Ishrat Made in China — the ‘Made in China’ part especially — is a well-thought-out title indeed. Coming from someone as astute and teeming with wit as Mohib Mirza, who co-wrote, directed and stars in the film, I’m sure the relevance of the title isn’t lost to him; in fact, the decision to name the film may have been craftily deliberate.
Ishrat is an implausible story of an unlikely hero in a ridiculous film. Think Kung Fu Hustle without the kung fu or the hustle. Also, in case anyone is misleading you, this isn’t Chandni Chowk to China.
Ishrat (Mohib) is a college heartthrob who has an inborn talent for winning donkey cart races. In purportedly desperate circumstances (the story itself forgets these plot points soon enough), he travels to China to win millions in a donkey race, gets roughed up by local baddies, learns kung fu, and wins a Ben-Hur-ish donkey chariot race.
The race, by the way, is set-up and overseen by the Chinese government, wherein cheating, and even a full-blown Gladiator-like fight between the evil self-proclaimed monarch of a town and the hero is deemed okay.
Mohib Mirza’s Ishrat Made in China is an entertaining, well-produced, excessively quirky, comedy-actioner bereft of genuine emotion — a flaw that undermines it as a film
See, told you: a ridiculous film.
Ishrat does nothing for Pak-China friendship. Given the way China and its government are depicted, one can understand why the country isn’t officially involved in the production of the film, irrespective of budgetary reasons (the film was shot in the much cheaper Thailand, though it could have easily — and cost effectively — been made in Pakistan’s northern regions; all one had to do was erect a few huts in a town’s set and mimic a narrow winding lane or two).
Ishrat is not an actioner, nor is it a slapstick or a parody, yet there is unremitting use of wit, puns and parodic instances.
For example: in the middle of the film’s first race, Ishrat’s donkey whirls in circles in slow-mo — like Ajay Devgan’s pirouetting car from Singham. Our hero, leaving the donkey, slow-walks to a girl whose balloons land in the middle of the race-track, picks her up on his shoulders and walks over to a Pak-Indo border gate, with a graphic proclaiming him as ‘Ishrat Bhaijan’ — a quirky send-up of Bajrangi Bhaijan.
The wit, often written in banners, signs and apparel, is a notch better.
Ishrat lives in a 1950s-style housing complex that has the name ‘Intehai Complex’ (Excessively Complex); a roti shop has the title ‘Naan Sense’. His own fashionably unsophisticated yellow jacket has the words ‘Jhoolya Lolz’ written in bold red letters at its back. His apartment’s name plate doesn’t list its number; rather, it says ‘Ishrat Kay Aboo Ka Ghar’ (Ishrat’s dad’s house).
There are about a hundred more if you keep looking, and the drollness doesn’t stop there. At one point in an airport, he magics a giant drop-down menu between himself and the customs officer, and effectively changes the entire foreign cast’s language from Chinese to Urdu. Now the all-Pakistani cast in ‘China’, led by Sara Loren, Shamoon Abbasi, HSY, Ali Kazmi, Mani and Mustafa Chaudhry, can understand each other.
Yes, it is whimsically silly in a good way. But these instances also put to question the exact genre of the film. Again: is it an action film or a comedy, or a slapstick that looks like an action film?
Yes, there can be a mix of genres like action-comedy, but in Ishrat’s case, the film can only be classified as a tent-pole, high-octane-parody-slapstick-actioner. The emotional tone this amalgamation suggests is simply confusing.
There could very well be a legitimate argument about Ishrat being a full-blown masala film, bursting with the heavy-handed use of commercial spices. It certainly looks like a big film, with its use of brightly coloured sets, somewhat ear-catching song sequences (the music is by Simaab Sen, Sami Khan, Shany Haider, Talha Dar), visually-appealing cinematography (undoubtedly Rana Kamran’s most cinematic work yet) and almost seamless editing (Nasir Ghani).
In foodie terms, however, Ishrat’s curry is buried beneath heaped dunes of masala — but only masala; there aren’t any meat or potatoes in this dish.
There is a genuine problem with the flow of the plot, the shaky story structure, the tonal imbalance of scenes and the emotional core of the story. One can’t have a film with just one emotional tone: i.e. comedy. It gets old fast, especially when every character is delivering jabs with almost the same alacrity and tenor; also, when their motives in the story are both ill-conceived and unconvincing.
Big reveals happen too early in the story and their ill-judged placement negates the impact of the highpoints. As a consequence, since Mohib and screenwriter Ahsan Raza Firdousi pulled out all the big guns too early, the post-intermission half is left with barely a handful of ideas. With too little happening in the latter-half, to the audience that part may very well feel like a drag.
The acting ranges from quite good to just about okay. Mohib, Sanam Saeed, Shamoon Abbasi, Hasan Sheheryar Yasin (HSY), Ali Kazmi and Imam Syed fall in the quite good category; Nayyer Ejaz’s comedic timing is totally off and Shabbir Jan is wasted in what could have been a really good role.
Shamoon’s character, who goes by the name of Master B.P., is introduced too early. His actual placement is better suited post-intermission, when B.P.’s kung fu training helps Ishrat fight off villains in the climax (since this is a silly film, B.P. only teaches him to wash his dirty clothes, row a boat in a lake, and chop cabbages — not kung fu).
Master B.P.’s backstory is half-baked, and it ties directly into the antagonist’s, crippling the villains’ backstory as well.
HSY, playing the antagonist, is called Mangshi. His appearance — dastardly and chic — doesn’t have the fake, tilted, half-eyebrows the rest of the ‘Chinese’ cast wear. Mangshi’s last line in the film (a late afterthought, no doubt) confirms that he is not from China, but that only raises more questions about who he is, and why he is here.
From what we know, Mangshi is a tyrant who terrorises a small village and holds the monopoly on donkey races. How and why that makes him a Mogambo-like villain, one can only ponder.
His motives are relegated to just an idea: Mangshi is the big bad villain, just like Sanam Saeed’s character, named Akhtar, is the smart-alecky heroine, and the trio — Dilshad, Naushaad and Shamshaad (Kazmi, Mani and Chaudhry) are bullies, and their Chinese doppelgangers Chun, Chun Ke and Lee (also the same actors) are Mangshi’s stooges.
In hindsight, Ishrat Made in China is an open book. One can fathom Muhib’s intention: he wanted to make an entertaining, quirky, comedy-actioner and spared no expense production-wise, and left no pun or wit on the drawing board.
This excessiveness and a lack of genuine emotion — since the omnipresence of puns and one-liners take over every beat of every scene — subconsciously overwhelms one into thinking that the film is bad.
It is not. It is silly, yes. Markedly flawed, ditto, but not really bad.
Ishrat is a reproduction of good ideas that feels like a Chinese copy of an original. And just like a China copy, it will break down just as easily.
In retrospect, I guess, the title suits the film just fine.
Released by Eveready Pictures, Executive Produced by R. Irfan Sadiq and Farheen Mirza Sadiq, co-directed by Tehseen Khan, Parmesh Adiwal and directed by Mohib Mirza, Ishrat Made in China is rated U/A — the jokes are quite clean and family-friendly
Published in Dawn, ICON, March 13th, 2022