In Flames – Review

In Flames There has been a plethora of feature-length debuts celebrated at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, with writer / director Zarrar Khan joining in festivities. His film, In Flames, breezes effortlessly through a number of genres, whilst offering up striking social commentary on gender politics within contemporary Pakistan.

With the sudden death of her grandfather, 25-year-old medical student Mariam (Rawesha Nawal) is in a state of flux and fear. How will she, her mother (Bahktawar Mazhar) and her younger brother (Jibran Khan) look after themselves? In their already too-cramped Karachi apartment, they are six months behind on bills with no sign of an upturn in their luck. More than this, Mariam is starting to see and hear things. What starts out as an odd noise one night-time becomes an increasingly threatening cacophony of sound and imagery. Has grief and the pressure of her new financially precarious existence caused her to spiral?

Khan, along with his cinematographer Aigul Nurbulatova, plays with colour and space so much so that you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a new take on the giallo genre. Mariam’s apartment is a rainbow of mixed fabrics and geometric prints, with lurid neon green street scenes illuminating the dark space at night-time. Mariam herself is dressed in soft pastel hues, at contrast with the dusty browns and harsh brights of the noisy city. The camerawork often takes a claustrophobic approach, too, almost as if it we were standing right behind the protagonist or running alongside her. It underlines the size of her living space and the bustle of the outside world. It works very well to enhance the creeping sense of dread that Mariam feels. The sound design adds another layer of uncanniness with its piercing whistles, clattering of pipes and slow, sonorous thumping.

At the heart of the film is a very serious message about women’s status within Pakistani culture. As we have seen, time and again (across a number of films and genres and culture), women have been so conditioned to smile and say thank you that the consequences are often disastrous. This is evident, here, on a frightening scale. What appears to be a friendly offer of help from an uncle turns into an eviction; what appears to be a friendly smile at the window is a man masturbating in the street; what appears to be a genuine bit of compassion turns into attempted assault. Mariam cannot even sit next to a fellow male student on a bench without being barked at by some sort of morality police. All of the men in this film are trying to extract something from the women – “no one gives something for nothing,” a weary Mariam tells her mother.

And it’s this notion that, quite literally, haunts the film. All of the men that Mariam and her mother have turned down, “displeased” or fought back against become grey-eyed ghosts, continuing to stalk and threaten their victims. There is no rest for these women as patterns simply continue to sprout and repeat. Ghosts or no ghosts, this is horrific. (And, for female viewers, all too terrifying in its familiarity.)

Rawesha Nawal gives a stunning performance as Mariam. This is a film that plays around with genre and she is adept at every single one. She is the doting sweetheart in a romance montage; the scared victim facing down a ghost; the woman suspicious of a sleazy uncle; the woman smiling and saying thank you because she is simply desperate to get home. Nawal is so relatable In Flames and so incredibly compelling that you cannot help but be drawn into her story. Her performance is layered with an awareness of cultural constructs and expectations; Mariam’s lived experience feels entirely authentic. The dynamic between Mariam and her mother is also extremely well thought out. Bahktawar Mazhar gives the impression of a woman entirely jaded by a system stacked against her but, ultimately, possesses a formidable, instinctive strength that is revealed over the course of two or three shocking scenes.

In Flames is a very impressive feature-length debut that, as well as having a lot to say, is a very well-crafted and well-acted film. The elements of horror work well as an analogy for patriarchal constrictions. The performances are excellent and the script is tight, making full use of every line and every glance. A disconcerting and compelling watch.

In Flames is screening at the 2024 Glasgow Film Festival.

Mary Munoz
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