A young Pakistani woman endures the horrors of a patriarchal society in this slow-burn Karachi-set thriller

In Flames

Source: Courtesy of XYZ Films

In Flames

Dir/scr: Zarrar Kahn. Canada, Pakistan. 2023. 97mins

In Flames finds its horrors rooted in the everyday. Zarrar Kahn’s restrained psychological thriller blends the natural with the supernatural as a young Pakistani woman finds herself under siege from family trauma and predatory men. A rushed ending and some stray loose ends do not detract from a promising feature debut, and the film’s Directors Fortnight world premiere should confirm its commercial potential for genre fans and speciality labels. 

A slow burn of a film that successfully builds a growing sense of unease

Kahn doffs his cap to Hitchcock, M. Night Shymalan and Lars Von Trier in a slow burn of a film that successfully builds a growing sense of unease. Circling birds, shadow-filled Karachi streets and a warren of cramped apartment blocks all contribute to the sinister atmosphere. Twenty-five year old Mariam (Ramesha Nawal) lives with her widowed mother Fariha (Bakhtawar Mazhar) and much younger brother Bilal (Jibran Khan) in a gloomy apartment. Left devastated by the sudden death of Mariam’s grandfather, their only legacy is a string of debts that they have no means of paying.

Mariam’s worries also extend to her studies and the exams she is about to sit. Daily life is made all the more uncomfortable by the constant attention from conniving men who feel they can act with impunity. One man smashes her car window and threatens her, another stands beneath her window smiling innocently as he masturbates. She is called names and made aware that anyone in authority is unlikely to take her complaints seriously.

The one exception is fellow student Asad (Omar Javaid)  who has recently returned to Pakistan from Canada. Decent and kind-hearted, he is instantly drawn to Mariam and their friendship develops into something more. A trip to the beach together becomes a perfect day that almost seems too good to be true. What happens next helps tip the balance of the film as the lines between reality and fantasy start to blur. Mariam is subject to fainting spells and nightmares, and a visit to hospital suddenly finds her in an institution that feels like something from Von Trier’s The Kingdom.

Kahn shows a good deal of confidence in giving the story time to build and embedding it in the daily concerns of Mariam and her family. Every male action illustrates a suffocating society in which the mere presence of a young woman brings out the worst in most men. Even those who seem decent and respectful on the surface turn out to be just like everyone else. 

Newcomer Nawal makes Mariam an engaging central character. There is a stubborn independence in her actions that refuses the label of damsel in distress. She is a much more subdued, vulnerable figure in the film’s second half, which focuses on Mariam’s fragile mental health and her mother’s decision to consult a faith healer. As it becomes increasingly likely that their joint response to events need to go beyond a conventional recourse to the authorities, Mariam’s initially fiery traits begin to re-establish themselves.

In Flames is well-crafted, the sound design capturing the jarring sounds of the city at night which seem designed to set everyone on edge. Production designer Matti Malik fills Mariam’s home with rich red earth and terracotta colours, lending it the warmth of a sanctuary – albeit one that is increasingly under threat.

Kahn slightly drops the ball as he creates a muddled, jeopardy-driven climax that is in too much of a hurry to tie everything up. In the end, however, what lends this film distinction is the way it evolves into a story of female empowerment, and the bond between mother and daughter as they combat the pernicious evils of a patriarchal society.

Production companies:  CityLights Media Inc, Other Memory Media, Fae Pictures.

International sales: XYZ Films info@xyzfilms.com

Producers: Anam Abbas, Shant Joshi

Cinematography: Aigul Nurbulatova

Production design: Matti Malik

Editing: Craig Scorgie, Zarrar Kahn

Music: Kalaisan Kalaichelvan

Main cast: Ramesha Nawal, Omar Javaid, Bakhtawar Mazhar, Adnan Shah Tipu