In a pivotal moment of absolute thrill, Sara (Mahira Khan) runs frantically up the stairs of her posh home, straight into her bathroom and starts to senselessly pound someone to pulp in the bathtub. The water wildly splashes up in slow motion, with a few thick spurts of blood. The pounding continues.

The poor fellow in the tub is Aami (Haroon Shahid) — her husband. And frankly speaking, he had it coming.

Aami is a music producer whose songs — such as Power Di Game, which starts the movie — rap and scream against the establishment. But behind this ever-in-vogue mindset of thrashing the government lies a very weak-willed, polio-stricken man.

Aami is constantly angry, first at his mother for not giving him the polio vaccine as a child, and then at his wife, Sara, because she was raped for three days and then delivered home without a scratch.

Shoaib Mansoor’s Verna is a pro-women film all right but with a very short-sighted, inconsiderate and amateurish point of view

Verna’s is a tricky subject to ponder by Shoaib Mansoor, a director whose film career is exclusively made up of a lot of tricky, controversial thoughts. Mansoor’s thoughts are heavy, protracted, incessant and repetitive to the point of exhaustion. There comes a time in each of his films — Khuda Kay Liye (KKL) and Bol — when one goes, ‘Enough already, we get it!’ Despite this, both KKL and Bol were intelligent and relevant works of a man who media and PR companies dub a genius, master filmmaker. Before Verna, one would be hard pressed to argue against the notion.

Running at nearly three hours, the film spotlights a very delicate topic: abduction and rape of women by powerful people whose families run the government.

Mahira Khan as the lead. This is her second film with Shoaib Mansoor
Mahira Khan as the lead. This is her second film with Shoaib Mansoor

 

Mansoor is vocal about a ton of social dilemmas. Firstly, he shows us our own faults for electing corrupt politicians who come with a high-and-mighty feudal mindset. Secondly, he shows us the pressure on rape victims who are dissuaded against legally pursuing justice for fear of family embarrassment. Thirdly, he shows us the importance of fighting the good fight against polio.

According to Mansoor, feeding your child a drop of the polio vaccine means they won’t grow up physically handicapped with a lack of self-confidence and turn into Haroon Shahid’s character — a man who speaks in whispers and shakes at the knees. At one point, I was afraid for the poor guy. With mounting anxiety, insecurity and disgust (a lot of it targeted at his wife), I was expecting him to turn up dead the next day. He, however, is resolute in his shamelessness and overcomes his faults by saying, “Sorry.” I think his wife forgave him because he was good-looking (Good looking people are forgiven easily, Google that fact).

Spoiler alert henceforth: If you plan to see Verna, please stop reading now, because I have an argument to make about the film’s main selling point — the revenge of the defenceless — and it cannot be made without revealing a few aspects of Mansoor’s story.

Coming back to the main topic of Verna — the rape. Judging by genre, this is the meekest rape-revenge-controversy film in the history of cinema. It is also the most amateurishly made film of the year. Mansoor makes a ton of bad decisions, starting with the cinematography. The scenes are lit by a bare-minimum of light sources and are shot with a select few lenses. As a consequence, almost all of his shots have a predictable, annoying sense of depth.

Mansoor, then, amplifies this mistake by composing his shots as if he were framing for television, which mostly limits the editing to medium shots and close-ups of the actors’ faces. On the big-screen, one can see an actor’s puffing nostrils, and quickly forget the tone of the scene.

Haroon Shahid and Mahira Khan play a couple whose marriage is strongly tested during the film
Haroon Shahid and Mahira Khan play a couple whose marriage is strongly tested during the film

 

Speaking of tone, for a change, yes, there is one here. It is called a monotone. Like a long, unending beep that neither goes up or down in amplitude. As if that weren’t enough, dialogue dubbing and foley (the addition of ambient sound effects) is noticeably evident. As a general rule of thumb, they shouldn’t be conspicuous.

Production design is virtually nonexistent. From the look of it, most of the film is shot in two or three houses, with furniture that was already there. The songs are pedestrian which is something I’d never expect from a Shoaib Mansoor film.

Thwarting expectations, however, is Verna’s ace in the hole. By the intermission, Sara’s character makes the most illogical decision any sane person can make.

Spoiler alert henceforth: If you plan to see Verna, please stop reading now, because I have an argument to make about the film’s main selling point — the revenge of the defenceless — and it cannot be made without revealing a few aspects of Mansoor’s story.

Mansoor hypothesises that a victim of rape who has run out of options would resort to having consensual sex with her rapist in a bid to trap him. “You can think that she was abducted for four nights instead of three,” Sara’s activist lawyer tells Aami in an effort to soothe his apprehension. Sara, then, puts on make-up and a chic black dress, and goes on a date with the man who destroyed her life (Zarrar Khan). She eats at his lush residence, laughs, fires a few incisive lines and goes to bed with him (which isn’t shown) with a slightly grim expression. The whole notion of Sara overcoming her trauma within a span of fifteen days, and then hatching a plan like this is preposterous and insensitive.

Later at a big reveal, Sara is put on the spot by lawyers, who present evidence that her night with the sex offender was consensual. Sara’s sudden, very vocal “Oh shit!” expression implies that either there is truth in the opposing lawyer’s argument or Mansoor lost control of his scene and his actors.

Verna’s pre-intermission drabness (where you hate everything and everyone on-screen) is replaced by a thoughtless plot twist designed to incite people and gain sensationalism. The question then is: do you really need to stir a ruckus to tell a strong women’s rights story?

At the time of writing this review, two days after the film’s release, the war on social media is suddenly that of men-versus-women. The consensus is that men cannot sympathise with a woman’s point of view — or her predicament. No one is arguing against the need and relevancy of such topics — they should be made — but when making a motion picture, one has to make sure that it, at least, looks and feels like a film and doesn’t take its audience for a fool.

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 26th, 2017

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