There’s no doubt when it comes to holding a mirror up to society, no one can do it better than Shoaib Mansoor. But essentially, that is because there is no one else who will actually do it.
About 10 years ago, Khuda Kay Liye sparked a new age in Pakistani entertainment and set the tone for Shoaib’s vision of cinema. He came out with Bol in 2011 and after six years, we finally have Verna, starring none other than Mahira Khan and Haroon Shahid.
The much-anticipated – and apparently controversial – film revolves around a couple Aami (Haroon) and Sara (Mahira) and how their lives spiral into a rabbit hole after the latter is raped by a governor’s son (Zarrar Khan). She, instead of silently suffering, vows to avenge her pain.
You might go in expecting to see a powerful revenge thriller. But Verna unfortunately is a ship made of plastic, forced to traverse deep waters and brave an impending thunderstorm. It was bound to sink. The film could’ve been the flagbearer of women’s rights and social change but ends up a mere hologram.
Shoaib’s films have never had the highest standards when it comes to technicalities. And that’s usually acceptable because the icon of the Pakistani film industry always has a solid point to make. Even in Verna, it is clear what he’s trying to say. But it’s how he does it is where the film falls apart.
Even if we disregard the out-of-sync sound in a couple of scenes, below-average cinematography and the subpar visual treatment, the film ultimately shoots itself in the foot with weak storytelling and absurd pacing.
Trust me if you will, the first 45 minutes feature four songs. Verna starts off with the passionate Power Di Game to set the mood and you feel yourself getting excited. Three minutes later, the track ends and from there on, it’s all downhill.
One of the major issues with the film is how just when the audience is getting on their toes, the scene loses its impact and cuts to the next. It’s almost as if the filmmaker is playing with new tools or is simply confused as to what to keep and what to exclude.
If a revenge thriller doesn’t have an emotional impact, it’s pointless. In Verna, just when you start to feel for Mahira’s character, the film snaps you out of it and forces you to look at some other insignificant scene.
Yet Mahira is possibly the only reason you’d consider staying in the theatre for. Even though she gives it her all, the performance is full of inconsistencies. For a rape victim, she shakes off the incident and moves on to avenge her pain too quickly. Her emotional struggle isn’t elevated or enhanced by the filmmaker or her mannerisms; she simply doesn’t look ‘damaged’ enough. Mahira definitely shines in some scenes with Haroon and Zarrar where her intensity is in full display but it’s hard to maintain it throughout.
Everyone else beside her is just… acting. Sara’s parents, sister-in-law, the two families who suffer come off as made of wood. There is not a trace of chemistry and frankly, if you replace the supporting actors with life-size cardboard cutouts, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference.
For a debutant, Haroon tries to do better and even though he looks the part, he is just another example of the fact that looks can’t translate into talent. But it’s not even his fault entirely. He could have surely had a slightly better outing if his character was written better because he comes off as totally useless, with no character arch or development until the end. Shoaib’s insistence (or habit) of turning musicians – previously Fawad Khan in Khuda Kay Liye and Atif Aslam in Bol – into actors has not worked this time around.
Nonetheless, the director must be commended for subtly questioning our religious convictions and leaving everything up to the Almighty so that we don’t have to make an effort to change things. His message is there and it’s clear.
Verna, in totality, had nothing to bank on except Mahira and Shoaib. With them combined, I expected they would deliver big time. This was a film that should ideally have shaken us to the core.
But it doesn’t. It’s just a huge missed target where none of the elements come together. From beginning till the very anti-climactic end, Verna is a rollercoaster ride which only goes down; never up. It simply wasn’t worth the six-year wait.
Verdict: It’s far from the Shoaib Mansoor-Mahira Khan reunion we hoped for but do watch it to see Mahira be a total baddie and maybe, along the way, learn the simple message it conveys.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Note: This review was originally published on The Express Tribune in November 2017. It’s only been re-published here for archival purposes.