The much famed Mahira Khan and Shoaib Mansoor venture, Verna was released across Pakistan and the rest of the world after much ado. The film ran into some conflicts with the censor board of Pakistan where it claimed that the film was ‘anti-government’ and was talking too ‘boldly’ about a subject like rape.
Once the film finally released, some of the reviews that came in were scathing enough to not make the average viewer want to go and see the film. But thanks to Mahira Khan’s sheer star power and the massive promotions that she and her team did for Verna, the film was able to pull some decent numbers. And when I watched the film in Dubai, a week post its release, it was a house full.
The film starts with its power-packed number, “Power Di Game” (rapped by XPolymer Dar) and the narrator spoon-feeds the story to its audience. We learn all about Aimi (Haroon Shahid) and Sara (Mahira Khan) through a voiceover that freakishly disappears from the rest of the film. In an abduction situation, which seemed to be based on an actual event that happened a while ago in Karachi, Sara is kidnapped by some powerful people and released back home after three days. Sara’s release is not the end of the family’s troubles, as Sara wants justice and empathy and Aimi is not as evolved a man to provide her with either. The story goes through many twists and turns to teach the viewer about society, politics, gender bias and cultural barriers. Sara’s abductor is none other than the governor’s son and Sara’s quest for justice is to be riddled with many painful and public trials and tribulations.
The standout performance of the film were Mahira Khan and Zarrar Khan. Haroon’s role, despite being present the or majority of the film, is restricted to scowls and skulking around places like a wounded puppy. Haroon has done well for his first film, especially in scenes where he is angry and vengeful, but somehow fades into the scenery when Sara’s character is ranting and raging onscreen. Zarrar Khan is wholeheartedly negative. A thoroughbred brat from hell, Sultan Khan is the epitome of privilege, power and patriarchy. Wish I could say he’s larger than life but he isn’t – and the kind of villainy Verna exposes its audiences to, sadly very much exists in Pakistan.
This perhaps is Mahira Khan’s strongest performance yet. This is a difficult and powerful role – to which she did justice and clearly gave it her all. It is also a welcome departure from the Pakistan’s sweetheart avatar that was always attached to her post Humsafar. As Sara, Mahira shows her acting chops in her fear, her nerves, her anger and her stoicism. She holds a difficult film in her hands and is on the brink of something groundbreaking, with reference to her stardom. Mahira shifts from the girl we love to the girl we want to understand. The only problem with her character comes when she becomes the femme fatale overnight. There are no big moments that turn her into the vengeful being that she is, her three days of torture are hidden away from the audiences. Which may have been a sane decision, considering, but this also created a difficulty for the audience to connect with Sara as the happy go lucky school teacher to the rebel with a cause.
The film has many flaws but despite those setbacks, it’s still a strong and powerful film. It addresses many subjects and gender conundrums, it sheds a painful and all-too-important light on the prevalent male hypocrisy in our society. It also highlights the culture of silence and shame that surround rape and sexual abuse. In Sara’s character, we see no apology and no shame. She holds her head high and is focused and clear about her thoughts. This redeems the lack of background info and the direct path the film takes onto the revenge plotline.
Apart from Rasheed Naz and Naimal Khawar, the supporting cast disappointed greatly. For a film of this calibre, surely the team could have chosen actors that had a more seamless dialogue delivery. Naz is a veteran and this was Naimal’s debut. Though Naimal speaks in a heavy urban accent, she still proves to be a strong actress. There was a childlike candour to her which could have been explored further. But the film was already 155 minutes and the intensity of the film was building with each scene.
The film’s camerawork is dark and heavily hued with blues that entrap the viewer deeper into an unfair, bitter world. Some of the twists and turns are grisly and shocking, that are absolutely essential to a thriller like Verna.
For a strong subject matter, excellent performances by the lead actors and some pretty sardonic one-liners, go watch Verna now.