The broadcast of Pakistani television shows in India over the last few years and their broad popularity has meant that Indian audiences are well acquainted with the country’s superiority over India in the genre. No one can seriously claim that Indian soap operas are any match for the more interesting (not to mention taut) plotlines of Pakistani television, but equally no one would claim that Pakistan’s film industry is capable of competing with the scale and diversity of Indian cinema.
Ironically, it is the lack of any real film infrastructure that has made Pakistan’s television industry its primary playground for dramatic entertainment. So when it comes to films, it unsurprising that it is Bollywood that the dreamy television stars from Pakistan Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan have turned to in the past.
Could things be changing? Perhaps, if one was to go by the example of the recently released film Cake. When it was released last month, Cake became the first Pakistani film to be premiered at Leicester Square in London. The directorial debut by Asim Abbasi (who also wrote the screenplay) is unconventional in that it doesn’t follow the tried and tested formula familiar to film viewers in the subcontinent.
At the heart of the story is a family drama, akin to the dynamics explored in the recent past by films such as Piku and Kapoor and Sons. In Cake, the core of the story revolves around two sisters. Zareen (played by Aamina Sheikh, who will be familiar as Aiman to viewers of the show Maat) supports her eccentric parents in Pakistan while her sibling Zara (played by Sanam Saeed, who was Kashaf in Zindagi Gulzar Hai) pursues her life with a busy career and troubled marriage abroad. A medical emergency is the catalyst for a reunion, bringing up long-held resentments and unveiling carefully hidden secrets.
What makes Cake work are the carefully sketched characters. The relationship between Zareen and Zara is the centerpiece, but a stellar ensemble cast rounds up the film. The eccentric parents (played by Mohammed Ahmed and a crackling Beo Raana Zafar), an elder brother (Faris Khalid) who also lives abroad and has to balance his duties as a prodigal son with the demands of his wife, and the Christian nurse Romeo (a wonderfully understated Adnan Malik) add to the complex dynamics the film explores.
Much has been made of the strong female characters in Cake. Viewers of Pakistani television shows will know that this in itself this is not an anomaly. But Cake is striking – and joyful to watch – because of how fully inked its female protagonists are. Sheikh and Saeed are both excellent, and their relationship, by turns fractious, antagonistic, tender and loving, is truly the beating heart of the film.
Unlike the Punjabi settings of much of the drama that comes out of Pakistan, the background in Cake is Sindh, and the regional nuances and rhythms add amply to the movie’s atmosphere. Cake eschews setpiece song and dance routines, but has a glorious soundtrack produced by The Sketches.
On viewing, it is not hard to see why Abbasi chose the name Cake for the film. During an interaction with the audience following the premiere, Sanam Saeed spelt it out, saying that the movie, like cake, was made of many layers. It looks one way from the outside and is different inside once you cut a slice. It’s a simplistic analogy, but one that holds up well for the movie. Like a good cake, it makes you want to go back for a second helping.