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‘Cake’ Is to Pakistan, What ‘Piku’ Is to India

The progressive Pakistani film ‘Cake’ is giving Lollywood a boost.

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Of the many pleasures of world cinema, the most profound one is that it makes for vicarious travel - to places and to sensibilities. The Pakistani film Cake, that earned the distinction of being the first Pakistani film to be premiered at Leicester Square in London and of bagging the Best Director award at the UK Asian Film Festival London is the directorial debut of Asim Abbasi.

Pakistan may have banned Veere di Wedding but its censors passed a film like Cake teeming with subversions. Not only does it make you rethink how you look at the citizens of the neighbouring country but also makes a case for how it’s possible to criticise the policies of the country, while commending its art and its people. Cinema does transcend borders.

The Guardian even called it ‘quietly revolutionary’.

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With a family drama at the heart of the story, Cake’s protagonists are two sisters. Yes, two women - Zareen (played by Aamina Sheikh, of Maat fame) and Zara (played by Sanam Saeed, who was Kashaf in Zindagi Gulzar Hai). They smoke, occasionally swear and are vociferous. Just like the darkly humorous Pulitzer winning play August Osage County, a medical emergency brings the family together.

Stripping the narrative of melodrama, it aims for realism ala Piku. The Shoojit Sircar film shares the emotional palette of Cake. Abbasi says, “Piku is a great film but for me Cake is a family reunion film, where as Piku is a road trip film, but tonally (muted, naturalistic) they can be bracketed together.”

Stormy interplays, dark revelations, hurtful confrontations pervade the battle royale of a single-take climax but the tone never gets mawkish.

The progressive Pakistani film ‘Cake’ is giving Lollywood a boost.
A still from Cake. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook)
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Pakistan is ahead of the curve when it comes to its TV series but its film industry, which goes by the name of Lollywood is still fledgling. Films like Cake are putting the wind in its sails. A foul-mouthed irreverent mother, independent daughters, one of whom works abroad and the other nonchalantly changes the tyres of her own car, a Pakistani Christian male nurse - the universe is refreshingly subversive and challenges conservative norms. So much for our prejudices.

Asha Bhosle’s song, Piyu Tu Ab Toh Aaja from the 1971 film Caravan also features in the film. That’s not the only Indian connect. Cake is edited by Aarti Bajaj, the editor of Bollywood films like Jab We Met and Paan Singh Tomaar amongst others.

The Quint spoke to Asim Abbasi, the writer/director of the film.

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When Lollywood is packed to the rafters with slapstick comedies and a lot of jingoism, how did you choose to keep the tone of the film so muted and realistic?

Asim Abbasi: I think irrespective of which “wood” you are working in, you as a filmmaker are out to tell stories that resonate with you and are aligned with your aesthetics. Also with a slice of life drama like Cake that has family as its theme - it has to be seeped in realism to work effectively. It has to stay true to observed life as is, rather than be an over-the-top larger-than-life rendition of it. My goal is much simpler than putting my audiences in fits of laughter or drowning them with social messages – it is merely to touch their souls.

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The progressive Pakistani film ‘Cake’ is giving Lollywood a boost.
A gif from the film, Cake.

How did it pass the censors - with a woman calling her husband ‘harami’ fondly, some swearing, women smoking and a lot of subversive elements? The uninitiated would even expect burqas in a typically Lollywood film.

Asim Abbasi: There are rarely any burqas in Pakistani films! In fact “item songs” are a pretty standard inclusion for the masses driven film, just like in India. And that sort of titillating content usually passes censors without an issue. However, you are right, the subversive elements, and there are plenty of them in Cake, are usually harder to digest for the gatekeepers. I think we pushed the boundaries but just enough and luckily got away with it. I think the context of “haraami” (banter between an elderly couple) made it non-contentious and the interfaith relationship was played out relatively subtly. So at the end, smoking got an obvious disclaimer, and the f-bombs got muted for domestic release, but everything else stayed in like we had hoped!

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Tell us something about the Piya tu ab toh aaja connect?

Asim Abbasi: I wanted an item song in my film and what’s better than to bring back the mother of all cabaret numbers! :-) Music plays an integral role in our memory and often forms the basis for many emotional triggers. “Piya tu” has a youthful quality about it, and the original spoke volumes about the mother’s character. And the a cappella version rendered the pain in the latter half. The idea was to take a classic and turn it into something completely different.

