In Flames review – Pakistani horror mines the patriarchy for terror and despair

Culture

Focus / Culture 40 Views comments

Societal threats are already heavy for medical student Mariam when bereavement leaves her undefended and the story untethers from realism

Pakistan’s patriarchal society is a too credible source of horror in this promising feature debut from Canadian-Pakistani writer/director Zarrar Khan, whose gallery of violent, predatory and swindling menfolk represent a living nightmare for its disempowered women. The story firmly grounds itself in everyday Karachi life before drifting into more supernatural realms, which makes it a revealing slice of social realism as much as a horror film.

Things are oppressive from the outset for 25-year-old medical student Mariam (Ramesha Nawal); a male stranger throws a brick through her car window, apparently for the offence of being female while driving. But as a result she befriends a relatively decent man: Asad, a student from liberal Canada. Their early romance progresses quickly and chastely (an official admonishes them for sitting too close to each other on a park bench), but just as things are heating up, an unexpected incident sends Mariam into a tailspin of despair, guilt and resurfacing trauma. Her mother Fariha isn’t doing much better; her abusive husband died when Mariam was a child, and now Mariam’s grandfather, the patriarch of the family, has also died. As a woman, Fariha has no property rights of her own, which leaves her at the mercy of Mariam’s oily Uncle Nasir, who suddenly turns up offering help.

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