*ing: Mahira Khan, Bilal Ashraf, Nadeem Baig, Alizeh Shah, Asma Abbas, Ali Kazmi, Jawed Sheikh, Saife Hassan, Marina Khan with Syra Shahroz in a special appearance
Directed by Mohammed Ehteshamuddin
A girl stands inside a closet full of items that take you inside the world of theatre. One minute her voice is fraught with meaning, asking about a man and what is in his hands; the next minute the tenor in her voice changes and another character asks with zeal, “what is it,” before going back to the original voice that says, “It is the lock to a sealed fate.” The girl, sounding excited, says: “Who are you?”
And so begins our movie. This opening sequence, where Mahira Khan embodies different roles, standing alone in front of a mirror, is the strongest introduction to a film she has ever starred in.
A soft, melting piano begins in the background, as does the story. Inside a vehicle, two men discuss the lives that they perceive superstars live and the old man driving tells them, “So, leave it.” They retort by saying, “If we don’t work, what will we do?” And the wise man, driving these two men, says, “Faith.” They are lost by his answer and so he explains: “Holding onto things is hope. And leaving them is faith.”
The narration then begins in the voice of our protagonist, Noor Malik (Mahira Khan), who notes that while trying to achieve our dreams, we, too, help others in achieving theirs. Promoting altruism further, Noor Malik reminds us that without doing good no good can come our way. And then the banger arrives as she defines what a true superstar is. The screenplay and dialogues here are just as fantastic as the narration that is said with great belief, palpable in the voice.
Suddenly and surprisingly, Noor Malik appears before us in what is an advertisement audition and asks us to stop using our brains as she tries to sell a ‘magnet oil’ that can cure everything a person has and will make one “a real magnet” – from cough to cancer, obesity to favourite cousin to societal pressure, it will cure everything. She goes on and on and it is hilarious as it finds its inspiration from reality, where encountering thoughtless advertisements – if you watch local television – is a daily nightmare.
But Noor Malik, even as she gives an audition for this magnet oil, wonders when she will become an actor, a superstar.
While we learn of Noor’s dreams of being an actor, she is protected by her grandfather, Agha Jaan, a former film director, Saleem Malik, who once created superstars.
A scene takes us back to Agha Jaan’s past, to a time when two men with a lot of money wanted him to make films on, wait for it, horses. When asked if they have a subject, they say, to hell with the subject. “I have money and horses.”
In the background we hear the words: “A film is not made by money; it is made by the subject.”
As we cut back to the present, the piano returns and so does Noor Malik, who tells us that the studio in which she is struggling to become an actor, once belonged to her Agha Jaan, a progressive man who provides cover to his grandchildren, one of whom wants to be an actor. She tells us, “Not heroine, but an actor.”
This is Mahira Khan, rising from Khirad (Humsafar), her most famous role that she is still associated with, to the actor that cares more about self-fulfillment by telling subversive stories than wearing the tag of a heroine who cannot act.
Agha Jaan has sold the studio and no longer directs films. Noor longs to work in a film as her agent Bobby reminds her that 12 films are made in a year (true story there) and that she needs to focus on endorsements. But Noor cares less about money and more about the craft.
All these truths are woven in the narrative so well that it doesn’t feel like a laughing punch line but a story that feels all so true.
Enters Chutki, essayed by Alizeh Shah, who is cheeky and effortless as the younger sister. She teases and takes Noor – who has just arrived home – straight into the living room and rishta situation. Think of every horrifying expectation of a mother-in-law or a patriarchal husband thrown in and you have the mother and son approvingly staring at her as she sits down. But Agha Jaan, played so beautifully by Nadeem Baig, really takes them to task while creating subtle moments of laughter. He lies for them, makes excuses and is given a meatier role, the kind he deserves.
And then enters Sameer Khan (Bilal Ashraf), a superstar who is set to star in a new film by a new director, Shaan, essayed by Ali Kazmi.
Sameer Khan leads the life one deems a superstar to live and while his father, Jawed Sheikh, is not supportive of his career at all, his mother, essayed by (the oh-so-natural) Marina Khan is the opposite and supports her son fully.
Noor Malik lands an ad shoot with Sameer Khan for director Shaan; she keeps practising, anticipating their first meeting. She knows the ad is ridiculous – because why would anyone be excited to show their bathroom to an actor – but she hopes it will lead to a film.
He arrives hours late.
When they first meet, she is nervous. Then, she is not excited enough. After a couple of retakes, the director loses it. And Noor says, “Until stars exist, no one can become an actor.”
She mocks the very idea of the ad before reminding him that he arrived hours late and he is the hero while they – the other actors – are just props. But Sameer makes sure she is in the ad. This is where the narrative takes a turn.
Strong-willed Noor and the curious Sameer start their relationship. Atif Aslam’s voice appears as the relationship grows stronger, more romantic. Chutki creates wonderful moments as she takes selfies with Sameer and it is the most natural thing. There are too many lines for one to quote in one piece. Chutki is a riot. You can’t stop laughing.
This is where the film takes a turn, leaving Noor Malik’s fate as an actor and her love life hanging by a thread. But instead of quitting, Noor soldiers along.
Emotions are replaced by a professional facade and Noor Malik is eventually a star, albeit a lonely one. To give away more would be unfair to the viewer. But it has to be said that apart from the funny one-liners that work in this case, there are many subtle messages wrapped within the film.
The importance of theatre and how it teaches actors, the infamous casting couch operated by sleazy agents who promise a film career in return for sex, the border-ban that has made it impossible for actors to work across whereas art has no boundaries, the perception and reality that actors live can be two very different things, marriages can exist without love and love can exist without marriages, the story behind the notion that those who come from small homes make it to the top only by sleeping their way up and heartbreak does not always lead to an end.
Some of the most important questions the industry is grappling with get addressed without being preachy or self-important.
In Mahira Khan there is an actor and Superstar is a clear proof. Is she a director’s actor? Perhaps. Or perhaps the desire to prove that she is an actor first, a star later, drove a performance that was the need of the hour. Bilal Ashraf looks and acts like someone who knows his game. It is his strongest performance till date. Azaan Sami Khan’s music matches this story, where the vintage meets the modern.
The cameo by Syra Shahroz is as beautifully acted as is Marina Khan’s role of a mother. There are some surprises. But to know what they are, you’d have to watch the film and our recommendation is: watch it. This is not just the arrival of Mahira Khan but of Bilal Ashraf, Azaan Sami Khan and it is an ode to Nadeem Baig.
The visual aesthetics work, and the ending is both surprising, and will leave you with a smile on your face, humming the songs of course.
This is Pakistani cinema learning to fly and in Superstar it does.
Rating system: *Not on your life * ½ If you really must waste your time ** Hardly worth the bother ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only *** Good enough for a look see *** ½ Recommended viewing **** Don’t miss it **** ½ Almost perfect ***** Perfection