'In Flames' Offers Harrowing Comfort

Directed by Zarrar Kahn

Starring Ramesha Nawal, Bakhtawar Mazhar, Omar Javaid, Adnan Shah Tipu, Mohammad Ali Hashmi, Jibran Khan

Photo courtesy of Game Theory Films

BY Alisha MughalPublished Apr 9, 2024


After each of my experiences of sexual assault, I returned to my parents' home, my home, and tended to myself quietly. I didn't let anybody suspect anything. I wasn't supposed to be dating — the assaults took place on dates — and, already tender as a bruise, I felt too frail to gamble on the odds of my parents turning a kind ear to my experiences. The uniquely distinct loneliness I felt — more in relation to the aftercare I provided myself than anything else — is depicted beat-by-beat, and with a weighty silence, in a scene in Pakistani-Canadian director Zarrar Kahn's feature debut, In Flames.

Twenty-five-year-old Mariam (Ramesha Nawal) returns home after a sweet date that ends with a world-shattering tragedy. She moves slowly, her body's motion constrained by pain, and her eyes are glassy, glazed over with a kind of shock it takes a lifetime to process. Her mother and brother are out for the evening, and she is alone in their shared apartment. In the bathroom, she stands under the shower trembling, hugging herself, and the water melts the blood out of her hair, carrying it down the drain in wisps, without diluting it.

The camera drifts to the space behind her head that begins to darken to a kind of void-like blackness, which drains the colour from around Mariam with the same hazy agency the water takes as it carries her blood away from her. Mariam wakes the next morning and sits before her mother without saying a word, her body most likely still aching, memories of the previous night throbbing in her head, surfacing in the tears that glint in her eyes. Mariam can't unburden herself of her trauma and pain, can't tell her mother about what happened, because dating is relatively verboten in Pakistani households, like mine. Confession of pain could bring on chastisement, and so she suffers in silence.

I gasped when I watched this scene; never before have I seen the bind I'm in articulated so gracefully. In Flames excels in depicting blood-red pain through such sparse and gossamer-like frames, lingering in the loneliness of agony that is taboo only because it is accrued through lashing out against or living in defiance to a patriarchal culture.

This film is a gift in the way a silk-wrapped blade is a gift — beautiful on the outside as it conceals scathing truths and searing hope. In Flames is one of the year's best horror films for this reason. Through its staging of societal horrors in balletic relief, the film presents us with the visual vocabulary we didn't know we needed, ultimately showing its protagonist, and by extension us, the salutary power of leaning on others, on women, for strength.

The film takes place in Karachi, Pakistan, and follows Mariam, a medical student, who lives in a small apartment in a cramped building complex with her mother Fariha (Bakhtawar Mazhar) and younger brother. After Fariha's father passes away, her Uncle Nasir (Adnan Shah) appears to, with seeming magnanimousness, settle all of Fariha's father's debts that have fallen upon her. Fariha is grateful, but Mariam is wary, cautioning her mother against trusting Nasir's word, seeing through his grinning veneer.

Nawal's Mariam is a haunted young woman. Her voice is soft and never rises above a measured steadiness; her frame is thin and her movements bracketed and careful. When Asad (Omar Javaid), a med-school peer who she tentatively begins dating, makes her smile, her lips bloom wide in a way that seems as though she hasn't smiled in a long time. Mariam's father passed away when she was very young, and his death, whose mystery isn't unravelled until the film's final moments, weighs heavily on the young woman's psyche, seems to be what constrains and chokes her in present day. Until Asad.

Asad is a safe figure in Mariam's life — he allows Mariam a moment of calmness and respite, which is a rarity for her as she navigates a society that hounds and polices and endangers women's bodies and actions. With Asad, Mariam seems finally able to breathe freely. On a date, Asad takes her to the beach, where she swims and laughs and gulps up the fresh air, which never roves as freely in her apartment complex. But when the date ends with tragedy, Mariam, alone as she was before Asad, once again begins to be strangled by pain, with ghosts from the distant and near past hounding her with an unrelenting ferocity, leaving her to suffer and gasp for air in a lonely singularity.

Kahn's ghosts are slow-moving and watchful, and for this reason all the more terrifying. They are all men and they are inescapable. Like waking nightmares, Mariam's ghosts, though hazy and still, are violent and dangerous and encroaching in equal measure. They watch Mariam from afar with gazes like a pall, with eyes a sulphurous yellow — overbearing patriarchy personified.

Kahn's script keenly reveals the hypocrisy of the men that populate and dominate Fariha's and Mariam's lives, using the vocabulary of horror to artfully depict the dangerous force society and its skewed civic and moral laws has heedlessly allowed to propagate. The film shows that every man, good or bad, has the potential to turn dangerous. Even Asad's figure begins to loom forebodingly.

Nawal is a marvel in her acting debut, as she carries Mariam with heartbreaking grace and agility. She is quietly formidable as a woman attempting to survive, despite men's heavy gazes hounding her at every turn.

It is evident the love Kahn has for Mariam in the way he has braided strength into her, a strength we see is one she has gained slowly and at great cost. It's a kind of strength, Kahn adroitly shows, that is double-edged, for the simple reason that no person so young ought to be so strong. In Flames asks: What does it say of the way that society is built, what does it say of all that Mariam has endured and does endure, that she needs to be this strong, especially alone?

It wasn't until very recently, when I told a friend about my experiences, that I felt a bit lighter, less choked, and it wasn't until In Flames that I felt less shame in my loneliness. The poster for the film depicts Mariam in the foreground, her brows furrowed in fearful, weeping terror; but behind her, steady as an embrace, is Fariha's face, her eyes cradling her daughter.

In a sense, In Flames is a lesson for Mariam, teaching her that she isn't alone, that she doesn't have to be brave and withstand society all by herself. And in a more poignant sense, In Flames is a lesson for us as viewers, teaching us that the onslaught of horrors hurled at us by a cruel and cold and existentially bankrupt world doesn't seem so heavy, so suffocating, if we lean on others.

(Game Theory Films)

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