By Urvashi Sarkar
Review of the Pakistani movie Bol
‘Having been so blessed in life, I often think of the things that I should be grateful for. The list always seems to be never ending, but invariably it ends at one thing: that I was born as a Man. Nothing in the world scares me more than the thought of being born a woman or a eunuch in a country like Pakistan, where obscurantism has deep roots. Leave the 5% urban educated elite aside, women seem to be the playground (or battleground) where we practise a medieval form of religion.’
- Shoaib Mansoor, director of the movie Bol, on its official website
The movie Bol (meaning ‘to speak’) boldly articulates the grim reality of minorities in Pakistan, particularly of women and sexual minorities whose lives are characterised by acute repression. Often, as the movie depicts, religion is made the tool of this repression, and is exercised by men who interpret faith as they find convenient.
In the movie, the protagonist Hakeem Sahab is a traditional physician who has fallen on hard times, partly because new, modern age doctors have taken away his patients, but mostly because his desire for a son produces a string of girl children.
Hakim Sahab, with his cusses and murderous instincts, is a nightmare to women in his house. He forces them to cover their heads in his presence, forbids them from stepping out of the house, refuses to educate his daughters beyond elementary level, beats them when he cannot win with words and, on more than one occasion, threatens and even attempts to kill them. One of his daughters, Zainab, played by Humaima Malik, is the only one who dares to stand up to him and argue that God is not the only force behind more children or Pakistan’s losses at cricket matches. Hakim Sahab, however, is unmoved and insists that everything happens on the will of God.
And then the much awaited son is born. But, in the words of the midwife, although Saifee resembles ‘a boy, [he] actually is not’ and therefore, he should be considered a girl. Hearing this, Hakim Sahab gets into a murderous rage, but his wife manages to save the baby and raises Saifee like his sisters. However, since Saifee physically looks like a man, his sisters, including Zainab, try to impress on him the importance of manly qualities. ‘Be a man,’ stresses Zainab in one scene, citing Mustafa (played by Atif Aslam) who lives in the neighbouring household as an example.
Mustafa’s family is presented as a counterfoil to Hakim Sahab’s claustrophobic household. It is through Mustafa’s house that women in Hakim Sahab’s family find exposure to the outside world via TV and music. Both a musician and student of medicine, Mustafa is romantically involved with one of Zainab’s sisters, Ayesha, who too admires music. Also in love with Mustafa is Saifee.
But before Saifee’s love can find any expression, he is sent out to work to gain masculine qualities. But this venture to the world beyond the house is brutally short-lived when a group of men he works with kidnap and rape him. And when a eunuch brings battered Saifee back to the latter’s home, Hakim Sahab asphyxiates Saifee to death in the name of honour and the Quran. The story then takes a turn.
In order to hush up the murder, Hakim Sahab bribes the local police, using the money he was meant to look after for the local masjid committee. But when the committee asks for the money, he is forced to sleep with his employer’s concubine, Meena, and produce a girl, who the employer wants to sell into prostitution. However, when a daughter is born to Meena, Hakim Sahab gets overcome by remorse and tries to save her.
Zainab and the others in the family know nothing about the baby until one night Meena leaves her at Hakim Sahab’s house and disappears. While angry words, tears and beatings ensue in the family, the pimp arrives with his henchmen to retrieve the baby. In the resulting chaos, Hakim Sahab kills the baby and he in turn gets killed at the hands of Zainab. Bol then becomes Zainab’s story of defence. And before she is hung to death, she asks, as she had done previously, whether it is a crime to kill when giving birth is not.
Bol is not without its weaknesses. Apart from the convoluted storyline, the characterisation of both Ayesha and Mustafa is doubtful. The facts that Ayesha manages to continue her romance with Mustafa rather effortlessly, can meet him for guitar practice lessons, and can even perform at a rock concert when most of the other women are seen as struggling or oppressed feel out of place. And apart from being Saifee and Ayesha’s love interest, Mustafa really has nothing else to do in the movie. Then while Saifee meets a violent end when he steps out in the world, his sisters and mother manage to become extremely successful in restaurant business once Hakim Sahab dies. Their meteoric rise from poor, oppressed women to stylish, burqaless restaurant managers is a little unbelievable. Nonetheless, the movie depicts of the horror of not being born a man in Pakistani society. And there is a pressing need for more such cinema which address the issues of minorities in the country.