What an interesting good film! So glad you all nagged me into watching it. And now I am turning around and nagging those of you who haven’t seen it yet to seek it out and watch it too.
Do you know the story of “meat loves salt”? It’s a King Lear variation, a King asks his children how much they love him. His older children use all kinds of poetic language, more than life, more than the world, and so on. But his youngest daughter says that she loves him more than meat loves salt. He finds this humble statement not worthy and banishes her. She goes on to have adventures and meets and marries a rich man and invites everyone to her wedding feast, including her father. But she instructs her cooks not to use salt on any of the meat dishes. Her father eats this pallid plain food and starts to cry because he finally understands what his daughter meant and how much she loves him.
This movie isn’t about that legend in terms of plot, don’t look for that. But it is getting at the same essential truth. True love isn’t about poetry and grand gestures, it is about the little things that make up life every day, the salt on the meat. This movie starts with a family of three children and two parents. At first, the audience is somewhat on the outside, we just met this people and we have to take them at face value. But as the film goes on and we see their daily lives, slowly what comes to the surface is who carries with them that daily every day love, the prosaic boring meat-loves-salt kind of love. And who is not capable of seeing, or understanding, that kind of love. And who can slowly grow to understand it. That’s what I mean by a movie that doesn’t have a beginning or an ending, we are dropped into the middle of these people’s lives, the boring everyday part of it, we don’t see the dramatic opening or the triumphant closing, just what they do in between. The people who stick it out through the long slow boring parts of life and love.
This movie is very much an experience, not a judgement. And so we bring to it our own judgments and experiences from our own lives. The way I see this film is not necessarily the way you will see this film, and I am looking forward to those discussions. And by disagreeing with each other and each seeing it in our own way, we will be following the wishes of the filmmakers, they did not give this film a tidy lesson or a tidy ending, it is all up to us.
In another review I discussed how sometimes the New Wave style of film gets unearned praise because it is so dramatic and different, those movies that have the sudden random edits, scenes without tidy resolutions, characters who don’t easily describe exactly what they are feeling, and so on. This movie deserves the praise it received. The director did not decide to make a New Wave film and impress us all, he decided on the story he wanted to tell and then found a natural style that fit with his story. And so this film is open, with sudden edits, and questions left unanswered, but that’s because it is trying to show us life which does not have easy answers.
The director, Asim Abbasi, comes from the thriving short film tradition within Kerachi, and also from London where he went to school and where his production house is based. He brings that into this film, the sense of a world that is all connected and disconnected at once. Our main characters move easily from London to America to Kerachi to the villages. But they do not move easily within themselves, each shift brings on a new version of themselves to the surface and they lose who they really are.
I knew going in that Sanam Saeed would be one of the leads, and of course I know her from Zindagi Gulzar Hai. But I was surprised how fast I forgot her ZGH character in preference for this new character, everything from how she tilted her head to how she walked in a room was different. What was even more surprising to me was how quickly I forgot Sanam and started watching her co-star, Aamina Sheikh. Sanam is a great actress, but Aamina is equally good and had the slightly subtely better role.
What did not surprise me at all was to find that this film centered on intelligent complex women who lead full lives and for him marriage, romance, children, are just one of the many many things they care about. From what I know of Pakistani culture, of popular media, of everything, this kind of higher class educated woman might easily find this kind of casual freedom in the world. And a popular film would focus on this kind of woman.
I can’t speak to the reality on the ground, but I can speak to popular culture. And what I have found in Pakistani versus Indian popular culture, especially in the modern era, is that the Pakistani female characters are far freer, stronger, complicated, and the center of their own stories than the Indian. Another moment of “meat loves salt”, another time when what you assume to be true because it is said with greater poetry and conviction, is not actually the case. The vision of India as a place where female strength and freedom is valued while Pakistan is where women are forced to where Hijabs and hide in their homes is not a vision that is present if you look at and compare their popular media.
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This is a pretty simple plot. There is a father and mother, Syed Mohammed Ahmed and Bao Reena Zafar. They have an ancestral home in the village which they love and from which comes their income, but they are living in Kerachi now. They are cared for by their older daughter Aamina. Their son lives in America with his wife and son. Their youngest child Sanam Saeed lives in London with her husband. The father has a heart attack and Sanam rushes from London to be with them, leaving her husband behind. Aamina resists opening up to her but slowly the sisters reform their bond. They also hire Adnan Malik, a former family servant who now works as a nurse, to come help care for the father and he and Aamina seem to have an odd relationship. The mother suddenly slips into a coma. The father insists on taking her back to the village where they have not returned in years. The son Faris Khalid returns home as well to care for her. As the mother dies, secrets come out. Sanam learns that she was sent to America all those years ago because she killed the village boy she hit with her car, not just injured him as her family told her. Her family lied to her that he was alive and sent her away to keep her from prosecution. Adnan Malik as a loyal servant went to jail in her place, which also cursed his potential love story with Aamina. The mother dies suddenly the next day, they perform the funeral ceremonies. Afterwards, Aamina goes and talks to Adnan and tells him she is not leaving, she’s staying with him. The son Faris Khalid decides to send his family back to America and stay to help care for his father and the land. And Sanam, with her husband who has finally arrived, drives to the next village to talk to the parents of the boy she killed. The End.
