Review: Saltanat By Kamran Jawaid

This post is the unedited copy of the review published at Dawn.com

An Empire in Shambles (On Eid Day)

By Mohammad Kamran Jawaid

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In one, maybe overlooked scene in Saltanat, Syed Faisal Bukhari’s real-life inspired underworld action movie, Javed (Chetan Hansraj) sits on a rock in deep emotional contemplation: he has been married to Zainab (actress Zainab Qayyum – or ZQ), a twice widowed, emotionally scarred soul who, unfortunately, is the younger sister of the movie’s chief protagonist – the underworld hero – Aslam bhai (played by Aslam Bhatti, also the producer and co-distributor). Javed’s problem, although told to be otherwise in the plot’s narrative, may be misleading; if you ask me, the character’s gloom may be because he’s seen Saltanat’s dailies – that is, if the concept of dailies existed in Saltanat’s making (dailies, by the way, are raw edits of scenes for review purposes during production).

How NOT to Make a Movie

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Yes, Saltanat really is that bad; in fact, I don’t think it can be made any worse than what it is right now. Inspired by Mr. Bhatti’s life (the director has confirmed that most scenes are direct re-enactments), the plot tells us – in fleeting insights – that he is now a businessman; there is no mention of his trade – just that he is emotionally unstable, but is generally a good natured man who doesn’t have the best of relations with his family in rural Pakistan (they include Mustafa Qureshi and Ahsan Khan, who was rumored as a lead but has well-nigh three minutes of total screen-time).

Aslam, though has an empire in the Middle East, chock full of foreign ladies clad in stylish bare-necessities (as visible in the trailer). Despite this, Aslam never misses ‘Jummah’ prayers – a plot point that gains significance before the movie’s climatic brawl between two underworld factions in a far-off, undisclosed, forest-side location. Like the story-tracks (meaning alternating stories), the locations have little consequence.

Aslam’s wife is Pari (Shweta Tiwari), a good-looking, quite docile and understanding woman who, in one scene, shared Aslam’s tendency to have chai (some would say this is a sign of instant connection). Aslam, however, had feelings for Tara (Achint Kaur), who obviously shuns them. Aslam proposes to Pari on the turnaround, and she accepts, perhaps uncertainly (the scene is certainly directed that way).

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Meanwhile Aslam has enemies: a cousin, Sikandar – also a criminal villain, played by Javed Sheikh (with minimal acting) – and Gharou Dollar (Govind Namdev), a money forger whose “counterfeit are so real that real money looks mock in comparison”; or as he says “Dollar Naqli Chapta Hoon, Par Baat Asli Karta Hoon” (I may forge currencies, but I speak honestly). It seems like Sikandar and Dollar have nothing else to do than plot Aslam’s demise, or set-about some manner of emotional trauma. One of their backfired strategies involves an inter-family marriage between Sikandar’s son and Zainab which results in a wrecked engagement ceremony, a bloody head on a plate and multiple smashed Champaign bottles.

Sikandar and Dollar find an associate with a deranged maniac (Akashdeep Saigal, the movie’s hammiest performer), whose older brother (Puneet Issar), also an underworld don, is brutally busted by Aslam (their clash, involving Salman Khan-style wire-works and slow-motion, though is Saltanat’s only viable action scene).

Tara, meanwhile, is working against everyone as an agent of TSI – Thai Special Investigation – (the building title is badly composited in unconvincing blue text as a make-believe architectural add-on). How she investigates though is a mystery (the department’s personnel have paperbacked novels lined up in their work cubicles, so that tells a lot of their dedication to work). In one scene Tara warns a monk of his safety – presumably he’s a witness of the state. The monk, trained with shaolin kung-fu skills, is assassinated soon enough by Sikandar’s hit-men in a badly shot, amateurish produced action sequence.

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Things finds climax soon enough, but by the obligatory villain’s celebratory song, featuring a skimpily dressed Sila Hussein, the family sitting behind me had had enough. After all, two-and-a-half-hour of inconsistent nonsense is enough to test any nationalist’s loyalty to domestic cinema. The man sitting on our opposing isle had a better way of dealing with this grief: he had slept the movie off.

Technicalities, Literally, Aside

Mr. Bukhari, who previously directed Bhai Log (also a movie fixated on underworld criminals produced by Mr. Bhatti), is experienced in cinematography – or so I’ve heard. Unfortunately Saltanat is a perpetual bad day in the craft.

