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» » » What has won Pakistani film 'Cake' so many kudos?

Two steely sisters in their 30s are the protagonists of this family dramedy

Zara, who has just returned from London, walks into her palatial home in Karachi to find her mother asleep on a chair, wearing a ghastly wig. On the stereo, Asha Bhosle croons that cabaret classic ‘Piya tu ab toh aaja’. Gently roused from sleep, Amma smiles a beatific smile, hugs her daughter and a few moments into the conversation asks, “Speaking of haramis, apne baap se mili?” (Have you met your father?), referring to her husband who is recovering from a medical emergency in hospital.
Cake, which was released in March in Pakistan, the U.S. and U.K. (where it was the first Pakistani film to premiere at Leicester Square) is as sharp as a tack while exploring the sometimes farcical dynamics of South Asian families.
Fettered by censorship and lack of government support, Pakistani cinema has long played second fiddle to Bollywood in its own land.
A family dramedy
Recently however, there has been a resurgence — although box office success is often limited to slapstick romcoms and patriotic action dramas. But Cake, a family dramedy, which doesn’t fall into either category, has set a new bar, with publications like The Guardianthat don’t usually feature Pakistani films in their review pages describing it as ‘quietly revolutionary’.
Cake begins with those hokiest of premises — siblings reunite in the elite Jamali household when the patriarch falls ill. But what the movie does with this premise is anything but contrived. Written and directed by feature-film debutant Asim Abbasi, the movie is desi murgh served with Sundance indie cutlery. It has the unenviable task of straddling divergent film cultures but pulls it off with aplomb.
Abbasi grew up on Hindi films and became well-versed with the aesthetics of Bollywood melodrama. His education in London Film Academy after a decade-long career in finance, broadened his creative vision.
Abbasi says that Cake has an understated tone because “the idea of storytelling became sacred to me, and I couldn’t help but gravitate towards realism, honesty and authenticity.” The movie’s specificity is pronounced because he also drew from his own family’s experiences. Cake’s emotional backbone is the relationship between sisters Zareen (Aamina Sheikh) and Zara (Sanam Saeed). When was the last time we saw a Bollywood movie that focused on women in their mid-30s?
Steely resolve
In Cake, the steely Zareen, the middle child, unmarried, takes care of her parents and manages the family estate. Sheltered Zara is the youngest. She lives in London, and her marriage has dissolved. They are both empowered, and dislike the other meddling in their life. And yes, they smoke cigarettes, perhaps a reference to the controversy over the photo of Pakistani actor Mahira Khan smoking last year.
Best of all, Zareen and Zara’s sisterhood aces the Bechdel test. For Abbasi, penning female protagonists came quite naturally since he grew up observing strong women in his family. “… I guess over the years I have built a bigger database of women in my head than of men,” he notes.
Cake also presents a very different idea of manhood. The men are largely emotional anchors to the women who take centre stage.
Abbasi explains that “the idea was to move away from the image of an alpha male — the aggressive male hero who woos and chases until the woman says yes — and explore and normalise other forms of masculinity.”
One of the movie’s many joys is its fine cast. Sheikh and Saeed turn in deft, charismatic performances but the movie’s scene stealer is the irascible, pill-popping matriarch played by veteran Pakistani comedian Beo Raana Zafar. The actors share crackling chemistry. After all, the team spent over a month in London rehearsing scenes; prepping included ‘therapy sessions’ where actors got to know each other better, their emotional triggers.
Abbasi also encouraged them to improvise — this is perhaps why little moments like the family playing cards feel real and unembellished, almost like peeking into your neighbour’s living room. This intimacy aside, the visuals dazzle. There’s rarely an unartistically arranged frame. Cake is also gorgeously shot by Mo Azmi, her softer lighting emphasising mellow colours.
Heady climax
The movie’s biggest technical achievement, however, is in its climactic scene, where the Jamali family’s secrets boil to the surface after Zara confronts Zareen over an unsent letter.
The sequence is a dizzying 10-minute single take where characters move from room to room squabbling. Time seems to stand still and the scene unfolds like a Gothic play, albeit one that moves from set to set with the help of a gliding camera. Abbasi wrote the climax as a single shot to heighten its intensity. “Walter Murch compares an edit cut to the audience blinking their eyes. So really for these ten minutes, because of the emotional intensity [the actors] were bringing, and because I had been slowly preparing the audiences for this very moment, I just didn’t want them to blink!”
Open borders
Much of the movie’s measured pace has to do with Bollywood editor Aarti Bajaj. Abbasi is a strong proponent of open borders when it comes to art, even as Bollywood’s unofficial ban on Pakistani artistes persists.
“Having Bollywood films play in our cinemas has given a huge boost to our exhibition industry and that in turn has resulted in more local productions,” he admits. “I only wish Pakistani films could play in India now.” Cake has won over audiences in Pakistan and overseas, and Abbasi has been flooded with adulatory messages from Pakistanis around the world.
Yet, like a true cinephile, it’s the polarising reactions to certain scenes — a sugarcane field burning interpreted erroneously as a cremation — that excite him.
“What’s really interesting for me to observe is that so many of us receive content in a way that fits in with our existing narratives, or our understanding of reality… There is a mindset of ‘our truth is the only truth,’ which films like Cake deliberately try and challenge.”
Despite its portrayal of the toxicity of South Asian families, Cake ends in a way that seemingly redeems the family unit. “I think the premise of the film was no matter how toxic family gets, you can’t escape them… That’s how I see family, filled with inescapable bonds. So rather than follow the traditional narrative build-up where everyone is gearing up for escalating conflict, we have conflicts and quick resolutions, but those resolutions never last.”

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