Review: Laal Kabootar is another strong addition to Pakistani alternative cinema
Although the film occasionally faces some narrative hiccups, the overall atmosphere and tone of the film make it a resounding success.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
Laal Kabootar begins with a visceral tracking shot through intense Karachi traffic, the camera passing matter-of-factly through a phadda that has broken out among frustrated motorists. The camera is far more interested in a young couple in a small car, affectionately teasing one another. The moment is interrupted with a shock of violence that breaks into the frame and leaves just as quickly. More than an introduction to any characters, this is an introduction to Karachi. Manic, endearing, frenetic, violent.
The opening is a testament to director Kamal Khan’s ability to very quickly and economically create atmosphere and tension. The strongest moments in Laal Kabootar occur when Khan is able to capitalise off these sequences.
More than an introduction to any characters, this is an introduction to Karachi. Manic, endearing, frenetic, violent.
The film tells the story of Adeel, played with brilliant restraint by Ahmed Ali Akbar, a cab driver and conman with dreams to leave Karachi and start a new life in Dubai. Simultaneously, we witness the story of Aliya Malik, played by Mansha Pasha, who is desperate to find and bring justice to the target killers who murdered her husband. In a circumstantial meeting, the two characters realise they can help each other. Adeel, through his contacts in the streets, can help Aliya find the killer, and Aliya can pay Adeel enough money to realise his dreams of Dubai.
And so begins an intriguing cat and mouse game through the streets of Karachi. The story is ambitious; multiple threads are weaved, several themes introduced: land-grabbing, corruption, target killing, revenge and redemption.
The film is at it’s most successful when it’s able to bring together these elements in stylistic ways. For instance, the initial meeting of Adeel and Aliya is a stunning sequence, with multiple plot threads converging in an eruption of violence. Khan ramps up the suspense here; Adeel’s two-bit heist and fearsome target killers both descend upon the same dhaba, one that ends up riddled with bullets.
It’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking. It throws both Adeel and Aliya into each other’s path and plunges them into much deeper stakes, all in the midst of a visceral action sequence that once again shows the underbelly of Karachi.
But the film occasionally suffers when these threads overwhelm and blur the central story. It does sometimes feel like there is no central character to underpin the narrative – is this Adeel’s or Aliya’s story? Or is this the story of the police inspector? The film flits between each of these characters and, while they all have arcs, it’s sometimes difficult to emotionally invest in all three at the same time. The side plots of Adeel’s friends and father, for example, feels underdeveloped. What happens to his alcoholic father, whom he clearly loves, if he runs off to Dubai? But it is Aliya who suffers the most from this narrative cake-cutting. While Mansha Pasha is convincing as the widow with steely resolve to bring justice, we’re not given enough closure to her story. In fact the most interesting moment for the character comes immediately after she pulls the trigger on her husband’s assassin – her look of shock and disgust is brilliant acting, and we’re made to wonder; is this what you really wanted? Did this feel like justice? Does violence just beget more violence?
Instead, though, we are shown a montage of romantic phone footage with her late husband. The implication is clear – his death has been avenged in some way. She is now able to live life without this dark cloud hanging over her head. And although it’s heartwarming, I’m not sure if it’s completely convincing.
The police inspector is given the most fleshed out character in the film. Played brilliantly by Rashid Farooqi, a character that initially seems like a trope – the corrupt policeman – is given moments of genuine humanity and tenderness. Playing an entire shootout covered in his daughter’s makeup and a hairpin is a moment of hilarious absurdity, and it’s so refreshing to see interesting artistic risks being taken in Pakistani films. It’s a great character, whose motivations always feel earned, and his descent to mad revenge is convincing.
It goes without saying that the film is technically fantastic. Mo Azmi’s cinematography transmits the right amount of anxiety and claustrophobia. A colour palette that emphasises secondary tones and neon hues makes the film feel grungy and dirty. Daniyal Hyatt’s excellent percussive score gives scenes the necessary energy and restlessness, while Taha Malik’s soundtrack is a pretty perfect sonic guide to Karachi. The sound (thankfully a move away from excessive ADR) is also brilliantly done. Like last year’s Cake, it’s so great to see Pakistani films take a step up in the technical departments, competing with the best out there.
One last thing. Given Kamal Khan’s music video work, and the exceptional one-take video he did for the D/A Method, I wondered if we’d see a similar shot from the director in his feature film debut. And for a minute, in the final big sequence in the film, I thought we were going to get one. The camera floats on a steadycam, following a group of rogue policemen as they raid the beach house of the housing mogul. It seems like the perfect setup for an insane single take, tracking the men through a party as they try to locate their man. But the scene is promptly intercut with a hospital scene. I wondered in the cinema if the one take simply didn’t work on the editing table and had to be intercut. I don’t know, but I hope at some point, in future films, Khan will be able to show off (if it fits the narrative of course), because he’s clearly great at them.
Ultimately, Laal Kabootar is another great and strong addition to Pakistani alternative cinema. Technically fantastic and always engaging, it continually surprises and shocks. And although it occasionally faces some narrative hiccups, especially at the end, the overall atmosphere and tone of the film make it a resounding success, and an exciting introduction to new talented filmmakers. I can’t wait to see more.
Technically fantastic and always engaging, Kamal Khan's debut film is a resounding success with only minor hiccups.
Brilliant stylistic sequences
Great acting across the board
Some narrative issues
No long single take 🙁
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