The movie – conceptualized as a 30 episode serial and a motion picture – mixes different video formats together to a bamboozling result. Almost fifty percent of the footage, haphazardly edited by Z.A Zulfi, Najeeb Khan and Adeel pk to create ANY narrative semblance, is uprezzed in post – without professional transcoding (meaning stretched to fit a higher resolution). The film format is 2048 pixels across, the DV format, found in quite a few scenes including one with Ayub Khooso, is captured in 720 pixels and High Def footage is 1280 and 1920 pixels; The difference is apparent.

Moreover: scenes are badly lit, from one or two light sources; faces and highlights are blown-out (the white of the image is too bright, clipping out details); and there are focus issues (one early scene with Javed Sheikh and Govind Namdev pull’s focus from one character to another, alas the distance between the two was negligible, and the lens inappropriate, so the encompassing effect makes the whole scene look ‘soft’).

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Costume Design, of about fifty percent of the movie, is limited to what the actors wore to set; Make-Up is unflattering, again what the actor’s probably put on themselves, or had mismatching make-up products; Most Sets are, I presume, what Mr. Bhatti’s endeavors provided for production – at least, they had some saving grace (but then again, they were amateurishly decorated. Audio and dubbing were misaligned, or dubbed over, in some scenes; some had on-location sound with audio leveling inconsistencies (and echo) – as if the actors weren’t available for ADR – or Dialogue Editing – sessions.

Acting for Film – Maybe Better Fit for TV

Mr. Bhatti, who plays the lead, interestingly has more than adequate screen-presence. His Aslam exudes the manic bad-guy persona with ease; a more stably edited story (or even a script), and his character would have been the power-house he is claimed to be. Right now Mr. Bhatti walks around with his pet cheetah, appears in a song or three, and guns down baddies when he’s pissed.

Ms. Tiwari handles herself with relative ease, as do ZQ, Achnit Kaur, Chetan Hansraj. Govind Namdev and Puneet Issar (and Deepak Shirke) play variations of people they’ve done ad-infinitum, so their on-screen villainy comes off without a hitch. Javed Sheikh, although experienced, is limited by what he is allowed to perform, so his handicap is the script’s pages he’s handed on set.

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Akashdeep Saigal, however, is Saltanat’s un-wisest casting decision. The way he quivers, shakes, and rattles his body and diction in moments of anger, distress (or general dialogue delivery), he looks like either he’s convulsing in 104 fever, or that he’s a ham put on-screen to jolt the audience’s attention (anything that gets them to laugh is a good thing, I guess).

Mr. Saigal should take pointers from the foreign dancer promiscuously performing the remix of Sone Di Tawatri – she is, at the very least, trying to lip-synch her lyrics (the songs, by Sajid Hussain, were better than expected, by the way).

Narrative: Assembled to Fit

Saltanat is a curious byproduct. It is perplexing overshot, almost as if Mr. Bukhari had no idea of whether he wanted to make a motion picture leading into a serial or a serial intermixed within a motion picture (FYI – I have no idea how the second option is pulled off, even in concept).

In an interview, Mr. Bukhari explained that the narrative was conceptualized to have 400 to 500 scenes, as opposed to 80 scenes of a motion picture. This bad decision shows up in bulk quantity as the events in Saltanat end up taking a lopsided shape. Their drag-and-drop layout is as befuddling as it is ludicrous.

Saltanat looks like an afterthought, left to be pieced together in the Edit Bay. If Mr. Bukhari had a better handle on his subject and chose to shot just a motion picture, and then a serial, the narrative and the character’s living inside this Saltanat would have been gratifying – and perhaps, relatable.

The Final Word

Re: Saltanat – Not a good day to spend your Eid day (or any other day) on. ‘Nuff said.

Distributed by ARY Films; Directed by Syed Faisal Bukhari; Produced by Aslam Bhatti; Screenplay by Pervaiz Kaleem; Edited by Z.A Zulfi, Najeeb Khan, Adeel pk; Music by Sajid Hussain.

‘Saltanat’ stars: Aslam Bhatti, Mustafa Qureshi, Javed Sheikh, Zainab Qayyum, (a totally wasted) Nayyar Ejaz and Ahsan Khan, Deepak Shirke, Akashdeep Saigal, Shweta Tiwari, Achint Kaur, Chetan Hansraj, Govind Namdev, Puneet Issar and Sila Hussein and Sara Loren in item numbers.

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