Review: Umro Ayyar: A New Beginning — a fairytale fit for children, made for adults

By adhering to our flawed approach to making movies, Umro Ayyar stays true to Pakistani cinema’s present-day trademarks — and that's not a good thing.
22 Jun, 2024

This review contains spoilers for the film Umro Ayyar

With a plot that apes Neo’s hero’s journey from The Matrix beat-by-beat — sans imagination — Umro Ayyar: A New Beginning wants to punch-up Pakistani cinemas’ standards up a few notches.

Its makers, however, didn’t factor the retaliating punch-downs the film’s own narrative would hammer onto its own aspirations. Ah, what a way to go!

Umro Ayyar is an epic fantasy, without the epic part — a tale of expected cliches that is being deceivingly sold by reviewers as a superhero film.

I’d have stuck to the fairytale-fantasy label — like the filmmakers did as per the story of the film — because superhero movies are dime a dozen these days, and the fantasy angle — and that too of bedtime tales once told — has a refreshing appeal.

In the stories our elders told us (which I am all but sure children of this generation are deprived of), Umro was a sly ‘Ayyar’ — a broad Persian term that means anything from vagabond to thief to warrior — whose fantastic mystical adventures had him outsmarting djinns in fairylands.

The screenplay by Atif Rehan Siddique, directed by Azfar Jafri (Siyaah, Janaan, Parchi, Sher Dil, Heer Maan Ja), sticking immovably to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey story structure, updates Umro’s backstory with an animated montage during the title sequence. Through it, we know that the Ayyars, the chief of whom was Umro, were more than vagabond-warrior-thieves; they were a secret society of saviours who consulted kings and governments and waged war against evil men and the malevolent djinns they made deals with.

When the film opens, Neo — I mean, Amar (Usman Mukhtar) — a professor who dabbles in cross-dimensional multiverse experiments, begins seeing demonic apparitions. One uninteresting night, Amar is attacked by killers and saved by vigilantes on bikes, who also kinda look like those very killers.

These are the “Ayyars” who are always “tayyar” (ready) — the line is good, by the way — and their base is forever concealed and protected by Morpheus — ahem, I mean Guru (Manzar Sehbai) — who convinces Amar that he is Neo — I mean, the chosen one — who will lead the Ayyars and save the world, because the old, all-knowing sage has ultimate belief in his knowledge of a myth.

The story tumbles forward with a lot of explanations, a betrayal one sees coming a mile away, a death, a call to arms, the hero’s awakening and the promised cameo from Hamza Ali Abbasi as Umro.

What?! Did you honestly believe Hamza wasn’t Umro or that he had a bigger part in this setup to a possibly better next film?!

During the two-hour and five-minute runtime, expected plot points, excessive expositions, and a general lack of imagination give the audience company.

Umro Ayyar literally retells its own trailer in the film — and that too, with few stereotypical (read: done to death) twists its primary audience, the Hollywood attuned crowd, know down-pat by now.

The screenplay needs serious doctoring. Scenes are hampered by long, expository talking-head scenes that are delivered by dull characters in a handful of sets. This gets old fast, because returning to those few sets time and again, especially during the first 40 minutes, becomes visually monotonous.

One of my early concerns after seeing the trailer was the telltale signs that telling an origin story that connects to sequels will trip the storytelling — and it does. One is often being hit by loosely-laid tidbits that could be picked up in sequels. The over-reliance on leaving breadcrumbs is a bad call.

A better storytelling choice would have been to tell a complete, one-off story that would lead to sequels. Take for example (again), The Matrix, which makes sense, even if one doesn’t watch the sequels.

The cast is fine, by the way, given the limited material they had at their disposal.

While Usman Mukhtar, a decent actor who was quite good in Chikkar, could have made a fine lead in an epic-fantasy film, his character — a wuss who takes refuge behind the facade of comedy — suffers from uneven writing. One never fully empathises with Amar’s journey or attunes to his wants or motives, nor really accepts his sudden transition to the saviour-hero he is meant to be.

