Gul Makai is the name under which future Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai anonymously blogged against the rampaging Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat district in 2008. The Taliban had been imposing its strict moral code on Swat’s residents, and among the targets were schools, including the one run by Malala’s father, Ziauddin. When Malala became a prominent activist and her message began to spread beyond Pakistan’s borders, the Taliban decided to teach her a lesson – they stopped a school bus on which the teenager was travelling and shot her in the head.

Malala miraculously survived, and was later flown to the United Kingdom for further treatment. She has since become a talismanic figure on the right to education, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi in 2014.

Malala’s fascinating life has evaded easy encapsulation, and the respect she commands for her work and commitment prevents complex portraiture. David Guggenheim’s 2015 documentary He Named Me Malala attempted to balance its reverence for this remarkable young woman, who appears wise beyond her years, with information and observations on her circumstances and the role played by her father. The resulting picture, however, remained incomplete.

Amjad Khan’s Gul Makai doesn’t even attempt to flesh out its young heroine. We are promised a biopic and instead we get a hack job about an overwrought teenager, her saintly father, evil terrorists with carrot-coloured beards who stack assault weapons alongside their copies of the Quran, and Anant Joag as former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf.

Various other Mumbai actors attempt to pass themselves off as Pakistanis in this Bollywood version of events. Malala is portrayed by television actor Reem Shaikh, but instead of the brave and outspoken teenager who went on to become a poster child in the fight against religious fundamentalism, we get a bundle of nerves who weeps frequently and wakes up screaming from nightmares.

Bhaswati Chakrabarty’s screenplay focuses so closely on the events that led to the attack on Malala that when it’s time to know her a little better, the end credits are not far away. There is nothing in the movie to indicate that this weak and snivelling person would inspire the world only years later.

Atul Kulkarni and Divya Dutta, far too sincere for the movie, play Malala’s parents. Kulkarni has the meatiest role as Malala’s doughty father, but the script is dunked too deep into preachiness and piety to allow the character to ring true.

About the only redeeming feature in the poorly paced and amateurishly directed movie is the suggestion that the Pakistani Army, despite their shortcomings, suffered deeply for taking on the Taliban. The wigs and fake beards sported by the numerous terrorists who crowd the frames provide welcome distractions from the near-unending tedium.

Gul Makai (2020).

Also read:

‘He Named Me Malala’ is an incomplete portrait of the world’s best-known teenager