Deep in the bush near the town of Kallar Kahar, Soon Valley, Chitral, a placid lioness and a young wandering lion are engaged in a mating game.
Unheard by the players, a song continues to play in the background. This song by Atif Aslam is only heard by passersby (us, the audience). The lioness falters and beckons sensually and playfully with tentative steps. She lopes up and down the steep slope, scurrying behind rocks and concealing herself in a gap between the trees.
Hina (Saba Qamar) is a god-fearing young woman whose spouse has been absent for an eternity. Amaltas (Hamza Khwaja) is the young lion, a nomadic photographer with a bushy beard, unkempt hair, and a heavy motorbike. Between the two of them, one can practically detect the jungle’s pheromones.
Kamli, a beautifully basic film by Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, is captivated by animals through figurative techniques, such as the lion-mating dance noted above, or actual animal appearances and their allusions to the frailties of the human mind. We witness a swan, a kitten, a bunny, and a stuffed lion in scenarios that make sense in wide and restricted contexts.
Kamli is dominated by the inherent frailties and conflicts of men and women. We observe their insatiable carnal urges, willing self-infliction of pain and suffering, and complete denial of truth.
Men and women’s innate frailties and conflicts dominate Sarmad’s picture. We observe their insatiable sexual urges, willing self-infliction of pain and suffering, and complete denial of truth.
People in Kamli are, in a sense, injured and confined animals. They are imprisoned behind doors and iron bars or bound by unseen chains of relationships. We see their love story of failure, grief, and release in a plot that is easy and familiar because it explains everything to the layperson.
Saqlain the spouse of Hina, has been absent for the longest time. The young woman resides with Sakina (Sania Saeed), a devout single woman who teaches youngsters the Quran and insists on calling Hina “Bhabi.” Sakina weeps ceaselessly because she misses her brother Saqlain, and she keeps a close check on her sister-in-law… even though she lacks eyes
However, Sakina’s blindness has sharpened her senses and increased her attentiveness. She can be ruthless, unyieldingly stubborn and yielding, forgiving and maternal, caring and capable of displaying the worst characteristics of stereotypical in-laws.
Hina and other local girls pose for the painter Zeenat (Nimra Bucha), battling her demons. Zeenat wants to drink herself because she cannot stand herself or the yawning abyss she has opened between herself and her husband, Nadir Malik (Omair Rana).
Kind Nadir still cherishes his cruel, impenetrable wife. As the plot develops, conflict engulfs everyone. It would be a spoiler to reveal anything else about the plot of Sarmad’s film, as the plot is barely two lines long.
The script by Fatimah Sattar, based on Meher Bano’s original story, focuses on a story about women. Men in this world play a supporting role, making occasional appearances to enhance the women’s narratives. Given the narrative and its progression, this is hardly a hindrance.
There is a smell of theatricality about the production, particularly the performers. Actors and the production design and cinematography (by Kanwal Khoosat and Awais Gohar, respectively) evoke the spirit and technique of the theater as if the film and its performances were perfectly synchronized.
Sarmad skillfully tones down Saba Qamar. Her Hina has a distinct body language; see how she walks, how she speaks, and what she conceals. She possesses both lioness and deer characteristics. This is one of the several comparisons and fables the film presents
Hina is independent yet constrained by society and connections. Even when she wants to succumb to death or circumstances — both of which are interchangeable for her — she cannot do so.
It is immediately apparent that the cast surrounding Saba is superb, as the film is replete with subtle performances and reeks of repressed, lived-through backstories that the audience is abruptly pushed into (we learn key details in brief chats).
Sania Saeed is the film’s leading actress. The subtle detail she gives to Sakina is indescribable. Nimra Bucha is as strong and delicate as Zeenat. In a dinner scene with Nimra’s character, Omair Rana gives the actress a run for her money as the character’s calm, selfless husband. And the debuting Hamza Khwaja holds his own rather well opposite Saba, displaying the same range of emotions that the screenplay asks of his character. If there were an award for group performance, Kamli would undoubtedly win.
Amaltas, played by Hamza, is the most mysterious component in the movie. He saves Hina from drowning in a wonderful hidden sanctuary she discovers in the middle of the jungle at his entry. The more we see him and learn about his origins and demeanor, the more artificial he appears.
Sarmad’s positioning of Amaltas, the low-key lighting, camera choreography, and decision to place the soundtrack by Saad Sultan, Zulfiqar Ali, Sohail Shahzad, and Izzat Majeed in the background is well-considered creative decisions.
The world that Sarmad creates, enhanced by the setting, has one foot in reality and one in fiction. It is unclear if Sarmad narrates a tale of insanity, a fairy tale, or quietly preaching a message, as real-world issues intertwine with the narrative’s melancholy tone.
However, why cannot it be all of the above
The narrative adopts a passive-aggressive stance. Characters can sometimes be cruel and empathetic in the same scene.
In one scene, a drunk and despondent Zeenat advises Hina to embrace her fair, translucent skin while she still has the opportunity (you can tell that the anger is focused on inwards). “I adored the sadness in your eyes before,” she tells Hina, clearly annoyed by the girl’s newfound vivacity. Suddenly, though, Zeenat instructs the girl to seize the opportunity to flee if doing so will bring her happiness.
This sequence of shifting emotions is repeated.
The melancholy film by Sarmad is mainstream and artistic but not art-house. It is a unique experience, but only for adults.
The uncensored publication of the film in Sindh and Punjab poses grave problems for the author. Kamli contains lip-locking scenes, implied nudity via over-the-shoulder shots, and an almost bare-back shot of an actress, which would easily earn an A grade from me. While these scenes function well within the narrative, they undoubtedly exaggerate the ‘bold’ element of the plot.
Kamli is unquestionably a “brave” endeavor, as much as I dislike the overused epithet. The difficulties the picture presents and the controversies it indicates (i.e., this is a love tale about a married woman) are incapable of conjuring hullabaloo, particularly if you see the entire film.
Kamli is an award-worthy candidate. A well-made picture merits an Oscar nomination and demonstrates Sarmad’s skill in making context-rich films that can reach intellectual, ordinary people.