Cake by Asim Abbasi: A Review

Last night I finally got to see Cake, the Pakistani movie by Asim Abbasi that everyone’s been talking about.  Pakistani cinema has been undergoing a resurgence in the last five years and Cake is the lastest, and some say best, example of this renaissance.

As far as plots go it was fairly run-of-the-mill: far-flung family reunited by parent’s illness, reunion causing the spilling of family secrets and unresolved family issues. A seasoned ensemble cast headed by Sanam Saeed and Aamina Sheikh portrayed a Sindhi family living in Karachi, where the eldest brother and youngest sister live abroad, leaving the middle sister with the responsibilities of looking after elderly parents and — more unusually — lands on a farm several hours’ out of Karachi. Here’s where the film piqued my interest: I wanted to see how Sindhi life would be portrayed in this film that has been feted for its realism.

Unfortunately, this didn’t include casting any Sindhi-speaking characters in the main roles, which robbed the family dynamics of the authenticity of a real Sindhi family. The only character who attempted any Sindhi was Aamina Sheikh, as she has to speak to haris and kaamdaars (not mazdoors, as the script gets wrong — a film about Sindhis should have a Sindhi-language adviser and language coach on board at the very least). Perhaps this doesn’t matter to non-Sindhis, but representation is important, as you’d expect if you watched a movie about Pakistanis who were all played by Indians speaking only Hindi.

However, the dynamic of a young woman looking after the lands, instead of the eldest son, who lives in New York, was well-explored. This is by far the exception in heavily patriarchal rural Sindh, but tales that upend gender roles and conventions can produce more interesting drama (A more famous example of a Sindhi woman looking after lands was portrayed by Sarmad Masud in last year’s My Pure Land, based on a true story).

It is such a relief to see a movie portraying Sindhi life as “normal”, whether in Karachi or the rural areas of the province. That is to say, absent scheming villainous feudals, chained peasants, suffering, sobbing women, and extreme violence. This has to be the first portrayal of Sindh onscreen in which only a chowkidar carries a gun. The family laughs and jokes with each other, devotes time to playing card games. Marriage is only one of the experiences that life has to offer for both women, who have other dreams and ambitions. The father is not a cruel patriarch, but an ailing man whose real disease is lovesickness for his sharp-tongued wife, who rules the house.

The standout performance of the film was not any of its actors, but a soundtrack lovingly put together by the marvelous Saif Samejo of Sindhi rock band The Sketches. He has taken the classic poetry of Sindhi literature — Shaykh Ayaz, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai — and interwoven them into the film like a beautiful tapestry. Coupled with scenes of rural life, you see the embodiment of what Bhitai was expressing in his Risalo. The mournful voice of Allan Fakir, singing the classic “Tadhen Milandasi” pulls at the heartstrings in a way that no amount of over-emoting from the actors can achieve. Rising star Natasha Humera Ejaz (who has just been accepted to the prestigious German electronic music Border Movement Residency) also offers a lovely rendition of Bol, another poem by Shaykh Ayaz which Saif Samejo translated into Urdu.

This attention to the soundtrack, and to the cinematography, marks a new turn in the development of Pakistani cinema, as it struggles to elevate itself from mere entertainment to real art. Pakistani filmmakers need to push their plots, screenwriting and actors to  become more experimental. For example, the “accident” which is at the crux of Cake could have been an interesting starting point for the film, instead of being alluded to all the time in retrospect.  Yet while the movie could have done with a good deal more editing, trimming the script and ensuring more authenticity in dialogue, the makers of Cake have given us plenty to chew on.

I leave you with the most beautiful song of the movie, Allan Fakir’s rendition of “Tadhen Milandasi”.


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