Reviewed for Ink by Ambar Ahmed.
It has been exactly a decade since Shoaib Mansoor’s debut film Khuda Kay Liye came out. The movie kick-started the revival of Pakistani cinema, which had gone downhill post the late seventies. Cinema houses were eventually hijacked by crass Punjabi movies, and the urban middle-class audience had opted for VCRs and eventually DVD players for entertainment through foreign films.
Post Khuda Kay Liye’s critical and commercial success – locally as well as internationally – we saw several credible TV directors trying their hand at filmmaking. Some were successful, most were not. However, the one thing that remained consistent is that everyone wanted to play it safe by sticking to mainstream genres such as comedies or romance. Barring a few indie films, in the past ten years there have been no movies that have tackled serious social issues. While our television productions (Udaari, Khuda Mera Bhi Hai, Sammi etc.) have been doing a stellar job of highlighting taboo topics, it is safe to say that no prominent filmmaker besides Shoaib Mansoor has been successful at doing this in films, whose second venture Bol was also received wholeheartedly by the audience.
It would be an understatement to say that Verna has been one of the most anticipated movies of 2017. Shoaib Mansoor’s return to direction after a long gap of seven years, as well as Mahira Khan’s comeback in Pakistani films (post a dramatic halt to her Bollywood career amidst ongoing tensions), are reasons enough to excite movie-goers. The controversy regarding the Censor Board tussle made the movie further intriguing. Let’s gauge whether Verna lives up to the hype, and if the movie marks a successful completion of Shoaib Mansoor’s trilogy (Khuda Kay Liye – Bol – Verna).
*Warning: Contains Spoilers
First and foremost, because I had been reading negative reviews of the film since the first day of its release, I was very skeptical about watching it. The poorly edited trailer and strictly average music further diminished my interest. However, I went against my gut feeling and decided to watch it nevertheless. And I am really glad that I did! The movie couldn’t have been more perfectly timed for Pakistan, with the #MeToo campaign not only successfully gathering attention internationally, but also giving serious consequences to offenders. While the hashtag trended in Pakistan too, we are yet to see any culprit paying for their actions. This is where Verna’s message shines bright, despite all of its flaws.
In the beginning of the movie, we are introduced to Aami (Haroon Shahid), a polio-stricken musician who has an inferiority complex and his wife Sara (Mahira Khan) who is a teacher. The couple, along with Aami’s sister Mahgul (Naimal Khawar), are about to set off for a trip to Hunza but on the way decide to head to a secluded park for a picnic. It is there that thugs show up and take away Sara forcefully on gun-point. They tell Aami that they will return her after three days, but only if he does not inform the police. Both Sara and Aami’s families decide to give in to the threats for the sake of Sara’s safety, and ask her to do the same when she returns back traumatized after being repeatedly raped. However, despite her best efforts, Sara’s life is not able to go back to normal and one major face-off with Aami pushes her off the edge and she decides to pursue a legal battle. What follows next is a Power Di Game, with both sides using every dirty trick in the book to take the other one down.
The first thing that Shoaib Mansoor needs to be commended about is how fearlessly he tackles each issue and does not shy away from saying things as they are. The messages are loud and clear:
The trailer of the movie had given the impression that it is a typical revenge saga story which we have seen to death in Bollywood and Lollywood – and it is – but then it’s not. Let me simplify that. What sets Verna apart from other similar movies is its realistic approach towards most issues such as VIP Culture, victim shaming, harassment etc. There are situations and people in the movie we have all come across; the entitled well-connected brats, the well-educated middle class who is still helpless in front of the powerful, the struggles of being a woman who refuses to ‘compromise’. The Pakistani audience will definitely relate to all of these.
On the downside, Shoaib Mansoor took way too much cinematic liberties with some scenes, especially the climax. The ‘poetic justice’ idea must have sounded great on paper, but the execution was quite haphazardly done and had several loopholes. The film was a major letdown in the technical department, and was felt even more because of how much our local films have now advanced in the past five years.
Acting wise, the film rests mainly on Mahira Khan’s shoulder, who must be applauded for taking up a role which is different from her usual choices. It is a very complex role which is borderline offensive to the sensibilities of our extremely conservative audience. She does a decent job overall, and her star power will definitely help this message reach a huge number of audience. Haroon Shahid is let-down by an extremely weak character (both in terms of writing as well as characterization). Zarrar Khan on the other hand gives a first-class performance. The fact that I feel anger every time I see him on-screen after watching the movie is a major proof of how well he did his job. Naimal Ali Khawar is very pretty, but one wishes her role had more substance. Fahad Ali Panni was competent in his brief role. The supporting cast was average, and casting well-known names would have only added more weight to the movie.
On the whole, the movie is not flawless, but has the power to start a much-needed dialogue regarding rape and VIP culture in Pakistan. Verna is no Pink, but it deserves a watch because of the messages it sends out and its uplifting portrayal of a rape victim who are usually stereotyped into crying, self-loathing beings. It also deserves credit for not romanticizing rape in any way as it has been done in a few of our TV shows (Sangat, Gul-e-Rana, Bashar Momin).
Watch it with your family to educate yourself!