So, ultimately, what we are left with these three siblings. The oldest moved on with his life and had a child and a family of his own, but still feels vague glimmers of guilt and responsibility because he was “supposed” to take care of the land and people. The youngest feels resentment more than guilt, sent away against her wishes. And the middle one landed with the responsibility for them both, taking on the duties of her older brother and protecting her younger sister, at the same time she is caring for her parents. The movie ends with an open question of whether any of them will be able to truly break that pattern. Will Aamina reach for happiness with Adnan or still hold back? Will Faris stay for more than a few weeks, or will he flee back to America and his wife? Will Sanam now truly be able to accept responsibility for something instead of blaming others?
At least, that is how I see it. To my mind, Aamina is the best of them. She stayed back with her parents so her brother didn’t have to, and she gave up her true love to jail to save her sister. She is prickly and difficult and constantly refuses Sanam’s advances of affection, but then later we see when Sanam is upset after a party when she meets her old boyfriend, Aamina forgets her own upsets and finds a way to cheer her up. She seems strangely rude and awkward with Adnan when they meet in person (instead of the emails they have been exchanging), but later we see that she has kept every letter and every email from their whole lives together, since she was a teenager. She is a woman who refuses to show affection in any easy way, but holds those she loves deeply within her and shows that by her actions over and over again.
But I could see her another way as well. A bitter woman afraid to reach for happiness and blaming others. She could have refused to let Adnan go to jail, defended him back then. She could have married him at any point in the past several years or at least acknowledged their relationship. Now Sanam is here, ready to help, but Aamina is so locked into her own martyrdom that she refuses assistance in any way, she must always be the strong one. She is the maker of her own cage and when the people around her eventually give up on trying to help her escape, she will blame them. That’s not how I see her, but I think the film leaves it as a possibility.
And then there is Sanam, the second lead or even co-lead of the film. When we first see her she is jogging on a bridge in London, getting a message that her father is in the ICU. And then we see her in first class on a plane considering putting on a large diamond ring. She arrives in the hospital and tries to hug and comfort Aamina but is rejected. Later she talks about how she can only stay a few weeks because of her work schedule. She resists Adnan’s suggestion that she help out so that Aamina can go to school in France. She meets her old boyfriend and is torn and emotional, clearly still not fully over him. She does not seem terribly close to her husband. And finally, she learns the truth of her accident and is legitimately horrified by what has happened, and goes to the boy’s house to make amends, the film ending before we see her knock on the door.
There are two ways to see her character. The way I see her, she is the ultimate weak one of the family. She says that she cannot take time off of work to help, but we see that she is very wealthy. Her job is not a necessity for life, using it as an excuse is just that, an excuse. She dismisses Adnan as “monkey boy” and laughs at him, not noticing either the insult towards him or how it visibly bothers Aamina. She laughs at Aamina too, when Adnan suggests Aamina should have a chance at the pastry classes. Adnan has to gently remind her to respect the dreams of others. She sees her loss of her high school boyfriend as a great tragedy, refusing to acknowledge that she could have always reached out to him, it is her responsibility as much as his. And that she has now chosen to marry and it is up to her to live with that choice. And in the end, when the story of the accident comes out, she struggles to understand the lies, how her father told him the boy was in the hospital, recovering, they paid for his education, and so on. While Aamina looks on in disgust because Sanam could have gone to the hospital herself, could have checked for herself, instead of merely believing others. And finally, there is the reveal that while Sanam has been loudly suffering and crying over a lost high school boyfriend who never wrote her when she was in college, a boyfriend she forgot long enough to marry, Aamina sent her life time love to jail for 4 years, forever ending any slim chance they might have had of being publicly together, and instead of moving on has remained steadfastly single. And while Sanam could not manage to write a letter from her American college to her high school boyfriend, Aamina visited Adnan every month in jail and wrote him every week.
But then I can also see the other way. Sanam was lied to and protected, weak because that is how her family made her. She is grasping at any chance to be an adult, to contribute, and constantly being shut out. She knew there was something strange about that accident, the guilt has gnawed at her for years, all the worse because she couldn’t quite understand why she felt it. She struggles in the family home not because she is selfish, but because she feels unwanted and doesn’t know why, doesn’t know that her sister gave up her love and her parents gave up their home to pay for her sin. And in the end, she does take steps to set things right, she goes to the boy’s family home to tell them the truth.
