Zarrar Kahn’s “In Flames” is set mostly in a cramped apartment nestled not too far from the rowdy, crowded streets of Karachi. The hustle and bustle from the outside — not to mention the social and societal forces that so define it — continually threaten to creep inside the walls of that apartment, which serves as a safe haven that may well crumble under the weight of the very world order that rules beyond its walls. A ghostly parable about Pakistan’s insidious patriarchal order, Khan’s film — the first Pakistani film to screen in Cannes Director’s Fortnight in nearly half a century — finds mother and daughter slowly losing grip on the reality they’ve always known.
Mariam (Ramesha Nawal, a revelation) can sense her life is fated to change. While she’s dutifully been studying to become a doctor, she knows the death of her grandfather is sure to have ruinous consequences for her home life. Modern-day Pakistan remains quite hostile to independent women, be they studious young women like herself (she’s called a whore and has a brick thrown at her car on her way to the library) or self-sustaining ones like her mother, Fariha (Bakhtawar Mazhar), who herself has made do following the death of her abusive husband now for years.
Patriarchal violence is all around them. Neither can escape it. But while Mariam seems constantly on guard, she has to witness how unprepared her mother is for this coming change. It’s a generational difference, yes, but one that puts mother and daughter in great peril — once again forcing them to depend on men they’d rather dispense with.
For instance, Mariam’s uncle shows up out of nowhere, eager to help out with the many expenses Fariha has had to deal with as of late. And while Mariam is suspicious, she can’t help it when her mother takes this generosity at face value. Indeed, at the heart of “In Flames” is a question women like Mariam have to constantly ponder, if only to themselves: Are there any good men? Mariam is wary of all of them, which is why she’s initially skittish about going out on a date with Asad (Omar Javaid), an affable fellow student who nudges her to skip family time and head with him on his motorcycle to a seaside cottage for some alone time. His tenderness eventually thaws her concerns. Perhaps there are some good men around, men who won’t constantly judge her and who’ll encourage her instead of wanting to make her feel small.
When an unexpected tragedy strikes Mariam and Asad during their outing, the young would-be doctor sees her grip on reality slowly slipping through her fingers. Memories of violence at home, of familiar cadavers reaching out to her from beyond their graves, and intermittent placid fantasies of time at sea rattle her in ways both physical and emotional. Her childhood asthma attacks are back and soon she’s fainting with no warning. Her body and her mind become as haunted as her home — something Kahn’s own editing prowess (alongside Craig Scorgie) and a cacophonous soundscape that brings urban terror indoors further stress with welcome aplomb. “In Flames” at times plays like an intimate horror film whose jump scares come from all too familiar (in all senses of the word) fears.
Indeed, in tandem with Mariam’s increasingly supernatural-feeling threats, Khan zeroes in on the more mundane but for that no less terrifying nightmarish situation Fariha finds herself in. Despite her daughter’s warnings and facing a legal system that truly has little support for a single woman like herself, this devout mother sees her world and options shrinking with every coming day.
Together, Fariha and Mariam’s stories illustrate the subtle but unavoidable ways in which many Pakistani women’s lives are codified by men who dare not see them as individuals in their own right. Their horrors may quiver with hallucinatory possibilities, but they remain wedded to real-life situations. Anchored by a dizzying central performance by Nawal, whose screen presence draws viewers into Mariam’s mind-melding reality with great zeal, “In Flames” finely straddles the line between a bold genre exercise and a bruising portrait of contemporary Pakistan to deliver a welcome story about resistance and resilience.