Horror at the Edge: Zibahkhana and the Politics of Metaphor

RB July 15, 2014 Comments Off on Horror at the Edge: Zibahkhana and the Politics of Metaphor

Think Scooby Doo, now think Scooby Doo gone bad. That’s Zibahkhana for you. Part slasher-fest, part zombie-gore, and part murder-mystery, Omar Ali Khan’s directorial debut impresses on all three counts. Most horror films have inspirations and Zibahkhana (2007) is no exception, admittedly based on 1970s/80s Hollywood horror flicks most notably the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), this film is refreshing solely because we encounter a completely Pakistani terror all Burqa clad and gurz armed (and that’s only the beginning!). But before I venture to the rather blood-soaked details let me begin by briefly summarizing the gruesome adventure.

A car speeds on the Isloo-Lahore highway with a young man at the helm who’s either buzzed out of his senses or just simply tired, we’ll stick to the latter because we’re good like that! He revs up the engine to full throttle as he passes the milestone to Doozakhpur, the town from hell, and as soon as he does so he’s greeted by Burqaman. The cat and mouse game has begun and our handsome extra meets a grizzly end with a hook through his chest and a blood soaked moon. Cut to the opening credits as Deewana (Rehan) knowingly warns, as much us – the audience – as the young group of friends, “Jahanom kay raastay par chal diye ho, baachon, jahanom kay.” With music reminiscent of a 1970s Helen film, mind you that tune is catchy, the camera slowly pans through the androon shehr of Lahore. From jalebis being fried to parrots taking a break from predicting the future we are bombarded by images of contemporary Lahore, as we are introduced to the ragtag bunch of friends.

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Enter Vicky (Kunwar Ali Roshan) with the Pakistani version of the Mystery Machine at the very aptly named Orient Express Cafe. And so they are off to hear the Rockin’ Gujjars in the middle of nowhere. On route they stop at Deewana’s dhaba, a makeshift truck stops that’s famous for its charas kay ladoos and just happens to be famous with the Queen, Lady Diana, and even Angelina Jolie. Deewana is the same actor that played the role of Dracula in Pakistan’s version of the tale, Zinda Lash (1967), a fact that O.J. instantly realizes. Funnily enough there are constant references to Pakistani films within Zibahkhana, be it the music or imagery. Rehan’s cameo aside there’s the actual clip from his film at the beginning when O.J. is being introduced, Maula Jatt wielding his gandasa figures prominently on the Toyota van, and then there’s the hits of Madame Noor Jehan (hereafter MNJ) or at least MNJ inspired! Khan self-reflexive inclusions make it clear in no uncertain terms that we are definitely in Pakistan!

With all the signs of an eerie adventure ahead – bumping into Simon’s father, being accosted by hijras wishing them a long life, and Rehan’s “jahanom” catch phrase – the friends albeit freaked out still continue on their journey. After all, the Rockin’ Gujjars must be worth it! As they say shit hits the fan with a zombie attack. Deformed villagers having risen from their graves begin by first ambushing O.J. and biting a nice chunk off his leg. This is followed by another zombie pack-attack, which thoroughly freaks out our young cast. Roxy no longer wants to dance it up to some Punjabi tune, O.J. doesn’t give a hoot about his weed, and all Vicky can think of is how to get the hell out! (Special mention to the midget zombie, talk about equal representation!)

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As is customary for every decent Horror film, they run out of gas and are stuck between Jannatpur and Dozakhpur. A rather telling coincidence don’t you think? The first sign of death, and one borrowed scene-by-scene from the Hollywood original, the gang picks up a devilish-looking Hakim, Baley (Salim Meraj), who warns them: “Mein tumhara khoon piyon ga” as he pulls out a severed head from his handy jhoola. And I thought Mayawati’s handbag was handy! His antics, as is evident, don’t win him any fans and he’s quickly kicked out of the moving van. If only things were as simple as kicking them out! A little further down that infamous highway and guess what there’s no gas. Duh?! This is where the action really picks up as the group decides to separate.

Our resident jock, Vicky, leaves the gang on a moral high ground: “Maine hi tum logon ko iss musibat mein dala hai, mein hi tumhe is musibat say nikaloon ga.” Waise I was expecting the jock with more muscles and all and instead we get a baacha right out from Grease, oh well, if he had more muscles Burqaman wouldn’t be as intimidating, right?!  On that note we bid Vicky adieu as “Baby comes out to play.” And play he does in his squalid makeshift slaughterhouse. As if watching these kids die a gruesome death one after another wasn’t enough, we are subjected to scenes of mutilation – gouging of the eyes, hooking up the corpse, and so on – to firmly reinforce the terror that engulfs us (more on this very shortly). One down. Four to go.

