Pakistani Cinema is going through another revival. I say 'another' because every decade or so, new life is injected into the industry, which gives it a boost for a few years, before an unsteady political or social or judicial system puts an end to the progress.
This particular revival though, is different. This one seems to be coming from the direction of Pakistani television, which has, despite major ups and downs, always been a steady source of entertainment and culture for the nation. Producers, directors, writers and actors from the 'small screen' have crossed over fairly successfully to make quality films, to address topics and plotlines that can be better showcased in a concise two hours, rather than in tens of weeks. And more recently, the most commercially viable genre of rom-com-drama is making a classy comeback to Pakistani screens, reminiscent of the 'Designer Films' genre that India confirmed in 2001, which to date is its most stable staple.
Mehreen Jabbar's Dobara Phir Se is the latest instalment in this saga of cinema. It is the story of four friends (or is it five?), and their 'others', who weave in and out of each others' lives and who build and destroy each others' lives. It is a story of urban, upper class Pakistanis, living seamlessly between two cultures. It is a story of their dreams and desires.
Vasey and Hammad are close friends, living in New York and about to embark on a joint business venture. Vasey's girlfriend, Samar, introduces Hammad to Natasha at a house party, in the hopes of setting them up. But Hammad seems infatuated with Zainab, another guest at the party, who is already married and has a child. From this moment, their lives repeatedly collide with each other, as partnerships make and break, trust is found and lost. Not all ends well, but each character has an individual journey of complications, decisions and reflections.
Tooba Siddiqui plays a dignified Natasha; clear-minded and independent. She never lets her character become whiney or caricature-ish. Sanam Saeed as Samar was a bit of a revelation for me, as I have almost always seen her in either sulky or devious roles. Her sunny disposition here was a very welcome change. Ali Kazmi as Vasey made me sad that I have not seen enough of him onscreen over the years. He is a natural in front of the camera, and possibly the only actor in the cast who did not seem to be acting at all. A lot hinges on Hareem Farooq's Zainab and, for the most part, she has delivered a strong performance, but she is the most obvious actor here, who is clearly acting. Her expressions and diction are far too pronounced in places. But her character arc is most well-defined and she is able to convey it well. Adeel Husain's Hammad is the other anchor of the story and, like everything else I have seen him do before, he is effortless here. He doesn't seem to be at pains to play his character, and uses slight expressions to portray Hammad's fascination, disappointment, hopes, fears, anger and resignation. Other supporting actors including Atiqa Odho, Shaz Khan and Musa Khan were competent. Shaz Khan especially deserves a mention, as he never veered into cartoon-ish villainy, which is often the norm.
It's a Pakistani film, so no discussion can be complete without commentary on the 'look and style'. The art direction, costumes, make-up and overall production values are flawless throughout the film. The cinematography by Andreas Burgess made me sit up and take note. There is no dearth of unconventional shots here, and no single camera angle, how ever brilliant, gets repeated unnecessarily. If the film loses out anywhere, it is with its spine, its script. At times it feels like a 90-minute film stretched to 120 minutes. It could have done with more moments of levity that Mehreen Jabbar excels at capturing (Zainab's first meeting with Hammad's family was a perfect break from the standard drama), or with better complications (the second half over-stretched Zainab's and Hammad's single, simple dilemma), or with better editing (it's not a crime to make films shorter than two hours).
Having said that, Mehreen Jabbar has made a very strong contribution to the revival of Pakistani cinema. Dobara Phir Se has great characters and acting, strong dialogue, a brilliant look and is captured with perfection. And ever so subtly, it touches on mature themes, and subverts attitudes about divorce and other social stigmas, with no fuss. Definitely enjoyable.