In Flames


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

In Flames
"Writer/director Zarrar Khan uses techniques borrowed from the horror genre to address the experience of living in an environment where one is seen as less than fully human, or even as prey." | Photo: courtesy of Blue Finch Film Releasing

It’s not just the sudden brick through the car window that does it; it’s the fact that when Mariam (Ramesha Nawal) tells people about it afterwards, it’s suggested that she must have been partially to blame.

This is not an easy time to be a woman in Pakistan. Crimes apparently motivated by misogyny have increased in recent years, and even though the law offers protections, there’s no guarantee that the police will enforce it. Mariam’s encounter with unexpected violence is mirrored by another event in her life which has an equally shocking, albeit less physical impact: the death of her grandfather. Although the law gives women equal standing as heirs, custom does not, and many women don’t realise that they have any recourse if male relatives lay claim to the whole estate in such situations. In this case that means the home which Mariam shares with her widowed mother Fariah (Bakhtawar Mazhar), the car, and all their money.

Mariam is educated – studying to become a doctor – and knows that they have the right to hold onto these possessions, but Fariah struggles to understand, falling under the sway of a duplicitous uncle who comes around promising protection and bearing papers for her to sign. What’s more, because she still thinks of her as an irresponsible child, Fariah is disinclined to listen to her daughter.

Offering a welcome distraction from all this – and relief from the pressure of impending exams – is the connection Mariam develops with Asad (Omar Javaid), a friend of a friend. Even his pursuit of her is pushy by Western standards, and many women might be made seriously uncomfortable by being followed around in such a way, but she takes a shine to him regardless, and together they plan a trip out of town. It’s what happens during this excursion that deals the third blow. Left reeling, she begins to undergo a mental breakdown. Hallucinations intrude on reality, bringing with them people whom her rational mind knows are dead, and she feels more and more vulnerable in a world where threats lie all around her.

Writer/director Zarrar Khan uses techniques borrowed from the horror genre to address the experience of living in an environment where one is seen as less than fully human, or even as prey. The effect of the central incidents is compounded by numerous smaller acts of aggression, with men aggressively flirting with Mariam when she’s out in public, or expressing moral outrage against her. Even in her own home, she’s made to feel unsafe. Khan is careful, however, not to invite despair. Mariam is smart and resourceful – as, in her own way, is Fariah. They have natural allies in one another. The question is whether or not they can figure that out before it’s too late.

In a particularly haunting moment, Fariah recalls that, when she was troubled by nightmares after her husband’s death, she consulted a healer – and that the healer told her that, should she ever experience those nightmares again, it would be because her daughter was making the same mistakes that she had. It’s easy, in this situation, to buy into notions of fate, but Khan is interested in how, despite this, women can assert their own agency and force the world to make way for them.

Reviewed on: 17 Mar 2024
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After the death of the family patriarch, a mother and daughter’s precarious existence is ripped apart by figures from their past – both real and imagined.
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Director: Zarrar Kahn

Writer: Zarrar Kahn

Starring: Ramesha Nawal, Omar Javaid, Bakhtawar Mazhar, Mohammad Ali Hasni, Adnan Shah

Year: 2023

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Canada

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