Next up is primadonna Roxy who’s scared out of her wits by this point. Kudos to Rubya Chaudhary for excellent acting although I still think her best performance was as Sara in Humsafar’s parody (especially in the item song Thak Thak FK Kar Dil Pay Dastaak). This was perhaps the second best scene in the movie with a jitters-inducing soundtrack and a chase between Baby and Roxy. Now, now, I’m no fan of chase sequences but there’s something thrilling about giving the bad guy “the lose” that just catches you off guard and in the moment.

Speaking of off guard, enter Badi Bua. This is where the plot thickens, our killing twosome is actually a murderous threesome. Roxy stumbles upon a saree clad village woman who just happens to live in the middle of nowhere in a hut flooded with candles and copious amounts of fog (clearly the art director was at work!). What follows is a conversation about marriage and how girls are a bhoj on their parents and such typical aunty talk. Yet, we are subconsciously aware that Roxy’s fate is sealed once Badi reveals that the Hakim is her son.

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Next up is Simon whose death is somewhat unremarkable just as his presence in the film. Baby follows him and Ayesha as they look for Roxy and then stabs him to death. Ayesha, the most conflicted of our characters and one with the most depth (sadly that depth is lacking in her acting skills), is best suited to challenge the monster because of her own chaste nature. She’s the most religious of the lot, as the tabiz illustrates, and she openly admits this is a big thing for her because she’s deceived her mother. In another chase sequence, one that draws upon the wilderness of Punjab’s rural hinterlands, she finally manages to kill Baby aka Burqaman but is the nightmare over yet? So it would seem but as dawn breaks she bumps into O.J., who’s now (you guessed it!) a zombie. What happens next? Your guess is as good as mine because that’s the cliffhanger Khan leaves us with.

Agreed that this is an over the top story (how many cannibals inhabit the G.T. Road or N-5), a speculative plot (how many parents aren’t checking in on their children every few hours, and IF they don’t, they obviously haven’t met my mother!), less than stellar acting (Rooshanie laughing as O.J. is fighting for dear life!), coupled with cheesy clichés (ding-ding-ding music et al) but it still manages to be entertaining and somewhat thought-provoking.

At the time of Zibahkhana’s release, Pakistan was suffering from a massive electricity crisis, so much so that then PPP-led government installed rental power plants to curb the widespread shortage. Scenes of protest were an everyday affair such that one prominent journalist remarked: “Raja Ashraf saab aapkay rental power plants ka -tal awam kay kaano mein aaj bhi goonj raha hai.” Lack of government concern is not Khan’s fictional creation but rather a ghastly reality that he draws upon. Unequal distribution of wealth and national assets, inadequate infrastructure in rural areas, and a rapidly modernizing city-centre that has forgotten the outlining areas is a biting reflection of our government. The inhabitants turning into zombies because of contaminated drinking water or resorting to cannibalism to sustain themselves is less than veiled critique of our society. What have we come to?

To illustrate this sense of hopelessness, Khan decided to draw upon the monstrous feminine in Badi Bua, which threw me off a bit given my trail of thought. I wondered what purpose Badi Bua served till I realized she was the reason her baby boy became a mutilated baby girl. After all, if something’s wrong it’s best to blame it on the mother, right?! In Zibahkhana it is the mother that is portrayed as the root cause of all-evil: it is her womb that harboured the monster, her upbringing nurtured the monster, and now the monster operates under her protection.

Religion isn’t left alone either. Throughout the film we see Ayesha clasping her tabiz, which incidentally reads: Allah-u-Akbar. For the most part you would think that Khan is trying to reinforce that the religious amongst us can survive this aazmaish but such is not the case. Even though Ayesha manages to kill the monster and escape somewhat unharmed, her own friend, O.J., who is now a full-fledged zombie ultimately attacks her leaving her fate a big question mark.

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Again I find the symbolism sharp and astute. Khan makes it clear that religion can only help us so far. Once things have been set in motion (such as those of infrastructure, corruption, lacking development, and so on and forth) even the faithful, tolerant, accepting, and kind amongst us are at peril and threatened by the system. O.J., in my opinion, becomes allegorical to a corrupt system that slowly breeds and poisons even the best of us. That is why Khan ends with that sequence and not with Burqaman’s death, or it could simply be spine tingling entertainment. Either way Zibahkhana manages to be a good effort at reviving a slowly dying industry and requires both a high five and a full five snaps up!

For a film that the New York Times suggests is knocking on Taliban’s door, I cannot help but wonder what message Khan wants to send to us. As is evident there are many, many interpretations to the monsters and threats that besiege us, question is are we prepared and willing to face them or will we cower in opposition?

I guess only time will tell. Till then,

This is RB signing off.

This post originally appeared here.

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