There are two moments in Cake where director Asim Abbasi lets things get surreal and hands the reins over to the audience. The first seems like a dream sequence; without spoiling too much, the camera ominously meanders here and there, distracted by different objects before panning up to a helium heart-shaped balloon that sticks to the ceiling, foreshadowing a heart condition revealed moments later. The other is an equally hallucinatory experience where Sanam Saeed’s character Zara sees the ghosts of children’s faces as she drives through moonlit fields. Not only are these scenes brilliantly executed and carry thematic and symbolic weight, they are also just so refreshing to watch in Pakistani cinema. Moments where you feel trusted, as an audience member, to figure out what is going on. But they are also moments where you feel Abassi is saying, through the silver screen, ‘trust me’.
The film is always looking for a fresh take on well-worn themes. Whether it’s family relationships, the dichotomy between urban and agrarian, the murky politics of feudal society and the vapidity of the elite. These are all themes that have been explored often and exhaustively, but Abbasi manages to deftly maneuver past cliché. The family drama in this case is anchored by the relationship of two sisters in their 30s (in contrast to fraternal relationship in the tonally similar ‘Kapoor and Sons’, another excellent film about family). Both Sanam Saeed and Aamina Sheikh deliver powerhouse performances as the younger sister escaping abroad from responsibilities and the older sibling buried underneath them.
The women in the film are refreshingly complex, and not depicted as superheroes as is the standard with the new wave of commercial feminism. In a touching scene, Sheikh’s powerful character Zareen admits to being unable to change the tire herself. Zara, played by Saeed, clumsily and inelegantly jumps up and down on the jack to loosen the nut. It’s small and quiet, but suggests the delicate power of sisterhood.
These are all themes that have been explored often and exhaustively, but Abbasi manages to deftly maneuver past cliché.
It’s a shame then, when the film takes an oddly reductive stance towards covered women. In a tone-deaf scene, the Amma character brashly says ‘Hello’ to a burqa-covered woman, who ignores her. Later, in the lift, Amma recounts some funny anecdote about pinching her husband’s ass loudly so the lift passengers can hear, one of whom is the burqa woman, who looks visibly uncomfortable. Amma seems to bask in her discomfort. From a film that otherwise has so much care and empathy towards it’s characters, little smirking digressions like these only serve to alienate.
There are a few other issues here and there. The egg throwing scene is really just rich people throwing eggs at other rich people. Does Zara ever convincingly come to terms with committing murder? Did the film let her off too easily? The films biggest pitfall is it’s attitude to blood money: this thorny issue is raised in the dramatic climax, only to have it neatly resolved with a knock on a door. We are shown that Zara feels guilt, but are there no other repercussions for this? Even though the Father shows gratitude in the final scene, the film seemingly shrugs morosely at Romeo’s stint in prison, as though it is something that had to be done…
But, despite this, it’s the evident care given here that stuck with me as I left the cinema. All the characters, from Adnan Malik’s understated but endearing performance as Romeo to the screen stealing Amma and Abu, have been given their due attention and sympathy. Sheikh and Saeed are, as mentioned, brilliant and their chemistry jumps off the screen.
A quick shout out to the technical side: the sound design here is luscious, the dialogue recording is crisp and thankfully there is no ADR to be seen (or if there was I couldn’t tell). The cinematography from Mo Azmi is absolutely stunning, especially the flashy but earned ‘oner’ that appears at the climax of the film. The soundtrack from The Sketches is as gorgeous as one would expect from the band.
Cake is a surprisingly mature film from our industry that seems to be stuck in a perpetual state of revival. It’s a film that feels confidently indie in approach, preferring to stick to quiet moments between characters, and resulting in a much more rewarding experience. Technically fantastic and emotionally engaging, Cake is another important step in the development of our cinema.