We all know someone who goes ‘aebroad’ and returns with selective amnesia that seems to delete all knowledge of Urdu and basic cultural norms of this nation out of their systems. Now imagine that annoying someone as a protagonist of a short film.
Those were my first thoughts as I watched Sarah, from New York, packing up for Pakistan on a Livestream. Right from its first few minutes, the film is hell-bent on advertising the old-new divide. But instead of living breathing humans, we get symbols of traditionalism (a typewriter) and modernism (blogger). The film treats these extremes as more of a strange “condition” – one that the women had to take upon themselves to decode so that there is two-way communication.
The first half of Daughter by Law is saddled with trying to establish this cultural discord between Farah ( Marina Khan) and her daughter-in-law, Sarah (Sohai Ali Abro). So, Farah, is an ‘old school’ (her words) and Sarah has blue steaks and dresses like she has packed the entire Zara store for the trip. Her mannerisms can only be visualized as a dictionary illustration of the word ‘hip and an assault on my senses.
The men in the picture either have half-baked arcs (the husband’s mommy issues get glossed over) or are just there as pure expositional devices (Neetu, the servant). That’s not entirely a bad thing if women are taking centre stage in the second offering by Digestive Showtime. The first one (Yorker) had so many men swarming my screen as if waiting for a Hyundai Elantra sale. But Daughter by Law is a sophomore slump for the studio simply because it relies too heavily on its slickly directed, smartly edited visuals to pay attention to how caricatured the two main female leads come across.
For Sarah, all I can write is that if jab we met’s Geet and Khoobsurat’s Milli had a love child, well folks, you have just met her. Seriously, if Sarah was any bubblier, I would have to call her Anushka Sharma beta version. But Sarah is not just ‘quirky’, she is a real life version of an unhinged twitter stalker. Her merciless high mindedness reeks of a long form insta story.
Sarah would still have been tolerable for me, had it not been for the overbearing dialogues copy and pasted straight from the handbook I call ‘therapy-speak’: a language that is limited to words and phrases that sound literary and retrospective. Sarah talks, no-preaches, to everyone in the sight as if that’s the way to get more views on her ‘dying blog’.
Is she a writer? Ok, that explains the thinking-in-your-head bit. But the voice-over quickly becomes needless exposition (as if Neetu wasn’t enough) and I was left wondering did the makers truly thought of their audience as so dumb that when they see the repetitive framing of domestic routines-with the background score that would like us to believe that every day in Sarah’ life brings with it a quirky set of circumstances- they have to be informed by Sarah in a foreboding tone ‘it’s a loop’? Or maybe Sarah’s therapy-speak has broken the fourth wall and somehow we are also the recipient of her therapy sessions along with those on screen. No one can escape her hashtagged independence it seems. With Sarah, the short film becomes yet another ignorant portrait of the social media generation.
Marina Khan, on the other hand, starts by essaying a typically hassled single mom/college professor harbouring cultural resentments (“smartphones are for dumb people”) That’s still bearable. After all, old people are (unjustly) portrayed as technophobes by filmmakers who want a single character trait to explain a full-blooded personality to us. A person averse to smartphones then inadvertently becomes the one averse to young people who can’t live without those phones. Farah is from the generation whose patronizing gaze of the country’s “youth” is limited to skimpy clothes, undisciplined life and, you guessed it, social media mechanisms. The stereotypes aren’t entirely misguided, but the older cartel of storytellers needs to understand that there is a marked difference between depicting modernity from a traditional perspective and interpreting modernity as a legitimate sociocultural truth. Still, prefered Farah’s hard nut crack-attitude compared to Sarah’s need to dance before bedtime- nutcaseness.
At first, I thought that the resolution would involve an arrangement where both women would find a language of understanding through technology. After all, it’s cute to watch old-school folks embrace the fast ways of the digital world. It’s sweet to see them employ a newer language to dilute the generational discord. But it’s one thing to romanticize their ignorance, and another to make them so dumb that they undergo a 360-degree shift with a single therapy session.
Short films, by the nature of their physical bandwidth, aren’t capable of accommodating dense narratives, and emotional complexities-I get it. As an audience, one has to make do with a filmable resolution. But that resolution needs to be earned; feelings evoked rather than shown; that’s where the true test of a short film lies – a test DBL (dramatically) fails in. As it turns out, any hard nut can be easily cracked with daily doses of therapy-speak.
And so, what could have been a great story is made reductive and simplistic because Daughter by Law tries too hard: to be funny, to be cool, to be introspective, to be natural, that almost everything about it ends up being derivative. If the final act had to be so predictably forced, then why waste so many resources setting up a story that resolves itself with the ease of those Cadbury commercials we have grown up watching, where all conflicts end with a chocolate bite? The 38 min runtime (already a stretch for a short) is not justified by hastily conducted resolution in the second half. Suffice to say that this short film is 37 mins too long and #basic.