Amar’s penultimate high-point, where he accepts his latent power, happens in the middle of a serious, catastrophic final fight with the villains — a shadowy group led by the djinn-commanding Laqqa (Farhan Tahir); the segue shifts the tone to comedy, breaking the rhythm and emotion of the scene.

Ali Kazmi, who plays Maaz, one of the elite Ayyars who never misses his target, is a perfect character actor, who, like Mukhtar, is relegated to play a one-dimensional role. Unlike other undeveloped characters — and that includes Sanam Saeed’s Meena, the Guru’s daughter who inherits dad’s ability to erect barriers and shields — at least Kazmi gets to have an applause-worthy single take where he delivers a rousing speech as the camera pivots around him.

Alas, Tahir, who either sulks, scowls or sneers in a low-budget set, or injects his lackeys with demonic powers, doesn’t get that opportunity. The one scene where Tahir does get to showcase his fine acting chops comes out of the blue and morphs his state of miserable pensiveness into that of a mad comedian; the 180-degree shift of character leaves one wondering what they missed.

Instead of employing this sudden change, the screenplay should have tried to design a consistent character — ala, say, Mogambo from Mr. India, a man whose approach, motives, reactions and rejoinders remain consistent from his entry to death.

Sana Nawaz and Daniyal Raheel play dismissible characters with ineffective scenes. Nawaz is a witch, who brings no menace and has about two paragraphs of inutile dialogue, while Raheel is her second in command, who brings cliche. The film also casts Simi Raheel for about two scenes in one tired, badly lit location.

Technically speaking, Umro Ayyar is being hailed as a game-changer, because of its visual effects. While reintroducing fantasy films to Pakistani cinema is truly commendable, and the VFX are quite good, I would not have expected anything less.

Pardon the geek-speak for the next paragraph or so, but the bulk of the film’s VFX consist of volumetric simulations (smoke, fire and the like), green-screen and wire-work removals, composting semi-transparent 3D objects (ie barriers), disintegrations, crowd-simulations and background mattes (ie background replacements and extensions).

In this day and age students and short-filmmakers do comparable — if not more refined — work on their films, so if a fantasy film whose entire reason for existing relies on VFX wasn’t able to convincingly pull these off, it’d be a sad day for cinema.

Yes, VFX work is skilled manual labour that takes a lot of time to get right, so, I guess, one can applaud the VFX department for doing their jobs like professionals.

As for those who often didn’t take their jobs seriously, we have the cinematography and lighting department, led by director of photography Riki Butland (he shot Pakistan’s Sher Dil, India’s Tezz, and is listed as the camera operator for Star Trek Beyond), and his camera operators Uzair Ahmed and Sameer Hamdani.

An utter lack of camera movement makes scenes feel stilted and non kinetic. The compositions, irrespective of the many talking-head moments, are okay-ish. The light design, however, isn’t, from time to time.

Umro Ayyar starts with bad lighting calls — the light design in Amar’s classroom and his room are groan-inducing — though it gets better, sporadically. While some lighting decisions can be dismissed (though they shouldn’t), two particular instances with Saeed just cannot be overlooked. In these shots, the light hits the actor’s nose so hard that a pointed shadow creates an inverted pyramid straight to her lip-line. Saeed had already been given a flat character, the least an actor requires is to look good on the screen.

In olden times, an actor’s “beauty light” took hours, because she had to look stunning, even if the film was a gritty, black and white noir… but then again, we’re living in a new age, where conventions and rules, long put into place for a purpose, are broken to accommodate one’s own way of storytelling, no matter how half-baked it is.

And so, by adhering to our flawed approach to making movies (ie an utter dismissal to rework screenplays, and only then shoot movies), Umro Ayyar stays true to Pakistani cinema’s present-day trademarks.

