If ever there was a film that needed to do well, ‘Cake’ is it. And not because it is a brilliant film made with great skill, but because its failure would be a sad indictment of the taste of Pakistani filmgoers. It would mean that years and years of bad cinema has dumbed the country’s viewers down to a level that they are unable to appreciate a genuinely original, technically sound and emotionally astute film. It would also mean that the celebration of resurgent Pakistani cinema has been miserably inconsequential.
The Pakistani film industry and the resurgence of Pakistani cinema has a huge stake in ‘Cake’. The film has been made within the limitations of the Pakistani film industry but not been limited by the constraints. It has not allowed the industry’s traditional areas of vulnerability – originality, financial viability, checkered motives, and technical competence – hold it back. Cake is a beacon of hope for an industry that has struggled for more than seven decades. It should not fail. It needs to be a huge success.
The heavy – and corrosive – influence of Bollywood, new wave Iranian cinema, Hollywood, and Pakistani television dramas has historically stifled originality in Pakistani cinema and never allowed it to develop an identity of its own. Cake determinedly, and very successfully, steers clear of the garish excess of Bollywood, the neorealism of Iranian cinema, the largely untranslatable stories of Hollywood, and the didactic emotionalism of Pakistani television. The film is poised to be the harbinger of originality, innovation and creativity in Pakistani movies. It lays the first stone in the foundation of what may become intrinsically unique Pakistani cinema, one with its own distinct identity.
Cake deals with the problem of financial viability in two ways. One, it does not try to be a Bollywood-style extravaganza. Two, it tells a universal story that will appeal to audiences all over the world. Indian films, on the average, cost 12 times as much as those made in Pakistan. It is all but impossible – not to mention, unwise and unnecessary – to create films of Bollywood scale in Pakistan. The budget of Cake is reasonable, apropos for the film and right for the country. Pakistan has a total of 127 screens. The number is not enough to generate revenues sufficient to make the business of making films viable.
The market needs to be bigger for Pakistani films to make the numbers work. Sadly, the industry has always focused on the small serviceable domestic market and never gone after the huge obtainable international market. Cake, it seems, is determined to get its fair share of the total addressable market and is set for release, all over the world, using the powerful distribution machine of B4U Movies. In a daring first, the film premiered in the toniest of international venues – the Vue Cinemas in London’s West End – instead of in Pakistan and is being marketed to people both within and outside of Pakistan. The motives for making films in Pakistan have not always been pure. They have included laundering money, granting favours to mistresses, fulfilling dreams of celebrity and feeding the massive egos of stars. Cake appears to be singularly focused on being a good, honest film. It has no other motives. The honesty of everyone associated with the film is palpable. And it is very endearing.
Cake features world-class cinematography, colour grading, sound engineering, scoring and editing. It does not allow itself to fall victim to the dearth of technical facilities and talent in Pakistan, and employs the skills of highly talented people from all over the world. The results are splendid. Cake stands out among South Asian films on the basis of technical merit, alone. Fortunately, it has a lot more going for it than just technical excellence.
Cake is a truly wonderful film. A better film has not been made in Pakistan. It has elements of both comedy and drama but is neither. The film occupies the shadow land between comedy and tragedy, and finds the perfect balance between the funny and the sad, the ridiculous and the sensible, and the droll and the profound. Cake is full of disparate emotions and moments that it explores with intelligence, wit and heart. It is a sheer pleasure to watch.
The film tells the story of a happy but deeply troubled family. Sisters Zareen (Aamina Sheikh) and Zara (Sanam Saeed), along with brother Zain (Faris Khalid),struggle to deal with their aging parents, Habiba (Beo Raana Zafar) and Siraj (Mohammed Ahmed), while keeping feelings of anger, disappointment and resentment at bay. Romeo (Adnan Malik) is an outsider in awe of the family and in love with each one of its members, albeit in different ways. The characters harbour a deep, dark secret that holds them together while keeping them apart. They carry on for years without ever confronting the problems caused by the secret but a series of tragic events forces everything out in the open at a time when everyone is deeply sad and vulnerable. The demons of dysfunction can no longer be kept locked.
The greatest strength of Cake – and the film has many strengths – is the quality of performances. The cast of Cake is in top form in the film. Beo Raana Zafar as the hearty matriarch of the family is positively lovable. She delivers some particularly charming, funny but not hilarious, lines with remarkable gusto and energy. Adnan Malik brings the character of Romeo to life with an understated but enormously effective performance. He adds a very endearing, but a little frightening, intensity to Romeo’s demure persona, making it interesting, complex and real. A big star in the world of show business, Malik comes into his own as an actor with Cake. Mohammed Ahmed is lovable as the aging head of the dysfunctional family. He completely embodies the warm, charming persona of Siraj, displaying the emotions of love, guilt and sadness with remarkable facility.
