Maula Jatt sets a new, impossible to reach benchmark for Pakistani cinema

It is a big film that respects its characters, the worth of the actors, the audience’s time, and its expectations for a high-concept action film.
17 Oct, 2022

Tucked delicately between a whirlwind of rousing emotional turmoil, dead bodies and funeral processions, is a moment of calm and harmony in The Legend of Maula Jatt.

Atop a giant ferris wheel in the middle of a carnival town sit Maula Jatt (Fawad Khan) and Mukkho (Mahira Khan), two lovers immovably wedged in a tale of woe and misery.

Illuminated by the soft embrace of moon rays, a ballad of the heart — from the heart — takes flight in the starlit night.

“This night that hides behind the moon shall pass/ Our saga told to the world will forever stay/ The eyes to the heart will whisper but one thing/ Our saga to the world will forever stay” sings Mukkho, literally and figuratively from the top of her world.

Mukkho’s voice is soft but not faint, her tone unhurried and impervious of her surroundings — after all, she finally has her man — when, unexpectedly, Maula joins her melody. His voice, strong, gentle, mesmeric — like Aragorn’s from The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King — as it reiterates the ballad’s verses into a new angle.

With Mukkho in body, Maula, compelled by inner turmoil, looks far away into the horizon; his spirit lamenting his losses, and accepting this new, but not unforeseen, juncture of his life.

The ballad travels far and wide, reaching Jeeva (Shafqat Cheema), the reigning chief of the Natt clan, and a grieving father, who sings the same poetry to a portrait.

Jeeva is a king, if only in title, a father who cowers under the shadow of his own spawns. To him, this is a song of sorrow and, perhaps, impending doom.

Inner reflections continue to echo through the night as the elegy transitions to Daro (Humaima Malik), the princess of the Natt household, who sings as her hands delicately caress the bathwater in her regal pool, as if she’s feeling the skin of her imaginary lover.

Half-immersed in water, yet drowning in narcissistic self-love, Daro is already the queen of all; she is the apple of her elder brother’s eye (Noori Natt), and the Natt clan has merciless domination across the land. What Daro thirsts for, is a mate of equal stature…even if he is an enemy who makes her blood seethe with sensations of hate, retribution and carnal desire.

This unadulterated, unapologetic, animalistic flood of emotions run rampant throughout Bilal Lashari’s spectacular, tentpole motion picture, that will, from this moment onwards, set a new, nearly impossible to reach, benchmark for Pakistani cinema.

As a film critic, I have refrained from using sentences that over-inflate and mislead a film’s actual worth. Bilal’s film, produced by Ammara Hikmat, Asad Khan and Ali Murtaza, is an exception that unreservedly deserves the praise. Maybe even a standing ovation if it suits the occasion, for it bests even the original Maula Jatt (1979).

TLoMJ is a deliberately designed piece of commercial art. Its story is simple, and the details, intricate and seamless, are in front of your eyes, yet remain nearly invisible (unless, of course, you’re looking for them).

In the dead of night, Sardar and Malika Jatt (Babar Ali and Resham, with nary a speaking line), are killed by the hooded, ninja-like mercenaries of the Natt clan. Maula, Sardar and Malika’s young son, survives the night, but is traumatised by the incident.

Saved by Ali (Zia Khan), a loyalist of Sardar Jatt, Maula is secretly given to a foster family, until the time for vengeance manifests itself.

Years later, Maula turns into a strapping bull of a man — a prized fighter people bet on in the aforementioned carnival — who is still haunted by nightmares.

Unable to sleep unless he drinks himself into a stupor, Maula is an aimless nobody who Mukkho longs for (she is ready to have his babies, if Maula even nods half a yes; Mahira is excellent in the role, by the way).

Maula’s listlessness, and his penchant for running wild, is kept in check by Mooda (Faris Shafi), a bright, jovial, pacifist.

In another corner of the land, the terror of the Natt clan reigns supreme.

