Review: John is a gripping adult drama constricted by the viewpoints of children

Babar’s call to tell a story about young adults is puzzlingly divergent from the norm. It stands at the precipice of adulthood, just like its lead pair.
18 Jul, 2023

In John, writer-director Babar Ali’s feature film debut about crime, punishment and innocence lost, the long-arm of the law is nowhere to be seen, save for one scene at the very beginning.

Daud and Fazal (Saleem Mairaj and Raza Samo), two hired-guns of a gang, are stopped by a cop (Rashid Farooqui) and his subordinate, but they have little interest in searching these two suspicious looking men who are out in the dead of the night on a bike. Like many cops, they seek prey to collect some “gunda tax” — i.e. a payoff to let people go their merry way.

The law of the land is sleeping in John’s version of Karachi, and the lack of their menace and intimidation — and the threat of a bona fide villain — takes the edge off of what could have been an epic tale of a fledgling, indecisive, young adult who loses his way in the world.

John (Aashir Wajahat), who plays the guitar and has the singing voice of an angel, is a somewhat quiet teenager with a bit of a temper— allegedly (we’ll get to his temper in a little bit). John also happens to be Christian.

Segregated by society, John has little option but to be a jamadaar — a sweeper. The term, in historical context, meant lieutenant, or minor officer in pre-Partition India. His new job at a school includes opening clogged gutters that ooze thick, black human filth, which, he argues to the school’s passive aggressive administrator (Mohammad Ehtashamuddin), wasn’t what he signed up for.

A lot of good that contention does. His fellow sweepers — one of whom lives in his neighbourhood — don’t have qualms about plowing muck out of manholes, as we see in the opening credits of the film, so why should he be different? At one time, John self-confesses that he can be a food deliveryman, if, that is, he can learn to ride a bike, or has access to one.

Partially out of necessity, John learns to ride a motorcycle after tragedy hits him with a 2x4 — his mom, Shaista, played by Faiza Gillani, dies, and he moves in with Daud and Fazal. By then, he has also fallen in love with one of the school’s maids, Maria (Romaisa Khan).

Fired from his job soon enough, John signs up for the only occupation on his peripheral vision — he becomes a hitman’s driver.

Babar Ali, as both the writer-director and co-cinematographer and editor, understands the value of context, and the need for well-rounded characters with few loose ends. The young filmmaker — who shoots with scene-appropriate camera angles, and edits with fitting precision — possesses a smartness his far more experienced peers lack. The film he made embodies the spirit of indie cinema and, after Madaari, it is the second Pakistani title in recent weeks to win these two credits.

Nevertheless, like the latter title, some elements of the story — largely applause-worthy for its strict adherence to minimalism — come up short. Take John the character as an example, he is the main peg of the story, but, in contrast to his eventual vocation, is not the driver of the plot.

John is the silent, circumstantial, protagonist — an archetype that’s not quite alien in films of such storytelling tilts, albeit with one major difference: this young man has yet to mature into an adult.

John is maneuvered, though never manipulated, into plot points by Babar’s other key-characters — Maria and Daud — both playing the part of his guardian angels with their own agendas.

Maria, though chirpy on the surface, is as contemptible as Daud. Like the stereotype associated with wives, she wants John to be a good man she can control — there may be some truth to this, since the idea, applicable equally to men and women, has long-seeped into society. Daud, on the other hand, has the genuine care of a mother, the unpretentious temper of a father and — even though it doesn’t fit the point in question here — the free-spirit of a malang.

Maria’s idea of a happily-ever-after is born from naivety, and her nature is predisposed to upsurges of assertiveness — she scolds John like an unsympathetic mom who catches a delinquent son. Daud’s take on life, even when he is dictatorial, is more father-like.

Babar’s screenplay gives ample evidence of Daud’s natural paternal instincts, when he cares for John, and to a lesser extent, Fazal — his senses on the latter are set on high-alert, with due reason. Maria and Daud’s actions stand poles apart, and they stretch John — who has little mind of his own — to a state of stoic indifference.

This protagonist sleepwalks through his own tale, snubbing the need to fall into the archetypes that make up the lead character. John, given the standards of storytelling, is not the hero, the lover, the rebel — he lacks the overconfident hubris and courage to turn his story around save for the prerequisite turn at the climax, where he does get angry — nor is he the innocent, though Aashir, by design or the fluke of good fortune, plays him as one.

John’s wants are as ingenuous as his lack of ambition and direction, and his purported anger, often redirected inwards, is comparable to that of any teenager in their unheeding, rebellious age — one sees Aashir’s intelligence in subtly downplaying this aspect of John’s personality. The only impactful decision he makes comes at the end of the story, and even that turns out to be the wrong one.

