If there’s one thing that new film Sherdil has going for it, it’s timing.

With the Pakistan Air Force having a bit of a moment and a nationalist buzz still ringing in the air, a film that extols the heroism of fighter pilots is likely to enjoy a decent run in the cinemas. Throw in some visuals of skirmishes between Pakistan and India and the audience believes they’ll get to vicariously experience the thrill (and terror) of some cross-border action for themselves.

Will they get what they come for, though? Directed by Azfar Jafri and produced and written by Nomaan Khan, Sherdil premiered in Karachi last night. Its release this weekend follows on the heels of Parwaaz Hai Junoon, Pakistan's other recent film about PAF.

Some thoughts after the screening yesterday:

[spoilers follow]

Does Sherdil do justice to its story of a brave fighter pilot?

In Sherdil, we see Flight Lieutenant Haris Mustafa (Mikaal Zulfikar)’s journey from a fresh PAF recruit to battle hero. One milestone of this journey is his almost fatal face-off against his Indian counterpart Flight Lieutenant Arun Verani (Hassan Niazi) whom he later meets and forms a cordial bond while training at an international flying school in UAE. Will the bond last? You’ll find out in the film.

Other highlights of Haris’s journey include the ups and downs in his relationship with girlfriend Sabrina (Armeena Khan) and his father (Imran Uppal) who severely disapproved of his dream to join PAF.

A major takeaway from the film is a reminder of the passion, bravery and selflessness of fighter pilots who put their lives and their family’s peace of mind on the line for their job. However, Sherdil tells this more than it is able to show it.

Aside from some well-executed combat sequences, we don’t get to see enough of Haris’s experience as a fighter pilot. Nomaan Khan’s script makes huge time jumps, glossing over the challenges you’d expect Haris to surmount, to make room for the funner bits in the script: all the admittedly hilarious ways in which Haris’ classmates bungle their way through their PAF training, his on-and-off romance with Sabrina and all the song-and-dance sequences to celebrate that love in his life.

The script gives more time to the evolution of Haris’s relationships with Arun, Sabrina, his father and that doesn’t bear fruit in the form of his own personal growth. The viewer's investment in Haris goes unrewarded. How does Haris become Sherdil? We never know.

In terms of entertainment value, which appeared to be Nomaan Khan’s main concern at the premiere (‘Were you not entertained?’ he bellowed at the end at the screening), Sherdil is written to appeal to a wide audience with a mix of patriotism, action, romance, humour and music. But this desire for mass appeal results in a watered down action-drama where the main character barely has an arc. Was the trade-off worth it? Not for me.

India takes a beating on the big screen

Perhaps what will make the film work for many people is its opportune use of the Pak-India angle. While Parwaaz Hai Junoon featured an unnamed dushman, this film clearly portrays India as a repeat aggressor and Pakistan as a gallant defender of its borders. Rings a bell?

The unexpected friendship that develops between Haris and Arun gives an interesting angle to this theme. But their relationship is also a metaphor for Pak-India relations. Haris largeheartedly extends the hand of friendship to Arun multiple times but Arun always supplies a reason to turn him down. Also ring a bell?

A more sophisticated script would try to situate the Pak-India conflict in a sociopolitical context but this film makes no such attempt. The film will comfort its audience by confirming our biases about Pakistan and India in light of recent events. And the end scene is sure to get a reaction from the audience.

Action and humour make the film watchable but the romance is criiinge

Based on what the film offers in terms of viewing experience, Sherdil’s combat sequences are fun to watch, showing a sophistication in choreography and animation that its predecessor Parwaaz Hai Junoon lacked. While it was difficult to make sense of the action in PHJ, the viewer faced no such frustration in Sherdil.

The film's funny parts also drew laughs though there was an over-reliance on toilet humour. Haris’s trio of friends (played by Belal Shahid, Malik Aqeel and Ibrahim Alavi) are more endearing than irritating but they can't block out the cringe-worthy memory of Haris and his friends' sorry attempts at romance.

It’s clear that the women in the film, who are barely fleshed out even in their scant roles as love interests, are products of a male fantasy. They look good, they have no ambitions that they make known and no regard is given to their thought process.

With such little effort spent on their characters, the female actors have little to work with. Sabeeka Imam, who stars as an aide to the instructor at the international flight school and Arun's love interst, has the presence of a hologram and I half expected her to start flickering at some points. Armeena is similarly robotic. The men have more substance and thus perform better with Hassan Niazi commanding more attention than Mikaal Zulfikar.

As for the music, there are no good songs in this film. And the fact that they are intervowen into the script with all the delicacy of a Bollywood masala film make the experience of listening to them even worse.

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