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Director Zarrar Kahn’s In Flames adeptly depicts how patriarchy inflicts psychological and legal pain in Pakistan

Patriarchy In Flames
In Flames reveals the psychological impact of patriarchal society on Mariam (Ramesha Nawal).

There’s a shocking statistic highlighting gendered oppression deep inside Pakistan’s 2017-2018 Demographic and Health Survey. It reveals that 97 percent of Pakistani women did not inherit land or a house. What’s even worse is that due to patriarchy, less than one percent of women inherited non-agricultural or residential plots.

Faiza Mubarak, assistant project coordinator at Transparency International Pakistan, wrote last year that the country’s constitution grants women the right to own and inherit property. However, according to Mubarak, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds or from rural areas often lack financial means or legal knowledge to pursue claims.

Patriarchy also comes starkly into play in Canadian-Pakistani writer-director Zarrar Kahn’s debut feature, In Flames, which is being screened this week at TIFF Lightbox in Toronto. Set in Kahn’s birthplace of Karachi, the film begins with the death of a grandfather. This leaves his middle-age daughter, Fariha (Bakhtawar Mazhar) vulnerable to a deceptive brother-in-law keen to steal the family’s small apartment.

Trouble looms when Fariha informs her medical-student daughter, Mariam (Ramesha Nawal), that Uncle Nazir (Adnan Shah) recently called with a generous offer.

“He has good news—that he is going to pay all of the bills,” Fariha says. “It’s a godsend. If someone wants to help us, who are we to refuse?”

Mariam, however, remains extremely wary of her uncle, even as she tries to cope with her own mental-health challenges. But Nasir is not the only menacing male figure in this psychological thriller illustrating how gendered oppression manifests itself in Pakistan. There are a host of others.

Patriarchy In Flames
Fariha (Bakhtawar Mazhar) faces monumental challenges after the death of her father.

Patriarchy permeates society

In his director’s statement, Kahn point out that Karachi is a city of about 30 million. Here, he says, “it is commonly known that a woman should not walk alone outside.”

Through In Flames, Kahn sets out “to explore the consequences of living in the confines of a fiercely patriarchal society”. He often accomplishes this through imagery. Cinematography sets the mood, whether it’s an isolated beach house facing the Arabian Sea or vultures swirling in the sky. But it’s also apparent in close-ups of the two central characters’ faces.

The film unfolds slowly and steadily, yet it remains captivating thanks to Nawal’s riveting performance. The Karachi actor commands attention as she oozes sadness, longing, and rage. On other occasions, her character engages lighthearted chit-chat with her college friend, as well as a secretive romance with a student from Canada, which offer insights into everyday life in Pakistan.

Patriarchy Zarrar Kahn
Toronto-based writer-director Zarrar Kahn set out to show the psychological toll of patriarchal society in Karachi, where he was born.

Meanwhile, Ramina’s brother, Bilal (Jibran Khan), is suddenly the man of the house after his grandfather’s death. However, Bilal is so immersed in his handheld video-game device that he’s blithe to earthshaking developments within the home.

All of this leaves his mother, Fariha, to cope with overlapping crises. She musters all of her strength and wits—demonstrating how a Pakistani woman evolves in response to harshly patriarchal urban culture. As Fariha, Mazhar’s impressive performance suggests that even in the face of hardship, there can be room for hope.

Fortunately, Telefilm changed its rules so that Canadian films like this can be funded even if they aren’t more than 50 percent in English, French, or an Indigenous language. Otherwise, a feature like this, which is told in Urdu, might never have been made.

Watch the trailer for In Flames.

In Flames is being shown this week at TIFF Lightbox in Toronto.  Learn more about diverse communities from the Toronto Spark website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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