Babar’s call to tell a story about young adults is puzzlingly divergent from the norm. It stands at the precipice of adulthood, just like its lead pair. The absence of wisdom and responsibility keeps one from truly attaching themselves to the plight of their situations, especially when others, like Daud, do the plot’s heavy lifting. Daud appropriates the story, not only because of how well-written he is, but for how he is performed.

Saleem Mairaj is a force of nature, and I may run out of words to describe the intricate, nuanced, pitch-perfect, spellbinding performance from this incredible actor. His mere presence in scenes compels good performances from fellow actors.

Here is a little insight that might help one in spotting good acting — note actors when they do solo scenes, scenes with fledging actors, or scenes with stalwarts like Saleem. Look for the “bounce” of performance that a young actor feeds from an experienced artist, and how that either supercharges or overpowers their own acting. That bounce helps Raza Samo a lot. YouTuber-turned-actor Raza plays the double-crossing lunatic-haired Fazal, who bullies children in the playground, and, given his mad, defiant nature, gobbles biryani straight from its polythene bag — he doesn’t want to get a plate.

Fazal’s role is cut short for John’s convenience, when it could have become a far stronger foil when the story progressed. His action could also have led to a far better intermission high-point, because — spoiler alert! — when the film cuts to a break, John is left somewhat shocked from the emotional recoil of a murder Daud commits in broad daylight.

While the interval gap functions as John’s transition point from an innocent to a hitman’s accomplice, one realises that a far stronger scene happened minutes earlier, when Daud brutally killed a man with a wrench, and then, unconcerned by the bloody mess at his feet, drank tea.

So, Daud is a monster, but his actions are given legitimate reasons — the chief of them being survival. But from whom?

The story, as mentioned above, does not have an overarching sub-plot about other villains. Constricted to just four people with worthwhile performances by Tabish Mughal and Jahanzaib Navi in smaller roles, Daud and co are targeted by a faceless rival gang.

Babar’s creative decision to repudiate the cliché of showcasing over-the-top villainy keeps the narrative ambiance intact, however, the ethereal nature of the threat and that includes the cops, also takes away any notion of danger from the story. In consequence, the little danger we see during the stretched conflict of the climax becomes ineffective and predicted.

Another minor point that could have been blown out of proportion is the characters’ religious inclusivity. Although factually grounded — the job of sweepers by and large is taken up by Christians in Pakistan — it doesn’t add, subtract, or supersede the story at hand.

The world Babar creates is devoid of sensationalism, and the people who live here are designed to be simple in concept, intention and motive. Their inherent minimalism, however, leads to unevenness in performance — especially by the young cast. Romaisa, for instance, who has been raved about in reviews, is fine when she is left alone with the camera. Her isolated scenes of volatility and happiness overtake her scenes with Aashir, where her graph of performance fluctuates between put-upon playacting and an ever-shifting emotional timbre.

Note, for example, John and Maria’s third meeting, and first conversation, filmed in one take by Asghar Ali Ghanchi and Babar (they share co-cinematographer credit). Here Aashir plays John with a mix of caution and awkwardness, who tries to find the right responses to woo the girl. Romaisa, however, play’s Maria with an already-smitten, chippy, talkative streak, who is on the brink of stumbling over her own lines. Before the scene ends, she stumbles over Aashir’s line — but given that the actors had done a workshop to hone their characters, the apparent slip-up could have been intentional.

The scene would have been better if she had dialled back the apparentness of her performance — an aspect Aashir, with his minimalist approach to John, handles quite well.

Aashir’s diction is quite good at times and he has fine screen presence, even during scenes when he is less than effective. One can see the method in Aashir’s acting, and that it takes him a while to ramp-up his emotion — but when he does get into the zone, even dimly lit scenes, set in the dead of night, light up. The long-take where he remembers his mother on his wedding night is an excellent example of what this young actor can pull off.

When Aashir and John are not engulfed by Saleem and Daud — which, contextually could have been Babar’s intention all along — the young man pushes himself as an actor. This role, however, should have come to him and Romaisa two years from now. It would have given both actors the time to hone their skills and, perhaps, given Saleem Mairaj a bit of a run for his money — fat chance of that happening, even in the future, though.

Right now, John feels like an intense, well-made film for adults, constricted by the viewpoint of children.

Released by Hum Films, John is produced by Faiza Khanum, co-produced by Babar Ali, Evelyn Seubert and Mike Duffy and executive produced by Owen Field, John Latimer, Birgitta Olsson, Anna Engstrom, David Olson and James Gleason. The film is playing in cinemas Pakistan-wide.