Review: Kamli is a film that deserves an Oscar submission

If ever there was an award for ensemble acting, Kamli would be a sure-fire winner.
30 May, 2022

Deep in a jungle near the town of Kallar Kahar, Soon Valley, Chitral, a mating game between a docile lioness and a young wandering lion is afoot.

A song, inaudible to the players, continues in the background. Sung by Atif Aslam, it is heard only by the onlookers (us, the audience). With hesitant steps, the lioness falters and invites, in a sensuous and playful manner. She lopes up and down the rocky hillside, scampering behind rocks and hiding within a breach in the trees.

The lioness is Hina (Saba Qamar), a god-fearing young woman whose husband has been away since forever. The young lion is Amaltas (Hamza Khwaja), a wandering photographer with a thick beard, mangled hair and a heavy motorbike. Between the two of them, one can almost smell the pheromones aerating the jungle.

Kamli, Sarmad Sultan Khoosat’s wonderfully minimal film, is fascinated by animals, be it via irrefutable figurative approaches, such as the lion-mating dance mentioned above, or actual animal appearances and their referential comparisons to the fallibilities of human psyche. During the course of the film, we see a swan, a kitten, a rabbit and a toy lion in scenes that make sense in both broad and narrow contexts.

Sarmad Khoosat’s Kamli is consumed by inherent frailties and conflicts of men and women. We see their ravenous carnal desires, the willing self-infliction of hurt and pain, and the utter abnegation of reality

Sarmad’s film is consumed by inherent frailties and conflicts of men and women. We witness their ravenous carnal desires, the willing self-infliction of hurt and pain, and the utter abnegation of reality.

The people in Kamli are wounded and bound animals in a way. They are shackled by invisible chains of relationships, or physically imprisoned behind doors and iron bars. What we witness is their love story of failure, heartache and liberation, in a tale that is simple and familiar to behold because it spells everything out for the layman.

Hina’s husband, Saqlain, has been gone for the longest time. The young woman lives with her husband’s elder sister Sakina (Sania Saeed), a pious single woman who teaches children the Quran and insists on calling Hina her ‘Bhabi’. Sakina unremittingly cries about missing her brother Saqlain, and keeps an eagle eye on her sister-in-law…even though, she has no eyes.

Blindness, however, has attuned Sakina’s senses and augmented her vigilance. She can be vicious and cruel, unyieldingly resolute and conceding, forgiving and maternal, loving and still able exhibit the worst traits of stereotyped in-laws.

Hina, and some other girls from town, pose for Zeenat (Nimra Buccha), a painter battling her own demons. Zeenat wants to drink herself to death because she can’t stand herself, nor can she stand the growing chasm of grief that she has dug between herself and her husband Nadir Malik (Omair Rana).

Nadir is a kind man who still loves his bitter, impenetrable wife. As the story unfolds, conflict engulfs all of them. Saying anything else about Sarmad’s film would be a spoiler, because the story is hardly two lines long.

The screenplay by Fatimah Sattar, based on the original story by Meher Bano, centres on a tale of women. Men in this world are secondary characters relegated to sporadic appearances that supplement the women’s stories. Given the story, and the flow of the narrative, this is not a deterrent.

There is an inherent whiff of theatricality in the production, especially when it comes to performances. Actors, and also the production design and cinematography (by Kanwal Khoosat and Awais Gohar, respectively), carry the vibe and practice of theatre, as if the film and its performances have been timed to perfection.

Saba Qamar is expertly toned down by Sarmad. Her Hina carries a specific body language — notice the way she walks or how she talks or what she holds back. She is a lioness and a deer at the same time. This is one of the many analogies and fairy tales the film throws at you.

Hina is independent yet restrained by culture and relationships, and even when she wants to succumb to death or circumstances — both may be interchangeable for her — there is something in her that won’t let her die.

Teeming with nuanced performances and reeking of repressed, lived through backstories that the audience is suddenly thrust into (we learn important bits in fleeting dialogues), one is quick to notice that the cast around Saba is phenomenal.

Sania Saeed is the film’s powerhouse player. Words fail to describe the understated detail she brings to Sakina. Nimra Buccha is powerful yet fragile as Zeenat. Omair Rana plays the quiet and altruistic husband to Nimra’s character, and gives the actress a run for her money in a dinner scene they share. And the debuting Hamza Khwaja holds his own quite well in front of Saba, while exhibiting the exact shades the screenplay requires from his character. If ever there was an award for ensemble acting, Kamli would be a sure-fire winner.

Hamza’s character, Amaltas, is the most mysterious aspect of the film. He saves Hina from drowning in a beautiful secret sanctuary she finds in the middle of the forest in his entry. The more we see him and learn of his origins and his demeanour, the more we can sense an air of artificiality.

Amaltas’ placement, amongst other creative decisions, like the low-key mood lighting, the choreography of the camera and the decision to place the soundtrack by Saad Sultan, Zulfiqar Ali, Sohail Shahzad, Izzat Majeed on the background, are well-thought creative choices by Sarmad.

The world Sarmad creates — augmented by the location — has one foot in reality and the other in fantasy. Real world issues intermingle with the disconsolate nature of his narrative, and one wonders whether Sarmad is telling a tale of madness, fairy tale or subtly preaching a message.

But then again, why can’t it be all of the above?

There is a passive-aggressive stance in the storytelling. Characters are harsh and compassionate, sometimes in those very scenes.

In one scene for example, Zeenat, lying drunk and depressed in her bathtub, tells Hina to enjoy her fair, translucent skin while she has the chance (you can tell that the anger is focused inwards). “I loved the sadness that you once had in your eyes,” she tells Hina, obviously irked by the girl’s new-found liveliness. Suddenly though, Zeenat tells the girl to seize the opportunity to run away, if running away gives her happiness.

This pattern of fluctuating emotions repeats itself.

Sarmad’s film, forlorn as it is, is mainstream and art, but not art-house. It is an experience…but one strictly for adults.

The film’s uncut release by the Sindh and Punjab censors raises some pressing concerns for the writer. Kamli has scenes of lip locking, some implied nudity from over-the-shoulder shots, an almost bare-back shot of an actress that would easily get an ‘A’ certificate — at least from me. While these scenes work well in the narrative, they are certainly pushing the ‘bold’ aspect of its story.

As much as the cliché of the term pains me, Kamli is certainly a ‘bold’ enterprise. But the issues the film raises, and the controversy it implies (ie this is a love story of a married woman), aren’t capable of evoking hullaballoo — especially when you see the film to its very end.

Kamli is award season material. It is a very well made film that deserves an Oscar submission, and shows Sarmad’s adeptness in creating a context-filled film that has the capacity to reach intelligent, everyday audiences.

Update: Icon has learned, via the director, that the scenes that were deemed to have an ‘A’ certificate by the writer, have been voluntarily cut from the movie, despite the ‘U’ certificate issued by the Sindh and Punjab censor boards.

Released by the Distribution Club, 'Kamli' is now out in cinemas

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, May 29th, 2022