In Flames

In Flames (2023)

In Flames had its UK première at the Glasgow Film Festival 2024

In Flames opens with both violence and exclusion, as ten-year-old girl Mariam (Leena Bagheri) peeks through the crack of a door at a muffled, impressionistic fracas within, before having the door brusquely closed on her to the accompaniment of a whistling sound. 

“Some scars never heal,” Mariam (Ramesha Nawal) will say 15 years later to Asad (Omar Javaid), the Canadian cousin of her best friend Rabiya (Sabiha Zia), “You just learn to live with them.” Mariam now carries many of the contradictions of her times. Her appearance and dress are modest (including a scarf to cover one of those unhealed scars) but with her ‘difficult’ father long out of the picture, her beloved grandfather recently deceased, and her little brother Bilal (Jibran Khan) too young to assume his male duty as head of the house, Mariam now lives in a small Karachi apartment under the matriarchy of her struggling mother Fariha (Bakhtawar Mazhar) – even though the society around them is strictly patriarchal. 

Yet for all her staid respectability, Mariam herself instantiates progressive values. Unmarried at 25 as she pursues her own education, she goes out driving alone in the family car, she runs the household with Fariha, and she is engaging in a furtive relationship with the outsider Asad – a relationship which, though conducted with all due propriety and decorum, goes very much against Pakistan’s prevailing standards (there are official modesty enforcers even in the grounds of Mariam’s university). 

Meanwhile, as the friendly-seeming rickshaw driver Saleem (Mohammad Ali Hashmi) warns Mariam, for women it is “dangerous out there”. After all, men here are both hypocritical and predatory. One stranger (Muslim Abbas) viciously attacks Mariam in her car and calls her ‘whore’, another (Agam Ali Pirzada) acts obscenely towards her from the street – and sexual abuse and rape, though referenced obliquely, are ever-present dangers. Closer to home, Fariha’s ‘sleazy’ Uncle Nasir (Adnan Shah) is circling to reassert masculine dominion over their late grandfather’s patrimony. 

On top of all this, there is a ghostly male figure, conjured by and embodying trauma from both Mariam’s childhood and more recent times, and accompanied by that distinctive whistling sound. He appears in Mariam’s nightmares, but also increasingly in her waking hours – a menacing, malicious entity which is also an internalised spirit of guilt and shame which has Mariam in its stranglehold. In a way he is obviously Mariam’s missing father – but he is also all the toxic trappings of Pakistani patriarchy at large, constantly threatening to intrude upon Mariam’s already circumscribed life and to hold her down. 

Presenting a multi-faceted demon that can be exorcised only by fire and female solidarity, writer/director Zarrar Kahn’s impressive feature debut is, like Babak Anvari’s Under The Shadow (2016), a portrait of a nation’s state, and of theocracy’s suffocating effects, all hidden under the veil of supernatural horror.

strap: Zarrar Kahn’s feature debut depicts a young Karachi woman suffocated as much by patriarchal values as by an intrusive supernatural figure

© Anton Bitel