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Wakhri (One of a Kind)

A school teacher becomes an instant social media celebrity after a fiery political video goes viral, with terrifying consequences - audacious Pakistani movie premieres at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival

Noor Malik (Faryal Mehmood) is a young and beautiful widow living with son aged around 10 in Lahore, Pakistan second largest city with more than 10 million inhabitants. A hustling and bustling metropolis with characters of all sorts. She is also a primary school teacher. Her family are kind and supportive of the hard-working mother, however many people frown upon her failure to get got remarried. A callous neighbour tells her: “widows are not invited to celebrations”. Pakistan consistently degrades its women, relegating them to a dangerous position of submission and inferiority. A female is to be flanked by a male at all times. An empowered woman on her own right is promptly dismissed as “angry” and “toxic”, and often hunted down for the alleged “threat” that they represent for the traditional nuclear family.

During her spare time, Noor hangs out with the extravagant and irreverent drag queens and trans women at the local cabaret. This is a very rare representation of LGBT culture in Pakistani cinema (Saim Sadiq’s trans-themed Joyland, which won the Queer Palm in Cannes last year, was banned on Pakistani soil). Gay performance artist Gucchi (Gulshan Majeed) is her best friend, the one who provides her with comfort, advice, and also challenges her when necessary. He points out that Noor has a lot of internal anger, and encourages her to perform as a venting outlet, and in order to alleviate these tensions. She creates a flamboyant persona called Wakhri, with a blue wig, heavy make-up and a metal veil covering the face below her eyes. She dances to an cheering audience. But it’s in the privacy of her home that she delivers a politically explosive rant describing the country as “vulnerable”, encouraging women to make themselves heard, and asking society not to judge women and girls solely on their looks (amongst other feminist messages). Gucchi posts her impromptu performance online and she instantly acquires a very large following. She quickly capitalises on her online audiences. Her objective is to save a US$50,000 in order to open a school.

It doesn’t take long, however, for the haters to surface and harass her. Online insults and even death threats become normalised, and the angry face emoticon spreads like wildfire. She is accused of being Westernised, which she dismisses by arguing that she’s entirely Pakistani. The self-proclaimed champions of family values want to find out her real identity, thereby exposing her to ridicule, tainting her family and seriously compromising her physical integrity (and indeed her life). Sadia Khan, a famous television presenter, invites her live on her show in exchange for a very large sum of money (which will bring Noor very close to her financial target). This is where the biggest duel takes place: Noor – with full Wakhri make-up and sharp tongue – confronts her critics and torturers face-to-face. What follows will shake the nation to the core, and change Noor’s destiny forever.

Based on the real story of social media celebrity and feminist Qandeel Baloch (whose real name was Fouzia Azeem, and who was murdered by her brother in 2016 in an honour killing), Wakhri is socio-political dynamite. A quick online search reveals that American-Pakistani filmmaker Iram Parveen Bilal took many creative freedoms, and infused the film highly romanticised and likely unreal events (Qandeel was never as colourful and flamboyant as Wakhri, and I found no evidence of her connection to the LGBT community, or her desire to build a school).

The movie is crafted with abundant music, a vivid cinematography with abundant colourful lighting, and a fast-moving, energetic script. Saccharine and vaguely Bollywoodian flavours and colours are unabashedly attached to it. This will appeal chiefly to Asian and Middle Eastern audiences (precisely those who need to see the film the most). This is not a perfect film, with some significant holes and loose ends (such as Noor’s son who disappears in a clumsy plot involving his in-laws taking him away, plus we never see much of Noor in action as a teacher). Still, a bold and necessary movie. Thematically, a very dirty one.

The world premiere of Wakhri takes place at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival, where the film is showing in the Official Competition. Iram Parveen Bilal’s previous film I’ll Meet You There (2020), which was in the Grand Jury Competition at SXSW in 2020, was banned on its release in Pakistan. The movie also depicted an empowered female protagonist: a woman passionate about a forbidden dance. I hope Wakhri does not have the same fate as Candeel Baloch. This should not become another casualty of the country’s censorship and patriarchy. Fingers crossed.


By Victor Fraga - 03-12-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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