The excellent performances of Zafar, Malik and Ahmed notwithstanding, the film belongs to Aamina Sheikh. The talented young actor delivers a powerful performance as a young woman forced to carry more than her fair share of familial burdens. Sheikh is an actor of tremendous merit. Her reputation as a competent actor may be set in stone but she continues to evolve and surprise, as an actor, with each new film and television serial. Her fiery presence in Cake makes her the vigorously beating heart at the center of the film. Remarkably beautiful, Sheikh proves her mettle, in Cake, by relying on her tremendous histrionic skills and not on her decidedly good looks. Of course, she looks utterly ravishing in the film.
Sanam Saeed’s performance in the film is mostly disappointing and not because her acting is poor – it is not – but because her role is rather underwritten. The film’s script lets Saeed down in several ways. It does not give Zara a back-story, fails to explain her romantic life and forces her to act in a manner that is occasionally implausible. This is unfair to the particularly resourceful actor who has built an impressive portfolio of work in less than a decade and whose talent needs to be celebrated, and not wasted, in films. The writer and director of Cake, Asim Abbasi, is a dedicated, sensitive and confident filmmaker. He puts his heart and soul into delivering a deeply personal film that is engaging, inspiring and entertaining. The film heralds the arrival of a hugely talented filmmaker in the world of Pakistani cinema.
Cake benefits greatly from the talent of the remarkable team assembled by Abbasi. Aarij Hashimi’s production design is immaculate. The family homes, both in Karachi and Moosa Khatiyan, are marvels of art direction. Samiya Ansari’s wardrobe adds to the characters of Cake. Her highly individualized costumes have been created not just for specific actors but also for specific characters. Aarti Bajaj’s tight and spiffy editing, especially in the first half of the film, does not allow the film to drag, affording it a swift and even pace. Faiz Zaidi records sound live and handsomely delivers the many benefits of sync sound: energy, authenticity and integrity, amongst others. Saif Samejo’s music is highly original, emotionally raw and deeply poignant. Its lyrical quality makes an immense contribution to the emotional essence of the film. MoAzmi shoots the film with tremendous skill, creating images that are emotionally powerful and resonant. His vision, talent and intelligence transform the science of cinematography into an art and give Cake incredible visual splendor and grace.
Asim Abbasi and Mo Azmi, together with the principal actors of Cake, create a climax that is a triumph of film-making. It unfolds during the course of a ten-minute-long continuous shot that is not only technically virtuosity but also emotionally harrowing. Fortunately, it does not call attention to the director and cinematographer and, very judiciously, leaves the focus on the characters in the sequence. Reminiscent of the work of Emmanuel Lubezki and Brian De Palma, but with greater emotional heft, the glorious sequence immerses viewers in the action, allowing them to experience the emotional bloodshed being wreaked on the screen, up and close. It is the finest scene of Cake and one that will stay with cinephile and cinema aficionados for a long time.
Abbasi’s style is punctilious, thorough and disciplined. He does not believe in cutting corners, taking short cuts and accepting mediocrity. He pays attention to each and every element of film-making and elicits the best work from his cast and crew. It is obvious that he made the film with care, attention and devotion. From the look and feel of the film, to the casting of the characters, to the sound and visual design of the film, he has paid close attention to each and every area. Abbasi’s unwavering, and very visible, commitment to perfection is both remarkable and commendable. Cake rewards him richly for the hard and honest work he has put in as a filmmaker.
Cake, unfortunately, does have its areas of weakness and all of them are tied to its story and screenplay. The director Asim Abbasi succeeds in Cake but the writer falters. Abbasi’s story revolves around a family secret, which is, in part, predictable, and the source of all conflict in the film. In the absence of the secret, everyone loves each other and there are no real problems. A few of the relationships in Cake lack depth and nuance, and, to a large extent, the characters do not evolve, grow, or change during the course of the movie. The revelation of the family secret does not change its ugliness; yet, quite inexplicably, it mends relationships, quashes all anger, and puts everyone at ease. There is no examination of its consequences which are all but ignored. And, there are no interesting character arcs.
A number of characters in the film – Zara, her estranged boyfriend Sheheryar (Mikaal Zulfiqar), and her husband Adnan (Gianbruno Spena), in particular – are not flushed out well and lack essential back stories. In the absence of detail, their actions seemed contrived and their feelings specious. This is unfair both to the actors and to the film.
The third act of the film begins far too soon and takes up exactly half of the film. It is poorly structured, insufficiently edited and far too drawn-out. The denouement after the very magnificent climax lasts a very long 25 minutes. It could and should have been wrapped up in less than five minutes, leaving the remaining 20 to develop and define the characters of Zara and Sheheryar properly. But, Cake is determined to tie every single loose end, address all open issues and force an ending that is a little too neat and a tad too artificial. The filmmaker seems to be unwilling, if not unable, to let go and allow his film to end. There were several points after the climax where the film could have ended more effectively than it ultimately does.
The criticism of Cake is, however, tantamount to captious nitpicking. Its few shortcomings would have been ignored in a lesser film but Cake is a film of high caliber. It deserves no mercy.