In Shamoon Abbasi’s latest psychological thriller/horror based loosely on a series of true events, Maira Khan plays Farah, a psychologist looking for her husband Daniyal, a missing journalist who disappeared mysteriously while working on an assignment.
She suspects he may have crossed paths with Gul Buksh (Shamoon Abbasi), a known cannibal currently held in solitary confinement at a high-security prison, and kidnaps him at great personal cost to find Daniyal’s whereabouts. As the stakes grow higher for Farah, she attempts to delve into Gul’s mind — and he lets her in.
The movie is rated PG and runs for about two hours without intermission, so keep that in mind when heading to the theatre.
What to expect
Yes, this film is about eating people. Yes, there is digging up graves, hunting, cooking and eating human remains involved. Someone becomes “degh ki ronaq”. But if a cheesy gorefest is what you’re looking for, this isn’t it.
The hallmark of good horror is drawing from the everyday and the familiar, and that’s what Durj does. At the heart of that is exploring what is considered sin, crime and deviance in Pakistan. Ultimately, it is about power and accountability; it is also about choosing radical love and class war.
Shamoon Abbasi’s Gul reveals himself as deeply, mundanely human.
We see the beginnings of Farah and Gul’s bond take root inside an inherently violent institution — the prison — that Gul is very familiar with and which Farah replicates.
The tables turn quickly as the power dynamic shifts immediately in Gul’s favour, eerily reminiscent of another prominent cannibal, Dr Hannibal Lecter, with both manipulating each other on their way to mutual annihilation and reckoning.
But that is where the comparisons must end. Unlike Lecter, Gul is no suave epicure or connoisseur with high taste; he chooses to eat the dead because it is a more honest way of living. It is his personal revolt against the deep poverty and ritual humiliation of rural feudal society, an act of choosing autonomy over indignity.
And he eats simply because he is free to — while cannibalism may be immoral or against natural law, there exists nothing in the Pakistan Penal Code to prosecute him. Gul and his actions are well-known, yet there is no punishment or space for rehabilitation, only violence.
But far from his reputation, Shamoon Abbasi’s Gul reveals himself as deeply, mundanely human; he sees his vice for what it is and refuses to hide it. For him, cannibalism is a sin comparable to any other. He wants the same baseline things in life we all do — away from those who would take them away from him.
Enter Laali, played impeccably by Sherry Shah, who embodies the violence at the intersection of poverty and patriarchy. It is ultimately she who sets in motion Daniyal and Farah’s fate.
Shah is mesmerising as Laali; she portrays superbly the contradictions and strength, the fear and anguish of a woman who desires freedom, dignity and survival and is willing to do whatever it takes with whatever she has. She draws you in as effortlessly as she does Gul: by simply being present.
Abbasi’s powerful delivery and voice as Gul carry the film throughout, and it is his interaction with Maira Khan’s Farah that frames how we see his world.
Unfortunately, Maira Khan is the weakest link; Farah, is wooden and one-dimensional. Her despair is palpable and clouds her reasoning, and her years of experience as a psychologist — even one for “normal people”, as she clarifies — seem to count for nothing when dealing with Gul, which can be frustrating to watch.
Executive producer Dodi Khan joins the supporting cast as Officer Daud, tasked with investigating Farah and Gul’s jail break.
Officer Daud’s character is intended to stand out as a member of the police, yet perpetuates its entrenched practices and culture that we’re so familiar with thanks to tired tropes and cliche lines. He is better at managing to keep his crisp white shirt spotless in the “drawing room” than the task assigned to him.
The technical bits
Given Durj’s subject matter, troubles with the censor board (there were initially no plans to show the film in Pakistan and it was only cleared after “excisions”) and promotion in the run up to the international release, it’s only natural that heightened interest in the film would raise expectations. My own were more measured; I’m curious what a director’s cut might look like.
There are cool opening sequences and trippy time jumps in quick succession in the beginning before the film settles on a steady rhythm. The rapid time jumps back and forth at the start are necessary exposition but can get convoluted at times, especially with inconsistent style, placement and time duration of the onscreen text.
Jump scares are scant but used well.
The soundtrack by Asif Noorani is beautiful and haunting, as is the cinematography, which Abbasi handled himself. The film is shot in Balochistan, which makes for a refreshing change, and the locations — particularly the natural terrain and landscapes — have been used to great effect.
It’s also commendable that more and more local films now include English subtitles to reach a wider audience, but they're quite pointless when heavily ridden with typos and bad translation that doesn't convey the impact of what's happening. Many scenes are missing subtitles altogether.
Jump scares are scant but used well.
Durj's greatest strength is its characters. It can feel preachy at times, but it doesn’t rub the wrong way because it’s always a good time to remind ourselves that hunger is all around us, everyday — and to eat the rich.
Shamoon Abbasi’s Durj is about so much more than cannibalism