Of the movies hitting cinemas this Eid — Wrong No. 2 and Chhalawa -— Chhawala is the film most have pinned their hopes on. Directed by Wajahat Rauf who made 2015's 'Karachi se Lahore, Chhalawa's biggest draw is Mehwish Hayat, who has consistently delivered solid performances (and box office success) in crowd-pleasers like Punjab Nahi Jaungi, Actor in Law and Load Wedding.
So when Chhalawa began, I looked to Mehwish Hayat to steal the show. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Chhalawa's ensemble cast more than showed up to set - each actor managed to establish themselves as a solid, viable big-screen presence.
Another iteration of 'lovers against the world' provides the premise for Chhalawa
Once you get a sense of the plot, Chhalawa's reliance on its ensemble cast makes sense. Zoya (played by Mehwish Hayat) is a woman of indeterminate age who is forcibly kept house-bound by her overbearing father (Mehmood Aslam), who happens to be a Punjabi landowner.
The reason for Zoya's house arrest? Her love for Sameer (Azfar Rehman), a city boy. For some reason, it is never fully explained why Chaudhry Saab hates Sameer and forbids Zoya from speaking to him, let alone marrying him. He prefers that Zoya marry his brother's son, a greasy lech with zero redeeming qualities.
Just as we've come to care about these characters we're asked to discard precisely what we've been led to believe about their nature. The result is confusion and dissonance.
Chaudhry Saab also has another daughter Haya (played by Zara Noor Abbas). While Zoya is portrayed as the dream Pakistani bahu (highly educated, pretty, rebellious enough to have 'personality' but not so rebellious as to unalterably challenge family dynamics), Haya is more inscrutable. She hides her smarts behind a larger-than-life Bollywood persona: she is obsessed with films, dancing and acting and dreams of being a big star. She also dreams of finding Bollywood-style love.
The story takes off when Sameer plots to free Zoya from her father's clutches with help from his friend (played by Asad Siddiqui), who also happens to be a con artist presently posing as a pir. Sameer and his friend get invited to Chaudhry Saab's home, which is the perfect opportunity to whisk Zoya away from her suffocating dad.
Or is it?
In Chhalawa, the actors shine despite the script
Let me start by saying that Chhalawa isn't an original film by any measure. It relies on plot lines and tropes we've recently seen in local movies: forbidden love, forced marriages, runaway brides and unyielding fathers.
Of course, originality isn't really the standard by which we measure an intended blockbuster. A film that releases over Eid doesn't often seek to break the mold, it seeks to draw a maximum number of bodies to the cinema. And for this all you need is decent hype, solid acting and a somewhat decent plot.
Chhalawa delivers on one count: the acting. Zara Noor Abbas is especially good as diva-esque Haya. Her comic timing is sound and she manages to add depth to who would've been an otherwise vapid character. Between Haya and Zoya, I walked away with the distinct impression that Haya was the cleverer of the two sisters.
While Zoya's rebellion against her father manifests itself in a fairly traditional form - that is, choosing her own lover - Haya's entire filmy, flouncy being is at odds with her father's belief system, leaving him with no distinct or obvious gripes upon which to concretely found his displeasure. She doesn't do anything overtly annoying - she just is annoying. The result is that she can get away with a lot more, which is fun to watch. '
I'd have to say that Chhalawa very closely resembles our present political leadership. It forces its lead characters to take off in one direction only to execute a U-turn and land somewhere else entirely. Chhalawa's intentions were good — but naively, it was unprepared for the challenges that lay ahead.
Another surprise star is Aashir Wajahat, director Wajahat Rauf's son. He's no stranger to acting, having appeared in his father's movies before. But he definitely earns his spot in Chhalawa with his natural portrayal of the Chaudhry Saab's third and youngest child Haroon. He's a smart-talking young teenager who is often the canniest person in the room thanks to his observant nature.
Mehmood Aslam as Chaudhry Saab is also very good. Azfar Rehman delivers a solid performance as the male lead even if he is often overshadowed by Mehwish Hayat and Zara Noor, and Asad Siddiqui is likewise competent.
