The first twenty or so minutes of ‘Dum Mastam’ are a bit disorienting. Is the film another romantic comedy, one wonders. Or perhaps, a more serious masala-fest in the vein of ‘Punjab Nahi Jaungi’? An out and out, in-your-face slapstick satire? Turns out, the movie is none of the above specifically, yet contains elements of all these genres. If one attempted to box ‘Dum Mastam’ in any category, it would be slotted as a romantic musical with elements and influences of all sorts of film types. That is to say, the film is rather an eclectic, sometimes discordant, chaat of genres with the androon-e-Lahore set love story of its titular characters being the overarching element that defines its narrative.
The somewhat overpowering elements of comedy, slapstick satire, and bits of social commentary here and there in the cleverly packaged first half would make you think otherwise. See, the two protagonists here, Aliya (Amar Khan) and Sikandar Hayat Khan a.k.a. Baoo (Imran Ashraf) seem to be headed in diametrically opposite directions. Baoo is hopelessly besotted with his long-time friend and neighbor Aliya and makes incessant and often bumbling, attempts, to charm his way into her heart. The object of his affection, on the other hand, is all starry-eyed and has her mind set on conquering the ritzy world of arc lights and painted faces. Theirs is a love story that would simply not be if Aliya had her way. She’s already training to be part of a professional dance troupe and lady luck knocks with the opportunity of a lifetime when she is picked by a major producer (Adnan Siddiqui, in a cameo) for a world tour. To put mildly, Aliya doesn’t have the highest opinion about happy-go-lucky ways of Baoo, a singer who is not as ambitious as her but who nevertheless is striving for recognition.
Aliya and Baoo’s paths do eventually intersect. Fate tangles and ties their destinies in a convoluted, messy knot as the duo land in Karachi to make it big. There’s tension, awkwardness, anger, and a multitude of conflicting emotions between the two. Can their fragile bond withstand the pressures of the big city? Does the somewhat naïve, play-by-the-heart Baoo have what it takes to navigate through the shark-infested waters, and manage threats that might be far more close than he is aware?
Amar Khan, who has written and developed the screenplay for the film, besides being the female lead, does a reasonably decent job in bringing out a unique story with ample conflict, tension, and a heart. While I can’t say that for most Pakistani films, the plot is the USP of ‘Dum Mastam.’ Its treatment though would have benefitted from a touch of understatedness, particularly in terms of characterization of certain parts. While the film starts on a high note and maintains a decent pace in the first half, viewer fatigue, unfortunately, does set in with the extraneous focus on side characters such as Guddu Razor, the low on talent, menacing caricature of contemporary rap stars.
That the film is a musical plays up its strength. The song-and-dance routines incorporate all the contrasting textures of its characters, the different vernaculars, and cityscapes of Lahore and Karachi into its authentic narrative, offering an experience that often transcends the movie’s limitations. The actors do well, too – in particular, Imran Ashraf carries his boy-from-Punjab routine with pizzazz, looking suitably vulnerable, menacing, and besotted by his ladylove as and when demanded by the screenplay. His female counterpart, Amar Khan, the actress, is also quite convincing playing the ambitious firecracker that is Aliya.
Tidying up the screenplay, along with a shade more restrained direction to keep the performances in check would have considerably helped in easing the viewer anxiety that sets in once the film nears its second hour of run-time. While the story offers an interesting twist on the story of two people in love trying to make it big in the world of showbiz, the big reveal only materializes once you traverse almost the film’s entire runtime. This portion, i.e. the film’s third and final act, is its high point, and it needed greater screen time and better development on the storyboard to register more of an impact. As the end credits rolled, I could not help but wonder that did the story really have enough meat to be stretched to over two and a half hours? Possibly not.
Even if you do end up being occasionally distracted by the at times slackened pace, the film’s lush visual tapestry, particularly in the first half (cinematography by Salman Razzaq Khan) will keep your attention more or less in place. Lahore’s inner city, with all its arches, gates and quaintness is home-turf for the DOP, as it is almost in the same locales where Razzaq Khan shot ‘Bol,’ the film that first brought him under the limelight. While his frames, particularly in the first half, are well put together, one feels that the Karachi portion could have been better lensed to render the larger-than-life impact of the second half. Besides the film’s fairly strong visual element, its screenplay also features some unique, idiosyncratic details (for example, the ancient fuse boards wiring the inner city mohallas blowing up) that make it more authentic. And since ‘Dum Mastam’ is a musical, its soundtrack is almost as important to it as its script. The music score, featuring work by the who’s who of Pakistan’s music scene (Shiraz Uppal, Azaan Sami Khan, and Bilal Saeed are amongst the artists credited) does not disappoint.
The bottom line
While Dum Mastam’ succeeds in a few areas where Pakistani films often falter, a shorter runtime would have markedly enhanced its impact. In its current form, the screenplay’s coherence is muddied by tangential characters and leaps of genre, both of which do not contribute much to the film’s cause. The film nevertheless offers an interesting story with ample drama, emotions and importantly, a heart and has been made with sincerity. For that, it is worth a watch.