Tuesday 25 October 2022

Core strength: "The Legend of Maula Jatt"

For decades, Pakistani cinema has had to operate in the shadow of its more illustrious Indian neighbour. Yet it now has internationally recognised stars, a quantum leap forward; couple those with widely known source material, and they get you a movie that will play in multiplexes, make the Top 10 in key territories, and make money enough to fund a hundred further features. Newly crowned as the #1 Pakistani film of all time at the international box office,
The Legend of Maula Jatt presents as a fairly hefty foundation stone - and it's the kind of movie you could well imagine restructuring an entire industry around. From the outset, Bilal Lashari's film demonstrates a purpose and confidence lacking from the last Pakistani blockbuster to arrive on these shores, 2015's tissue-thin Bin Roye; its core strength is a barrelling momentum that effectively yanks us through what is, at heart, a simple good-versus-evil fable. Lashari isn't messing around, has no interest in testing the water. He has his protagonist witness his parents being slain in the prologue; tosses in a childhood scene that reveals a talent for fistfighting (and a zero tolerance approach to bullies); then introduces us to the wild-maned, wilder-gazed adult Maula Jatt (Fawad Khan, from Kapoor & Sons and streaming TV's Ms. Marvel) as he embraces his nominative destiny, a sullen slugger fighting sandpit duels that split the difference between Gladiator and MMA. Unlike its tentative predecessors, Maula Jatt comes out swinging, flaunting expansive, often vertiginous production design, swelling crowd scenes and Fincher-ish camera darts, and bellowing in the general direction of the Cineworld cheap seats. Are you not entertained? For two-and-a-half hours, we are.

We have Lashari to thank for it, a one-man army serving quintuple duty here as writer, director, producer, cinematographer and editor. That may account for the galloping unity this Legend quickly settles into - its vision has been translated into images before anyone else could get in the way. Lashari cannily steers his film down the path pursued by those other recent South Asian megahits Baahubali and RRR on their way to occupying a field sadly abandoned by the American mainstream in recent times: that of the well-spun yarn. There are few major plot beats here you couldn't guess within the first ten minutes: yes, Maula will have to kick the hooch he uses for post-fight self-medication; yes, he will swap this for the love of foremost sandpit groupie Mukkho (Mahira Khan, from Bin Roye and Shah Rukh Khan's Raees); and yes, he will eventually exact bloody vengeance on those who did his folks wrong. Yet the world Lashari constructs around this narrative is rich enough for the film to still feel lively rather than preordained; if there's nothing wildly new under this sun, the film once more demonstrates that need not matter so long as you do right by the old stuff. 

Lashari does that plenty right, committing not just to the fight scenes - which look further East, to the choreographed carnage of Hong Kong - but to the wider familial feud, exemplified by one yowser overhead of a baby being buried alive. (Panic not: the infant survives to become one of the most murderous characters on screen, and the film gains some sort of depth for grounding its carnage in comparable childhood traumas.) Such ruthlessness would be striking in itself, but Lashari also bejewels his action with Rajamouli-like poetry. Sometimes it's verbal, as with Mukkho's early sigh upon seeing Maula brawl: "How I wish I could wipe the anger from your eyes in return for a look of love." Sometimes it's just simple enough to qualify as crowdpleasing, such as naming the rival clans the Jatts and the Natts. Most of all, it's cinematic, as in the delight Lashari takes whenever his hero throws his cape over his shoulder, or pauses to screw the gandara blade onto his late father's staff - a sure sign battle is once more about to commence. (I was reminded of the snooker player Rex Williams, methodically attaching the extension to his cue ahead of attempting a tricky red.)

The picture is so big and so busy with such detail you may just overlook the fact the two stars - the two Khans, with whom Pakistani cinema may yet come to push back against the many Khans of Bollywood - have taken on by far the least interesting roles, those of grudgebearer and woundtender. Both get stuck under silly period hairstyling, and the movies have yet to figure out how best to employ Mahira Khan's lofty beauty, which is that of a salon owner looking down a perfect nose at her clients: casting her as a small-town sweetheart, as Lashari does here, can't be a sustainable option. Still, by way of compensation, the leads get the loveliest scene, atop a stalled Ferris wheel: an acapella rendering of the movie's one and only song, which then opens up into a Magnolia-like piece for chorus. (Here, as elsewhere, Lashari does the old - the obligation musical number - in a way that's bold, if not entirely new.) And the supporting cast is first-rate; the film unlocks a treasure trove of valuable players who - due to Pakistani cinema's low-profile in the West - we simply haven't had the pleasure of seeing. The singer and YouTube star Faris Shafi adds welcome levity as Maula's joshing, peaceable stepbrother Mooda, but inevitably it's the heavies who command the most forceful attention. Hamza Ali Abbasi is astoundingly expressive as Noori Natt, a brute who appears far older than the actor's 38 years, and thus enters the fray wearier than most; Humaima Malik, as Noori's kohl-eyed schemer of a sister Daari, scuttles spider-like around a role that connects this Legend to the success of Game of Thrones; and Gohar Rasheed seems to be channelling Ranveer Singh in Padmaavat as their cackling, gold-toothed yet ultimately weak-willed sibling Maakha Natt, who gets what he deserves after Maula drags him facefirst through a market stall's selection of spices. Amid a globally-scaled event movie, some cherishably local seasoning.

The Legend of Maula Jatt is now playing in cinemas nationwide.


  1. Will appreciate if there were no references to Bollywood. Not sure why there are so many references to cinema of another country. Its like while talking about British movie you keep bringing up French or American movies which will be really naive. This movie doesn't have cringeness and songs/dance of Bollywood so no point in comparison

  2. yes its pakistani film, not from india or russia

  3. What a mindless review...Is this guy a Bollywood only reviewer? That’s the only reference he has?

  4. Please refrain from overly commercialized Bollywood. Maybe with more old Indian classics like satyajit or sham bengal.

  5. Watched it when first realised, feel as though can watch again. Thanks for the on point review