I have mixed feelings about Mehwish Hayat, though. While she is definitely leading-lady material due to her magnetism onscreen... I couldn't help but feel that she didn't fit the role, which was written in a way that suggested Zoya was a much younger girl. Mehwish as Zoya is capable, strong and smart... to the point where it doesn't make sense that she would be so easily swayed by her father's ridiculous demands.
As Zoya rebels against her father's wishes, I witnessed Mehwish rebelling against the demands of her role. The resulting split affected the movie; I couldn't continue to buy the film's founding premise.
However, what did become clear by the film's end is that as an industry, we don't suffer from a lack of dramatic talent. The actors in Chhalawa managed to make the most of even the most cringe-worthy jokes, which is quite an achievement.
This brings me to the script.
Plot inconsistencies are Chhalawa's undoing
Chhalawa is meant to be a funny film, and I can safely say that about half its scripted jokes do land well. But the other half just... should've been slashed in the writing room.
Within the film's first half hour we're exposed to not one, not two, but three scenes that feature suicide as their punchline, and not in a smart, savvy way. Suicide is presented as a tactic of emotional manipulation: a lover isn't picking up the phone? Okay, attempt suicide to get their attention.
I fail to understand why Wajahat Rauf, who wrote the script, would seek to mine such a complicated, weighty topic for comedic content. Some of the smartest comedy writers get suicide 'jokes' wrong, so really, can an Eid blockbuster hope to get it right?
However, there are moments of levity that actually work. Chhalawa's comedy works best when it pokes fun at corruption, entitlement and everyday human foibles like jealousy.
Chhalawa also successfully references the Pakistani film industry and our local political landscape. At one point Mehwish Hayat is referred to as 'aurtoun ki Imran Khan', which is, coming from Zara Noor Abbas, actually very funny.
Other winning moments are achieved by Chhalawa's success in creating a believable bond between siblings Zoya, Haya and Haroon. The chemistry between this trio works well and I found myself rooting for them. I realised that I cared more about the connection between these siblings than any one individual character... which is both praise and and an indictment, but there you go.
There are moments of levity that actually work. Chhalawa's comedy works best when it pokes fun at corruption, entitlement and everyday human foibles like jealousy.
However, jokes alone can't save Chhalawa from a plot that falls apart because of its implausibility and unrealistic twists. The first half of the movie - during which we're being set up for various plot twists — works well because this is where characters are being established and intimacy is developed. However, as soon as those characters start to do things that have consequences we realise their actions aren't in line with their carefully fleshed out personalities.
Just as we've come to care about these characters and invest in their journey, we're asked to discard precisely what we've been led to believe about their nature. Without giving too much away, I'll tell you that certain choices made by Zoya... make no sense. The result is confusion and dissonance, impressions that are amplified by a villain who is too cartoonish to be respected as a viable plot device.
The big 'but'
If I were to follow the film's lead and reference politics... I'd have to say that Chhalawa very closely resembles our present political leadership. Of the three movies vying for blockbuster status this Eid, I expected Chhalawa to be the most viable, the least offensive. In other words, in the absence of better options, it was with Chhalawa that I'd parked my hopes.
Unfortunately the film buckled under the weight of these expectations. It forced its lead characters to take off in one direction only to execute a U-turn and land somewhere else entirely. Chhalawa's intentions were good — but naively, it was unprepared for the challenges that lay ahead.
However. In these desolate times, trapped as we are by a paralysing economic crisis, a moody cricket team and our aforementioned unstable political landscape — I can't find it in my heart to write Chhalawa off as a complete failure. I'm still hopeful.
So I'd advise you to watch Chhalawa merely to enjoy the acting and savour some memorable moments of onscreen chemistry between the cast. The film's production quality is decent too, as are the sets and styling. It's not a terrible way to spend a couple of hours.
This Eid, you'll basically be choosing between Chhalawa and Godzilla — and I'm happy to report that I'd rather be disappointed by the former than the latter.
Chhalawa is due to release on Eid. Watch the trailer here.