The third child, the son, is the simplest and least interesting of them. Which is a radical and important statement right there, ultimately it is the daughters who run the family, who truly control the emotional life and emotional labor that is happening. Faris Khalid is just carried along behind them. And the film puts the two sides of Faris in simple terms as well. Yes, he has been living the life he wanted which hurt his sister and his parents. But on the other hand, we see that he loves his wife and she, correctly, points out that she is American and their child is American and they cannot live happily in Pakistan. Does he have a greater responsibility to his parents or to his wife and child? There is no easy answer. He seems weak and uncertain in his home because he does not have an answer for that. But in the end, he finds the answer, he decides he must stay back, at least for now, and gains a kind of confidence in himself and his place in the world. The only choice is if we think that the weak side of Faris for most of the film, the one that wishes to stay in America with his wife and son and not think about his family back home, is the real one; or if it is the strong side at the end, the one who cuts himself off from his wife and child to care for his father, that is the true Faris.
The central family of 5 and how they are with each other is already a fascinating story. But then the film adds on a subtle consideration of how this family is with the greater world. Adnan is the most obvious example. He is Christian, his father served their family his whole life and then Adnan served them. We can put together that, as a minority, his family may have needed some protection and the loyalty their employers showed to their servants was no small thing. And also, with his father’s early death and growing up with Aamina and Faris and Sanam, he would naturally come to see his employers family as partly his own. And yet, there is still that line. When it comes down to it, they will sacrifice him to save Sanam. And they will call on him again and again, even now when he is working separately at the hospital, expecting him to drop everything for their sake.
And of course, there is also how they handled the dead boy. It’s interesting, we see how the family feel guilt over what they did. But it is only Aamina (again, she is my favorite) who seems to feel a kind of burning anger at the injustice of it. Aamina did not give Sanam’s boyfriend her farewell letter, and the argument she says in the film is that it was to protect Sanam, so she wouldn’t have a chance of getting word from someone else as to what had really happened. But something about how the actress plays the scene, and some other scenes, makes it feel to me like she was trying to extract some kind of justice from Sanam, make her feel the pain she caused all of them and the pain she caused the boy’s family. But the rest of the family, while acknowledging they were wrong to put Sanam over everything, does not seem to fully understand how they saw the dead boy as disposable, why his family would reject money from them. They are used to their position as landowners, used to their position at the top of society, they are loving and caring towards each other but those outside of their walls and their stature are invisible to them. Most obviously, that no one in the past 20 years has realized their loyal servant Adnan and their daughter Aamina are in love.
Adnan’s romance with Aamina is wonderful, and like nothing I have seen explored on film before. They are in love, but have both accepted they can only have half a love. The things that divide them are accepted equally on both sides, and also not accepted equally. Adnan and Aamina both know that they will never marry anyone else, that goes without saying. They both know they will write each other their whole lives. And they both know that they can never publicly be together. It is not a restriction that Aamina’s family has put on them, or that Adnan has declared must be, it is more a reality that they both accept. He is a servant, he is Christian, he is younger, and if that weren’t enough, he also went to jail for killing a boy from her village. In another movie, we would see the high drama of them fighting for love and protesting her father’s edicts and on and on. Or we would see their love discounted, because there is no drama to it. But this film shows a romance that endures and suffering that lasts without any need for outside enforcement. They are mature enough to understand their own situation and know what the consequences will be without needing any outside force to control them.
The other part of this is that it is a love which moves forward, without ever any threat of losing what they have. There is never a moment when Adnan complains about the limitations of their relationship and threatens to end it, nor is there a moment when Aamina considers marriage to someone of her own class. They can continue where they are, loving each other, for a life time. Their choice is if they want this, just this small piece of happiness, or if they want to reach for more. Not if they want more or nothing, if that makes sense. This film can conceive of a love that grows from step to step, slowly and carefully without losing what it had before.
I guess it is a unique love story because it is a love story we see in the middle of things. They had that moment already where childhood friendship turned to love, where Aamina started collecting tokens in a notebook (there is a great subtle call back when she pulls out her notebook of his letters and we see it is the one Sanam teased her about from age 15, which Sanam thought was a gesture of fandom to George Clooney and was actually camouflage for her love affair with the servant boy). They suffered through 4 years in jail when Aamina remained faithful and risked shame, danger, violence, to keep visiting him. And now they are in the middle part, where they are in the habit of writing each other constant updates on life, but never risking a meeting. And sometime after the film is over, there will be the end, when they decide if (now that Aamina’s family is fully aware of their feelings, and the truth of the car accident is possibly coming out) they are ready to act on their feelings, possibly an unofficial connection as he remains in the house with her forever, possibly an official marriage and who cares what society says.
This whole film is in the middle of things. We don’t see when Fahis fell in love and decided to move to America, and we don’t see if his wife will end the marriage if he stays in Pakistan. We don’t see Sanam have the accident and kill the boy, and we don’t see if she will admit her crime and go to jail. Even the parents’ lives are trapped in a strange sort of middle. We don’t see them as a young married couple falling in love. And we don’t see them with their long lives together completed in death. We see the mother dead but the father still living, trapped in his own limbo, half a life without his wife but not yet dead. That’s the most realistic part of the film, because we don’t live life in drama and triumph and magical beginnings, we live it in the messy middle of things.