I did get some flak from certain members of the audience for choosing that particular song for a deathbed scene and for not considering Pakistani songs. But I guess that is my artistic license! I agree that there is some incredible Pakistani music from that era, but when I am writing something, my fundamental concern is what would work for these characters and what rings true for them, not what would be a better self-censored, easily digestible alternative. The mother was shown to have this love for old Hindi songs – she was of the generation who saw Hindi films on pirated VHS cassettes in the late 70s and 80s when our local cinema was dying. That phase is an integral part of our cultural history and it would have been silly to shy away from it.
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The progressive Pakistani film ‘Cake’ is giving Lollywood a boost.
A still from the film, Cake. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook)

Were any of the female actors apprehensive about taking up the roles?

Asim Abbasi: Not at all! Or not that I know of! I think they were perhaps apprehensive about working with a first time filmmaker, I guess all established actors would be when faced with an unknown director, but certainly not apprehensive about the empowered characters that they were going to play. Film across the subcontinent continues to be predominantly a hero’s medium, so female actors rarely get a chance to drive a narrative in this way. Both Aamina and Sanam felt deeply connected with the layered, complex characters of Zareen and Zara, and with the project as a whole.

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Filmmakers you are inspired by...

Asim Abbasi: Uff so many! But Bergman, Tarkosvky and Wong Kar-Wai are all time favourites. Before I write, direct, make any important decision in life I have to religiously re-watch Persona, The Mirror and In The Mood for Love. Love the work by (Hirakozu) Koreeda and (Asgar) Farhadi.

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What went into the 10-minute single take at the end of the film?

Asim Abbasi: A lot of prep, hard work and determination! We were pulling off something that is pretty novel in both Indian and Pakistani cinema. To put that many actors together with that much blocking, movement, light change, etc. It involved days of rehearsals, and two full nights of shoot. Sanam Saeed always makes this joke that the director wanted six perfect takes, which I kind of did, so we did thirty six takes in total I believe and got six great ones. And the last one is the one that made it to the film!

I think when working with actors, what I have generally realised is that you get the most honest performance either in the first four takes, then for many takes the performances become repetitive and stale but then after take fifteen or so there comes a point again when the freshness returns. Because by then you have exhausted the actors so much that they completely stop thinking about the performance. They stop acting, and are just present in the moment. That is what happened by the last take of the single-take. The frustration, the suffering, and the exhaustion all came from a very real place for the actors.
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In the kind of political environment today, where it’s difficult for Pakistani artistes to work with Indians, you’ve worked with Aarti Bajaj? What was the collaboration like?

Asim Abbasi: It was beautiful! I learnt so much from Aarti and we have become such great friends through this all. Cake is an ensemble piece with multiple subplots, it is a slow burner with a heavy climax, so there was a lot of stuff that needed to be worked out during the edit – point of views, developing multiple arcs, pace, etc, – so having a seasoned editor was absolutely necessary. I think Aarti and I are on the same wavelength when it comes to both cinema and family, and those were the two primary components of Cake! Also, Cake is technically a British production (even though its in Urdu and shot in Pakistan) and our dealings were mostly in the UK, so the political climate really didn’t feed into it in any way.

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Do you want to come to India to make a film?

Asim Abbasi: I am all for artistic collaborations across borders, and for filmmakers everywhere to be “global” filmmakers but political climate doesn’t really allow for Pakistani talent or filmmakers to be currently working in India. I do hope that in the near future this changes, that Pakistani films can get a release in India and there is a more active creative exchange. For now, Pakistan and the UK, the two places I call home, remain my focus.

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How difficult is it to find producers to fund a film like Cake in Pakistan?

Asim Abbasi: One does have to look harder. Any film that goes against the tried-and-tested is inherently riskier, and most producers tend to be risk averse. There is a checklist (melodramatic larger than life narrative, hero centric film, fair skinned heroines, brightly lit cinematography, colourful art direction, etc) that makes most producers/financiers happy! It is their comfort zone. And Cake deliberately (and hopefully effectively) breaks away from that entire checklist! I have been lucky with my producer Zulfi Bukhari who believed in the project.

Also, in most countries the film industry is boosted by some kind of government support and funding. That allows for experimentation and new, fresh content. Pakistan needs that desperately. Lacking that, most finance would continue to come from businessmen or corporate sponsors, which would always favour commerce over art. I strongly believe diversity of content is very important. And there is room for all of kinds cinema, so long as its made for the right price and targeted at the right audiences. Every film doesn’t need to be for everyone.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Bollywood   Pakistan   Piku 

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