‘Mah-e-Mir’: Film Review
A gifted young poet finds himself in a skirmish against modern Pakistan’s literary elite in director Anjum Shahzad's Urdu drama.
Mah-e-Mir, which was selected to represent Pakistan in the 89th Academy Awards’ foreign-language film category, has an admirable aim in bringing the works of one of Urdu poetry’s most beloved figures to the big screen. By shifting between scenes of present-day urban Pakistan and its 18th century royal court, director Anjum Shahzad illuminates the role of the artist who dares to stand up against the powers-that-be — whether a gruff modern newspaper publisher or a mogul draped in pearls and silk, issuing orders from a cushioned throne.
Released May 6, the film didn’t make much of an impact at the local box office in Pakistan (it was steamrolled by the release of Captain America: Civil War on the same day). Its Oscar prospects are similarly unimpressive, since Mah-e-Mir boils down to a two-and-a-half-hour talk-fest that poses some interesting questions but fizzles out long before its credits roll.
Its submission for the Oscars comes at a time when political tensions are high between rivals Pakistan and India, which boasts a much bigger and flashier movie industry. Following a recent military dispute in Kashmir, the two countries recently instated a cross-border ban on their film personalities and musicians.
Fahad Mustafa plays the dual roles of Jamal, an impertinent newspaper columnist and poet, and Mir Taqi Mir, the poet and visionary whose 300-year-old couplets on love and madness are still widely quoted — and sung — today.
The scruffy, underfed Jamal is given to chain-smoking and hanging out in Karachi’s bohemian coffee shops with his best friend, Nawab (Alyy Khan). One day, when he sees some intellectuals on a TV panel discussion claiming that modern poetry can’t hold a candle to the classics, he phones in to the show with some arch words for the experts. Later, Jamal and one of the intellectuals, Dr. Kaleem (Manzar Sehbai), find their lives becoming intertwined, and the younger man comes to develop a grudging respect for the classic styles of poetry as perfected by the likes of Mir Taqi Mir and another historically beloved Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib.
The rough-edged Jamal also begins to understand the depths of emotion and madness evoked in Mir’s works when, on a crowded bus ride through the city, he spies the delicate foot of a beautiful woman (Iman Ali). Modest in a sheer veil, she exudes grace and refinement, and he’s hooked. “I caught a glimpse of her eyes. It seemed the entire universe was shining there,” he tells his bemused pal over coffee. Seems the lady has a taste for fine poetry, too — and before long, the two are SMSing each other exquisite Urdu couplets. Meanwhile, Jamal maintains a prickly relationship with a famous young female poet called Naina Kanwal (Sanam Saeed).
Over long sequences exploring Jamal’s friendship with Dr. Kaleem and his growing obsession with the veiled beauty, and a parallel track set in the 1700s where Mustafa and Ali play the court poet Mir and his lover, the courtesan and dancer Mahtab Begum, Shahzad seeks to revive interest in the subtle charms of great poetry. It’s a respectable target to aim for, but Mah-e-Mir falls short of its mark.
For a film supposedly devoted to the beauty of speech, its subtitles are surprisingly sub-par (the songs aren’t subtitled at all), and Shahzad’s direction seems to take cues from the TV serials he’s known for — there are innumerable aerial shots of the city that don’t add value, and his actors tend to stand in one spot and talk ... and talk and talk — in overly long scenes.
The men’s performances are strong throughout. Mustafa captures the inner fire of a misunderstood writer (though we never see him, you know, writing) and does a decent job in bringing the Urdu poetry-heavy dialogue to life. Sehbai adds gravitas to his role as the elder poetry professor, and Khan puts in a spirited performance as Nawab. The women do not fare as well — Saeed simpers through her annoyingly mannered performance as the empowered female poet, and Ali’s face seems frozen into one expression as she delivers her lines in an unnaturally low growl.
Although praised by Pakistani critics for its willingness to celebrate the beauty of the spoken word in a region where cheap Bollywood knockoffs predominate, Mah-e-Mir squanders its good will by drawing out its dialogue and overstaying its welcome.
Distributor: Hum Films, Eveready Pictures
Production company: Miraqsm Media
Cast: Fahad Mustafa, Iman Ali, Sanam Saeed, Manzar Sehbai, Alyy Khan
Director: Anjum Shahzad
Screenwriter: Sarmad Sehbai
Producers: Badar Ikram, Sahir Rasheed, Khurram Rana
Director of photography: Rana Kamran
Production designer: Fiza Ali Meeza
Editors: Ehtesham Khan, Waqis Khan
Music: Syed Shahi Hasan
Not rated, 149 minutes