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In Flames (Movie Review): Pakistan’s Latest Horror Turns Social Evils Into Phantoms

A whistle, a familiar shadow, a thundering clang in the distance; all of these things colour the story in “In Flames”, to say nothing of the flashing colours which signal danger every time. In Flames takes the subtle approach to storytelling which is often absent in Pakistan.

What is In Flames About?

At its core, “In Flames” is about a mother and daughter grieving with loss and dealing with societal pressures. The daughter, Mariam, played by debutante Rameesha Nawal and mother played by Bakhtawar Mazhar (previously seen in ‘Churails’) have both lost their fathers. Now, the vultures are circling. With no father, husband, or elder brother by their side, they have to contend with property disputes, harassment, and violence. To make matters worse, a phantom from their past keeps lurking in the shadows, tainting what precious moments of joy they do have.

The Horror…The Horror

If ‘In Flames’ was made in Hollywood, it would’ve been produced by A24, the current darling studio of independent films. For horror aficionados, that’s already a huge reason to watch it. There are also clear influences in the direction and sound design of ‘In Flames’ from modern horror masterpieces like “Hereditary”, “Midsommar”, and “The Babadook”. However, all those influences have been translated into local sounds and images which are unmistakably Pakistani.

The tagline for the film is, “Some Scars Don’t Heal”. And that’s where the horror lies. True horror, as the scariest stories reveal, is what is often buried deep within our subconscious, and what we are most reluctant to speak of, or confront. We don’t even accept help to heal it. And so, the wound, or the trauma, festers.

While ‘In Flames’ doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, it does present social evils in their true form. They haunt every waking moment for those that can’t escape. Whenever there’s danger lurking, there are certain flashing colours or faint sounds that Zarrar Kahn uses to signal the coming onslaught.

Here is where the local influences play the biggest part. Only a Pakistani will be able to truly understand the significance of a faint whistle in the distance or a clanging pot. To the international audience, it’s the same as Charlie clicking her tongue in Hereditary; a metronome building up to a crescendo. However, to a Pakistani audience, it’s a familiar sound we’ve heard all our lives in the dead of night, when everyone else is asleep.

The Performances

To say that Adnan Shah Tipu is great as the conniving “Nasir Chacha” in the film is nothing new. The man aces every role that he’s ever done. He’s both a comedic powerhouse and a great dramatic actor. However, the scene stealer here is Bakhtawar Mazhar. Her role as the frustrated mother is the key to the entire film. And she’s met with a great restrained performance by Rameesha Nawal as the daughter Mariam; who’s trying to run away from her past.

If I were to nitpick, perhaps 5-7 minutes of the film could’ve been shaved off and a tighter edit could’ve been achieved. That’s about it. The film doesn’t try to do too much and stays on point for its entire runtime.

The Horror of Karachi

Uptil now, two filmmakers, Kamal Khan (Laal Kabootar) and Seraj Us Salikin (Madaari) have captured Karachi in its most authentic and brutal way. However, we can add a third name to that list. Zarrar Kahn’s Karachi isn’t as brutal as Kamal Khan’s nor as claustrophobic as Seraj’s, but it is lonelier and more terrifying.

In Conclusion

Contrary to popular belief, Pakistan has had a rich tradition of symbolic filmmaking, which is often termed ‘art cinema’. In both television and film, Pakistani artists have dabbled in what is called “Alaamat”. Mohammad Nisar Hussain and Ashfaq Ahmad did it with “Aik Mohabbat Sau Afsanay”, and Jamil Dehlavi did it with “Towers of Silence” and “Blood of Hussein” and Jameel Akhtar did it with “Karishma”. None of these were foreign funded endeavors. They were simply stories put to film in ways that mirrored folk tales and fairy tales.

We need greater support for these kind of films in Pakistani cinema. Without them, there is little hope for us to evolve beyond the simple masala formula. After the screening, the cast and crew had a small QnA session. In it Adnan Shah Tipu commented that PTV’s old Drama 83, 84, and 85 series was often made with the same sensitivity and creativity that’ In Flames’ demonstrates. I couldn’t agree more. We just lost that art, and the audience became less sophisticated as a result.

Go watch ‘In Flames’ at Atrium Cinema in Karachi. It’s playing till the 31st of October, 2023.

Written by Yousuf Mehmood


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