'Mother': Busan Review

Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival

A gorgeous and intensely contemporary slice of Pakistani life.

The latest by music video director-turned feature filmmaker Jami Mahmood is Pakistan’s entry for Oscar consideration.

The eternal tension between morality and money and tradition and progress is at the heart of U.S.-educated writer-director Jami Mahmood’s Mother, an ambitious labor of love eight years in the making. Magnificently shot, with strong performances and polished production specs, Mother is the kind of invigorating jolt the Pakistani film industry needs, and despite alleged scrutiny from the ISI during production, it’s been rewarded with selection as Pakistan’s official Oscar entry. Wide release could be a long shot beyond Southeast Asia, but a lengthy tour on the festival circuit and art house release in urban centers overseas is not out of the question for boutique distributors in niche markets. Digital download could broaden its audience, but Mother deserves to be seen on the big screen.

While brevity may be the soul of wit, in Mother’s case it’s a nearly fatal flaw, a charge rarely laid against any film at a time when most producers believe more is more. The story begins in Pakistan’s amazingly photogenic southwestern Balochistan province — the first of two mother figures in the film — a shell of its former self since its extensive railway network lost the battle against so-called progress (represented by a growing car and road culture) and corruption, ceasing operations in 1984. The village of Khost’s one-time stationmaster, Wahid (Hameed Sheikh), still lives in the area, along with loyal friend and former co-worker Baggoo (Abdul Qadir), the two of whom are doing their best to resist selling their station and its assets to Wahid’s brother, burgeoning businessman Lalu (Sultan Hussain). Wahid seems to be wavering when his wife, Palwasha (Samiya Mumtaz), the second mother, dies suddenly following an argument about selling out.

Her death brings their son Ehsaan (Shaz Khan, making his debut) back from Karachi, where he’s busy making his unethical fortune through financial scams and fraud — like every other respectable businessman in the world. Ehsaan’s girlfriend Amber (Sonya Hussyn) disapproves, but goaded on by his scheming partner Imti (Ayaz Samoo), he just digs in deeper. Things finally come to the expected moral and epiphanic head when Wahid makes the journey to the city to see his son and file a formal complaint against the robber barons, which Ehsaan misunderstands, and when a former colleague takes his own life.

That barely scratches the surface of what’s going on in Mother, which also has moments that flash back to Wahid and Palwasha’s courtship. These moments evoke a romantic nostalgia for rail travel beyond the way it connected the scattered communities of Balochistan and then severed those connections when the trains stopped, leaving ghost towns in their wake. At other times the film touches on Ehsaan’s somehow defining relationship with Palwasha. And that is indeed "somehow" because it remains a mystery, as do many other threads in the film — particularly the role of shady businesswoman Arzoo (Eshita Syed). Mother feels like a great deal of its narrative, and with it swaths of character development, have been excised in order to make a nice, tight 90-odd minute international release; the version that played to packed houses in Pakistani theaters is supposedly an hour longer (Academy members don’t have 150 minutes for a movie not made by Terrence Malick).

Still, Mother’s gutting for overseas viewers neither diminishes the power and beauty of its images nor minimizes Mahmood’s considerable achievement. By audaciously steering clear of subjects most would expect from a film set in the politically fraught province, he’s created a more intimate portrait of modern Pakistan and the schism between the isolated rural villages and the urban centers, turning a spotlight on the systemic corruption and unchecked capitalist aspirations that is wreaking havoc in both. Cinematographer Farhan Hafeez captures the snowy, imposingly barren mountains as well as the bright, vibrant urgency of Karachi masterfully, all set to a nearly perfect score by Strings, one that toggles between accessible pop and haunting melodies. The cast does well with some admittedly creaky dialogue (Mumtaz is compelled to utter the line, "Don’t sell your mother," just in case we didn’t get it), with Sheikh standing out as man caught between the proverbial easy street and being true to himself, his wife and his homeland. It would be nice to see what’s on the cutting room floor.

Production company: Azadfilm Company, Madviwalla Entertainment

Cast: Hameed Sheikh, Shaz Khan, Samiya Mumtaz, Sonya Hussyn, Sultan Hussain, Abdul Qadir, Ayaz Samoo, Nayyar Ejaz, Eshita Syed

Director: Jami Mahmood

Screenwriter: Jami Mahmood

Producer: Nazira Ali, Nadeem H. Mandviwalla, Jami Mahmood

Executive producer: Quratulain Bakhteari, Tahir Moosa, Amyn Farroqui

Director of photography: Farhan Hafeez

Production designer: Tahir Mehmood, Namsa Abbasi

Editor: Rizwan AQ, Sourath Behan, Madeleine Gavin, Bryan Gunnar Cole

Music: Strings

Casting director: Saima Ghazzanfar

No rating, 87 minutes