Is it different from the usual Pakistani drivel we see? Sure, by a mile.

Is it applause-worthy? Only for trying.

Does it successfully deliver its intentions? Re-read the review above.

Umro Ayyar: A New Beginning is rated U (Universal) and is suitable for audiences of all ages. Take the kiddos, because the movie will only make adults laugh or lament.


Taj Ahmad Jun 22, 2024 03:20pm
Simply great and amazing drama series, all artists acted superb.
Ehsan Jun 22, 2024 07:34pm
Was looking forward to it
Ahmed Qureshi Jun 22, 2024 07:53pm
Guru? Amar? Not gonna watch this because of this.
Zeeshan Jun 23, 2024 04:36am
Writer of the article is working really hqrd to impress the readers with his puns and attempting to display command iver english more than actually trying to tall to the reader. Probably new.
Arshad saeed Jun 23, 2024 09:12am
I appreciate that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but the review of "Umro Ayyar" in comes across as unnecessarily harsh and dismissive. The movie, while not without its flaws, brings a fresh take on a classic tale and showcases commendable efforts in storytelling and production. It's important to recognize the creative risks taken and the cultural significance of bringing such stories to the forefront. Constructive criticism is valuable, but outright arrogance diminishes the hard work and dedication of the entire cast and crew. Let's strive for a more balanced and respectful discourse. --
Haider Mahmud Jun 23, 2024 03:07pm
A very pessimistic review where the Reviewer concerned is hell bent on dismissing everything & going so deep into trivial things that it becomes irritating & stubborn
Ahmadh Jun 23, 2024 04:29pm
Great honest review. Appreciate that.
Emaan Jun 23, 2024 06:24pm
Nice move and I don't believe hamza Ali abbasi I like it
S.Fatima Jun 23, 2024 10:41pm
There is a child in every adult... so why not enjoy!
Aiman Jun 24, 2024 12:35am
Tbh we have good writers and actors but we lack better Camera Directors and Cinematographers. I read your review and I can already what this movie looks like.
Negotiator Jun 24, 2024 12:49am
One question Kamran Jawaid, how many films have you made?
A Jun 24, 2024 11:57am
It wasn't so bad. This is an unforgiving, cruel review that can be reviewed similarly if passion strikes me in the next few seconds. Yes cliches were there and expository scenes were a tad too long, but it still made us and the audience in the 70 per cent full hall sit through to the end. We don't hesitate to to walk out if films are as lacklustre as the review promises. I see the need for improvement but I am certainly looking forward to the sequel which seems promising. We all have seen badly made and cliched English and Indian movies, this one has its flaws but still delivers a coherent idea, an interesting reimagining of the Ayyar concept, good enough to promise development into sequels, a wonderfully executed big battle scene and flawless stunts, with refreshingly no romance and song and dance. Go watch it, folks! It's all right.
AB Jun 25, 2024 05:41pm
Having read the review about Umro Ayyar, I was glad I didn’t read it before watching the film!! I LOVED the film, not only because I’m a supporter of Pakistani cinema, because of it being different and in perspective of our new growing cinema ; the effort and acting was great! The review done by mister Kamran is truly harsh ! I can understand the job of a critic … to criticise but the ‘critic’ must remember the evolving cinemas cannot be compared to the Hollywood’s or even for that matter the neighbouring country’s South Indian cinema. Thus I would strongly recommend the film to be viewed as it’s worth the entertainment.
Saad Jun 26, 2024 07:25pm
For the umpteenth time, as I asked after ffwding the lousy trailer, and watching a few reviews, and reading this, the 'educated' english medium, (must be) well read writer, producer, director and any actor aware about umro's zanbeel (the magical bag)? His power! Did anyone (including critics) read umro and amir hamza? That too reflects the pathetic state of local cinema. And literary knowledge! Had been an American superhero(ine), he/she would have been like knowing a best friend!