Pakistani cinema has been lying dormant for the most part ever since the release of Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol, followed by the done-to-death phrase ‘revival of Pakistani cinema’ which surfaced yet again. Pakistani cinema though never picked up as was expected. The number of releases post Shoaib Mansoor’s magnum opus could at best be described as paltry, generally consisting of commercial pot-boilers with gun-wielding thugs being seduced by stout, gaudily clad women gyrating to screechy music.
However the entertainment industry of late has been abuzz with talks of a number of promising films which are purportedly in the pipeline. Making a film in this part of the world, it goes without saying, is no easy feat. A lack of adequate infrastructure, financial constraints and an absence of a professional industry bereft of any government support impede the process of producing and releasing a film. The high budget multi-starrer Waar still has not seen the light of day, while a film like Lamha – Seedlings, which garnered much international acclaim, is yet to be released nationally.
In light of the non-conducive environment for filmmakers in Pakistan, it comes as a symbolic achievement when an independent, low-budget film such as Siyaah made by a group of youngsters is released commercially. The film has been produced by Imran Kazmi, directed by Azfar Jaffri and written amongst others by Osman Khalid Butt.
The promotions of the film started on social media, with short teaser trailers generating numerous hits. This modest promotion soon gave way to its trailer being played on major television networks, a first for a small-scale venture of this kind.
The title Siyaah aptly embodies the cryptic content of this hair-raising horror flick. The story revolves around a married couple, Bilal (Jabbar Naeem) and Zara (Hareem Farooq) who move into a new house on the outskirts of Islamabad following a personal tragedy. They decide to adopt a child to mitigate their woes and the plot thickens. Little Natasha (Mahnoor Usman), is no regular child and entangles the lives of her foster parents in a web of ominous experiences.
The concept may be old wine in a new bottle, but its screenplay and treatment make it somewhat of a nail-biting rollercoaster ride that keeps you glued to the edge of your seat until the end credits roll.
One would expect film novices namely with a theatre background to be incapable of pulling off an evocative film convincingly, but the team of Siyaah have without a doubt risen to the occasion. They have handled the concept maturely and whipped up moments that leave a lasting impact. The makers have cleverly worked around the handicap of budget constraints and refrained from adding overambitious special effects which could potentially seem substandard. They have instead focused on eerie background music (by Ahmed Ali), long pauses and a tight screenplay which prove highly effective in exacting horror.
Some clever editing with rapid montage sequences make for powerful viewing and leave the viewer shaken up. The director employs unconventional techniques like the use of black frames when the drama is at its pinnacle. With only sound taking the narrative forward for those few seconds, one is left to imagine the unfolding horror. This evokes fear and perplexity in an overpowering manner. While staring at the black screen one is left feeling desolate in the eerie world of Siyaah to experience the trauma the characters are undergoing.
Osman Khalid Butt’s writing is to be lauded for its incredible ability in generating moments of horror, which often jolt you. He constructs the scenes in an unpredictable fashion which leave you twiddling your thumbs in nervous anticipation, eventually leading to a climax that has you stupefied. The writing thankfully steers clear of clichés and employs creativity in fleshing out intimate interactions between the protagonists in unnerving situations which really resonate with the viewer.
Mahnoor Usman stands out as an actor for she is the centerpiece of the atmosphere of horror and lives up to her role. She has an incredible command over her expressions for a girl her age and captures the coy and venomous subtext of her character quite remarkably.
Hareem Farooq, who has many noted theatre projects including Pawnay 14 August to her credit, makes her film debut in Siyaah and has a challenging role at hand as her character finds herself in a predicament. She stars as the harried woman who has the unenviable responsibility of being a mother to a girl who exhibits supernatural tendencies. Hareem in particular is strong at delivering emotional scenes and portrays the peculiar dilemma her character has to face with great honesty. Nonetheless, some of the scenes where she has to express anger or incredulity leave you craving for more.
Bilal is a young and cocky construction worker and a loving husband who provides solace to his anguished wife. His character has some of the meatier sequences in the film which he enacts with the potency that is required from him. One of his scenes to look out for, is the mirror sequence that is gritty and jarring and one of the high points of the film. That said, Jabbar Naeem in some scenes appears to hold back his expression which makes his rendition appear a bit linear.
Ahmed Ali who plays a journalist interviewing Zara, exudes a certain charm on screen and delivers a nuanced performance. He is compelling in his portrayal of a clinical and calculating man and keeps a restraint about himself.
The film’s grotesqueness is nicely balanced with some light moments and witty pop culture references. These seemed to go down well with the cinema audience who for instance were giggling away to an allusion made to pea soup while mocking Hollywood exorcism flicks.
The audience was quite responsive and gasped and screamed at the scary moments and lamented at the sad ones, discussing the film’s developments in whispers. For the duration of the film they were completely engrossed in the world of Zara, Bilal and Natasha.
Though the story of Siyaah is based in an upper-middle class, urban setting, the content of the film is such that it would have a wide outreach since the rousing situations explore universal fears, making you tread those dark corners of your imagination that send a chill down your spine.
It must be underscored that though the film is the work of newcomers who lacked access to state-of-the-art facilities, due attention needs to be paid to technical aspects of film production. Many of the scenes in the first half of the film appear fuzzy, with some falling victim to improper focusing which gives some frames an amateurish look. Moreover some of the shots aren’t composed with a cinematic sensibility and lack the presentation that one would expect from a feature film. There were even some minor inconsistencies on the dubbing front in the initial reels of the film. But even with all its shortcomings Siyaah is far superior to many of the outlandish Bollywood films belonging to the horror genre.
Lollywood has always been under the shadow of Bollywood for all these years as the predominant format of the two industries is similar but India is miles ahead in terms of their films’ production values. The Indian movie industry thus has come to represent South Asian cinema internationally. The only way forward for Pakistani filmmakers to cultivate a distinct identity for Pakistani cinema is by producing independent films which are innovative in terms of script and film technique and carry a unique style that sets then apart. Iranian cinema is perhaps one to look up to as it is known for its hard-hitting storylines and robust production. As far as independent cinema in Pakistan goes, Siyaah will go down in Pakistan’s film history as a triumph for independent filmmakers since it has managed to find distribution nationwide which many other films failed in achieving and thus stands shoulder to shoulder with the Hollywood and Bollywood biggies competing for the same screening slots.
If you are a fan of horror this one should not be missed!
Article From: The News Magazine “Instep Today” (Dated 21-March-2013)
Article Written By : Abbas Hussain