Rajjo (Saima Baloch), a young woman and her soon-to-be husband, teasing each other about their looming wedding night, come across Maakha Natt (Gohar Rasheed, fantastic, controlled, oozing malice and menace). Maakha’s squalid reputation is known far and wide, and his sense of “mercy” — delivered in a wonderful twist — is flabbergasting to behold.

Maakha, the youngest of the Natt siblings, is your typical go-to-rapist-bad-guy; he is, after all, a man who keeps women as his sex-slaves, collects taxes from the poor (lest his hooded ninjas take their daughters away), and gets high by inhaling vapours from freshly ground scorpions.

Yet, despite the lowbrow, stereotypical nature of his character, there is much more to Maakha — and a whole lot more to Gohar Rasheed’s performance.

The Natt clan is dominated by actors who are often Pakistani filmmaker’s default choice when casting baddies. Gohar Rasheed, Shafqat Cheema, Nayyer Ejaz — who plays Jaggoo, a crafty enforcer for the Natts — these actors, have the tendency to play it up out of proportion (ie. they ham!).

Kudos, then, to Bilal, because no one — especially the actors mentioned above — overacts. The actors play characters so well that one doesn’t see Gohar, Nayyar, Cheema or Humaima; we see Maakha, Jaggoo, Jeeva and Daro.

Bilal pens a fine, intricate, well-thought-out story with rich, deeply layered characters in association with Nasir Adeeb, the writer of the original Maula Jatt, its prequel Wehshi Jatt, Maula Jatt in London, and a whole lot of Punjabi gandasa films that became the vogue until the genre died out.

TLoMJ is an ensemble piece, where every character, big, small, inconsequential, carries depth and dimension. It is as much a story about revenge and dominance, as it is about righteous justice.

Fawad’s portrayal of Maula is spellbinding. He is not Sultan Rahi, nor does want to be. This Maula is a quiet storm itching to be let loose, an untamed lion (thankfully, not the Singham kind), who shifts his entire emotional spectrum when he eventually holds his family axe in his hand (it is a very cool weapon).

The bloodthirst and glee on Maula’s face, when he accepts who he is, is hard to dismiss. But then again, so is his inherent, childlike vulnerability — note a scene when Mooda slaps him repeatedly in the face to keep his feral tendencies in check.

On par, and perhaps a teeny-tiny notch better than Maula’s story and acting, is Hamza Ali Abbasi’s Noori Natt. The big-brother of the Natt clan, who stays in prison because he sees no challenge in the outside world.

Hamza’s performance salutes Mustafa Qureshi’s Noori Natt in the original Maula Jatt — especially when he utters some of Qureshi’s iconic dialogues. However, again like Gohar’s Maakha, this Noori is so much more than just a reiteration of a classic character.

This Natt longs to find a worthy adversary, a hero to die at the hands of. He is a hunter who wants to kill or be killed by the untamable lion; anyone else is just an unforeseen casualty.

Hamza’s sense of self-satisfaction comes from his family’s genes, and Bilal, somehow becoming far wiser from when he made WAAR those many years ago, embeds different shades of egos, convictions and fallibilities in the Natt family (an essay twice the length of this review can be written about the Natt clan’s Shakesperean tilts).

For far too long, Pakistani filmdom has been talking about Bilal’s acumen in the technical departments. One notices Bilal’s use of the camera and the preciseness of the edit (he is the director of photography and the editor), and the picture-perfect production design of the film at every instance. But, given WAAR’s very loose, haphazard narrative choices, one would never have given the then-young writer-director the benefit of doubt when it came to weaving stories.

Well, here we are, nearly a decade later, witnessing a minor miracle.

TLoMJ is as close to flawless filmmaking as we can get. It is a big film that respects its characters, the worth of the actors, the audience’s time, and its expectations for a high-concept action film worthy of its high price of admission.

Released by Mandviwalla Entertainment, The Legend of Maula Jatt is rated PG for scenes of blood-spewing violence, adult themes and general villainy.

The film is playing in cinemas across Pakistan

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, October 16, 2022