At one point in Hotal, Meera’s newly released thriller, Meera’s character Kashika says: “Mujhey kuch samajh nahi arahi.”
Readers, the feeling was mutual. There were several times during Hotal that I had to check my ticket stub to make sure I was not in fact watching a film David Lynch made when he was a teenager. There were moments when I couldn’t figure out whether I was watching something incomprehensibly clumsy or… genius.
I went in to Hotal with extremely low expectations. The movie has been through a tumultuous production cycle, taking over two years to reach audiences in Pakistan. Combine that with a first time writer-director (Khalid Hasan Khan) working with the infamous Meera and you get a mess of a movie which is as confused about its genre as most of its characters are about what’s going on around them!
The film is essentially a local spin on avant-garde cinema fused with strong characteristics of cult exploitation movies from 1950s Hollywood, an influence director KHK may have picked up during his days in the US as a film student.
Hotal is about a woman fighting to save the life of her unborn daughter in a world where things aren't what they seem.
Even though the film is set wholly in India, its subject matter attempts to tackle a controversial social issue which viewers from both India and Pakistan may relate to. The director has often stressed the fact that he wishes to bridge the gap between Pakistani and Indian cinema by taking on projects that highlight similarities between the neighboring countries.
Hotal revolves around Meera’s character Kashika and make no mistake about it; she is the star of the film. Kashika is trapped in a cycle of mystery and confusion as her character slowly learns more about the malicious forces in the ‘Hotal’ where she has come to spend a few peaceful days with her husband, as advised by their doctor if they are ever to conceive a child. Things are not as they seem; both in terms of the husband’s intentions and in the film’s narrative.
Usually in movie reviews, it is advised to stay as far away from spoilers as possible. In this case, however, I feel it’s important to reveal the social message at the heart of Hotal. If left solely to the film, I fear the message may be lost.
So, in her own words (I caught up with her after the movie, more on that later), Meera explains the issue at the heart of the film is how “parents from areas across India and Pakistan are putting an end to their unborn daughter’s lives due to the social pressures to bear a son”. In short, the film is about a woman fighting to save the life of her unborn daughter in a world where things aren't what they seem. This is an important social issue that is worth debating. It is ironic that the director chose to realize his intention to bring an important social issue to the mainstream by choosing a genre which has never worked with mainstream commercial interests. This continues to be my biggest criticism of the film as many of its shortcomings may have been connected to it.
What went wrong at Hotal
Throughout the film it is evident that production went through serious financing issues.
Some scenes in the film seem to have been left out of the post-production process altogether, while some suffer a serious lack of set design. The audio is inconsistent throughout the runtime of the film and there are three full-length songs that have been forced into the film for no apparent reason other than… well, maybe in an attempt to increase financing by adding elements of song, dance and sex appeal.
These songs are so low budget they bring to mind old jhankaar clips or those mujras you laugh at on Youtube, no kidding! What makes matters worse is that no effort has been made to fit these songs into the story arc; they simply make no sense. At one point during the film, I noticed the room number signs on the doors of the ‘Hotal’ were simple paper cut-outs stuck on with scotch tape. Shocking.
In my opinion, there was a film within Hotal but it was never realized, either due to production hurdles and difficulty raising financing for a movie that departs from the commercial checklist of things to do or due to a lack of depth and clear vision on part of the filmmakers. It should be noted that besides the three aforementioned songs, there is not a single one featuring Meera, something she spoke proudly about when we spoke after the screening.
She made it a point to stress that she has “no sexy shots” in the movie.
Was there any genius among the ruins of Hotal?
Scattered throughout the film were moments – few and far between -- when I was genuinely impressed by the cinematography and the dead-pan dialogue, bringing to mind films like Mulholland Drive or the Lost highway. At these moments I can confess that I’ve never been so confused and intrigued by a local film. These moments, however, were short lived as the overall film seemed more like a work in progress than a finished product.
After the film’s screening I sat down with Meera to see what she had to say about Hotal and how she expected audiences to react. I was surprised by how she wanted to focus on deconstructing the movie’s flaws more so than its strengths.
The conversation turned out to be even more enlightening when I steered it towards the film’s story and message, once again enforcing the idea that the production team failed to bring forth its underlying theme.
About Meera: here is an artist, once hailed as one of the first Pakistani stars to work in India, now struggling to find roles that can help her break out of her image. In my personal opinion, I do believe Meera could be a good actress if she finds a director willing and able to create a role where she can embrace her strengths and indubitable screen presence.
In the end, while Hotal’s plot failed to connect on any emotional level, it raises important questions about our film industry, the mainly homogeneous titles it brings forth and the lack of diversity in roles offered to female leads.
It’s clear from her words that she wishes to take part in something other than the usual Lollywood formula pictures. It is perhaps social differences that prove to be hurdles for her breaking into the new age of Pakistani cinema. The new breed of film star is equipped with a more western charisma, one that Meera has often tried to mimic, only to become the butt of our jokes on social media.
My conversation with Meera seemed all too familiar, like Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard in which an aging film star struggles to finds her niche in a new industry even as she clings to a previous incarnation of fame and outdated skills. Perhaps that would have been a better film to make.
In the end, while Hotal’s plot failed to connect on any emotional level, it raises important questions about our film industry, the mainly homogenous titles it brings forth and the lack of diversity in roles offered to female leads.
There is a dire need for filmmakers to tackle different genres and broaden their cinematic canvases but in order for that to become reality… well, as Meera puts it: “More brands and sponsors need to support independent productions and new ideas.”