By Adnan Murad
People who leave their homes think that they will leave their family and childhood problems behind and will never face their fears; however, a lot of people still experience similar problems, feelings and relationship patterns, long after they have left their homes. They can only, possibly, confront these fears when they meet their family members again. These reunions—which are often fraught with emotional outbursts—have been fashioned by different film-makers in the world cinema over years.
From Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly to Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, this theory has been widely explored by storytellers. It is, therefore, important to understand that the skeleton for such films is mostly the same; however, the treatment of content—including dramatic tension and irony (the concept of revelation)—makes such films stand out.
The idea of family reunions is also expertly explored in the recently released Pakistani film Cake, which came out on Mar 30, 2018.
Cake has a simple premise and a constricted timeline: Zara (Sanam Saeed) returns home after 10 years to see her father (Mohammed Ahmed) who is not well and her mother (Beo Raana Zafar), who, for the time being, is doing quite well. Her return digs up old wounds with her sister Zarene (Aamina Sheikh). In this journey, they are joined by their childhood friend Romeo (Adnan Malik) and their brother Zain (Faris Khalid).
On its surface, Cake’s story may look resoundingly familiar, but it is not.
Cake, written and directed by Asim Abbasi, can be described as a well-paced drama that explores the theory of family reunion, which is expertly punctuated by subtopics like sibling rivalry and unspoken grievances; these subtopics are vividly brought to the table through dated family belongings, photographs and pictorial representations.
In a way, the entire film can be seen as struggling—through a series of missteps and misunderstandings—to, once again, bring the family under one roof.
Abbasi lets his players dive into the deep end of the emotional pool as the first half ends and conjures up a storm of cinematic bubbles towards the end of the second half in an extended sequence where we see skeletons of the past rattling out of closets. The result is a simmering cauldron of unresolved relationships, broken promises and familial regrets.
In these moments, Abbasi finds Freudian slips to record sequences that hint at truths we are often too afraid to accept or approach. He, through the eyes of his characters, makes us conscious of unspoken love or smouldering hatred that the characters are trying to hide.
Abbasi’s understanding of human nature is emotionally layered and this is why he shows us people, often using tight close-ups and long takes, involved in verbal exchanges with acute empathy.
To his advantage, he uses Zara and Zarene’s relationship to make this Cake more flavoursome. The way Zarene tries to comfort Zara when she gets bouts of anxiety after meeting her former love interest shows how caring she is; as a matter of fact, these scenes actually divulge how difficult things have suddenly become between them.
Sheikh, as Zarene, is compromising, more understanding and responsible. She wants to live with her parents to look after them and to manage her home and property. She is more traditional and close to her cultural roots and wants her siblings, who are relentlessly following their dreams away from home, to be empathetic towards their parents.
As indicated in the trailer, an incident brings the three siblings—Zara, Zarene and Zain—together.
Zarene, who remained quiet for most of the time, is forced to speak up now. Primarily, she does so because she is tired and wants to have some time for herself.
Her condition is not different than any normal human being. We all work in our daily lives as we grow up, but there is always this break that we are all looking forward to. This is the time that we all use in different ways: to meet parents, to get in touch with old friends or to go for a holiday.
Sheikh’s Zarene is also exhausted. She needs some time off because it has been long that she has been looking after her family. For this reason, she wants Zara and Zain to play their roles instead of evading their responsibilities; she is not asking them to stay back forever, but she is only making an earnest request to just ‘be there’.
As the film progresses, we see Sheikh’s tension transforming into agony that is almost visible on her face.
Sheikh, by the end of this film, looks drained and dwindled.
To a great extent, she is complemented by Saeed’s Zara, who brings a vibrant jolt of energy to the film’s narrative through her impactful dialogue delivery and controlled tonal inflexions.
A remarkable scene has Zara playing a song and dancing with her father; the father and daughter are later joined by Zarene and Zain. Likewise, there is another scene when the siblings and the father sit, holding each other’s hands, and sing a Bollywood classic song to a loved one. It is so soul-stirringly poignant that it chills you to the bone.
Also, there is an extended sequence—like I earlier mentioned—featuring the siblings, their father and Romeo. This goes on for almost 15 minutes. This rarest, high-wire act is a masterstroke by Abbasi, where he succeeds in being an ironist and a dramatist at the same time.
This Cake also becomes more palatable because of Saeed, who gives such a remarkable, career-defining performance that it is hard to imagine anyone else playing her part. As she gets deeper into understanding the intricacies of her past, her character starts to transform. Saeed’s masterful act allows for multiple interpretations, which, alone, is a testament to her mastery over her craft.
In support, Sheikh gives a very compelling, internal performance that makes Zarene’s despair resonate.
Visually, the movie is interesting in how little it shows off. Mo Azmi, who has worked as the director of photography, provides subtle colour and tone. The refreshing soundtrack by The Sketches is effectively embedded in the film’s narrative to give it a more realistic touch.
Overall, Abbasi runs wild with this material, and Cake accomplishes a whimsical, poetic beauty that is so rare in Pakistani cinema.