Director Baber Ali’s debut feature, ‘JOHN’ is a story about a young boy from the Christian minority that lives in Karachi. The film deals with gangs and target killings as well as the injustice the Christian community faces on a daily basis. It gets enough right that it can be called a realistic study of the violent and sometimes hopeless environment Pakistani Christians grow up in.
The Story of ‘JOHN’
‘JOHN’ has a pretty straightforward story. The titular character works as a sweeper at a local school and earns a meagre 10,000 rupees a month. He hangs out with Dawood, a hitman played by Saleem Meiraj who serves the local don Baali.
Working alongside Dawood is another goon named Fazal played by Raza Samo of the YouTube Channel Awesamo Family. ‘JOHN’ is also infatuated by a young girl named Maria who works at his school as a teacher’s assistant and nurse, played by Romaisa Khan.
Throughout the film, ‘JOHN’ has to make choices to survive and thrive in the cutthroat environment of Karachi. He finds that his life as a common sweeper and marginalized Christian and his aspirations to become a musician don’t align. Instead, he has to either accept fate, or play the game of chance in Karachi.
After a tragedy upsets his world, he finds company with the hitman Dawood and his journey begins.
‘JOHN’ Could Have Benefitted from Finer Details
Director Babar Ali has filled the shoes of screenplay writer as well and he’s done a decent job. During our interview with him, he talked about going through 12-15 drafts before arriving at the final draft.
However, JOHN’s plot is too similar to a lot of other crime dramas.
We’ve all seen multiple films from Pakistan, India, and Hollywood which show a character struggling with moral choices and taking the easy route only to realize he’s made a huge blunder. And then he pays the price for it. In that regard, ‘JOHN’ doesn’t differ from a lot of its predecessors.
Also, the film doesn’t really justify the protagonist being a Christian all that much. Yes, there are details like Christians being treated as second class citizens, being forced into certain professions, etc. However, the screenplay could’ve benefitted from some of the finer details of a Christian’s life in Pakistan. Most people are aware of how Christians are treated in Pakistan; so nothing in ‘JOHN’ comes across as a revelation.
Also, there is hardly any mention of the Christian religion in the film. Apart from two pretty standard scenes, there is hardly any invocation of the Christian faith. Perhaps that could’ve helped the film stand out from others when it comes to portraying a Christian character.
Saleem Meiraj and Romaisa Khan Steal the Show in ‘JOHN’
The performances are what elevate ‘JOHN’ above most standard fare in Pakistan.
Saleem Meiraj as the hitman Dawood gives a powerhouse performance as always. He’s someone who always brings his A-game and is someone you can expect to deliver anytime he’s on screen.
However, it is Romaisa Khan as Maria who surprises the most. She plays a worker at a local school who falls in love with John. She has dreams of travelling to Kashmir and enjoying the small joys in life. While it’s a character that’s been played a million times, Romaisa brings a sincerity to the role that puts a smile on your face. She could go far as an actress.
Raza Samo as Fazal, for as long as he’s on screen is perfect. He provides some comic relief and some much-needed breaks in the film which sometimes borders on cynical. Raza Samo has spoken openly about his past and ostensibly drew from it to portray the character of Fazal. Director Babar Ali said that he imagined an entire backstory to fuel his character.
Aashir Wajahat as John is decent enough, but he’s someone just starting to explore his talents. His strengths are his body language, which mimics that of a street kid pretty well; and his voice. A scene in which he’s obliviously singing “Tu Theher Ja”, a song he plays for his mother, in an empty classroom, is beautiful.
Where the Direction Falters the Music Elevates
As I mentioned earlier, the screenplay of ‘JOHN’ could’ve been much better than what finally was. Some finer details and trimming down the runtime could’ve helped. However, the direction itself falters in a lot of places.
At this point, Karachi has been shown through the lenses of a lot of directors including Nabeel Qureshi with ‘Na Maloom Afraad’ and ‘Actor in Law’, Kamal Khan with ‘Laal Kabootar’, and most recently through the lens of Seraj Us Salikin with ‘Madaari’.
In comparison, JOHN’s Karachi isn’t as wild or expansive or claustrophobic. It doesn’t touch the extremities of the city that we all know too well from the screen.
However, the music of ‘JOHN’ is something that reaches far beyond most films in Pakistani cinema today. Apart from some gems like ‘Kamli’, there isn’t a lot of film music worth talking about in Pakistani films. ‘JOHN’ comes along and demolishes the competition with gems like “Tu Theher Ja”, “Chitthiyaan” and “Tu Who Qaatil Hai”.
Then there are the performances of Saleem Meiraj, Romaisa, and Raza Samo who bring genuine moments of poignancy to the story. The music and performances touche an emotional core in the film which rescues it from an otherwise standard screenplay and story.
‘JOHN’ is playing in theaters across Pakistan now.