go unnoticed so the guilty runs scot free and can continue living their lives. The privileged have this urgent need to suppress everything that shatters their existence and way of life, so they'll try to end the matter without allowing justice to prevail. It’s also because they have the power to bypass it, while the less privileged don’t.
2) The false sense of belief that the elite are above the law: The family paid little heed to the fact that a crime needs to be accounted for, the law applies to everyone and each needs to pay for their actions - we ask for justice but when it comes to us, how accepting are we of the law? The sibling should've paid for the crime but didn't. So who paid for it?
3) The less privileged have to pay for the mistakes of the elite: The family accepted Romeo's offer to pay for the crime to protect their own. The less privileged are often held accountable for the mistakes of the privileged and in this case Romeo felt the need to protect the family more than himself. Why do the less privileged feel a sense of duty to protect the elite by having to make up for their mistakes? And why have we internalised that belief?
Taking a famous example of the above is the ongoing high-profile case of Shahzeb Khan that has seen the perpetrator Shahrukh Jatoi escape conviction for years.
These are just a few things that the film addresses and they made me question the reality we live in and how we shape certain beliefs to cushion those realities based on our comfort.