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Ramesha Nawal and Bakhtawar Mazhar on Sparking Uncomfortable Dialogues with ‘In Flames’

A young Pakistani woman looks over her shoulder in fear as her mom consoles her.
XYZ Films

According to actors Ramesha Nawal and Bakhtawar Mazhar, the experience of watching In Flames will vary from viewer to viewer — which is precisely what makes the film so special. And they should know, considering they’ve been sharing the film with audiences around the world since Cannes 2023. In our interview, here in Toronto (which is a homecoming of sorts for the film’s director, Zarrar Kahn), Nawal notes how younger audiences in particular have been especially enthusiastic about the film. “I would get messages on Instagram [about] how the film affected and moved them,” she says.

In Flames follows a young Pakistani woman in medical school, Mariam (Nawal), who is focused not only on completing her studies, but also on supporting her family, which includes her widowed mother Fariha (Mazhar) and younger brother Bilal (Jibran Khan), as they mourn the recent loss of Fariha’s father. Shortly after his passing, Fariha discovers her father left her with his mountain of debt, as well as an apartment and car in his name. However, because of the laws in Pakistan, she, as a woman, cannot inherit either. Enter: Fariha’s Uncle Nasir (Adnan Shah), who offers to pay for his late brother’s debt, seemingly altruistically. Of course, Mariam isn’t as trusting as her mother, which only exacerbates their already-strained relationship.

To make matters even more complicated, Mariam meets Asad (Omar Javaid) at school, who is determined to woo her. Unable to resist, the pair engages in a relationship that is nothing but sweet and innocent. However, a motorcycle accident during one of their dates takes a turn for the worse, leaving Mariam haunted by demons from her past. Disconnected from her mother and isolated by patriarchal structures of power, she is left to fend off these dark forces on her own.

With great effect, In Flames utilizes horror to examine the oppression of women in Pakistan under patriarchal order. The nightmarish sequences of demons pursuing Mariam are a spectacle of her psychology spilling onto the screen, definitely worthy of the Best Visual Effects nomination it recently scored at the upcoming Canadian Screen Awards (in addition to Best First Feature for Kahn). What’s more, underneath it all is a heartfelt mother-daughter story of grief, love, and triumph. In other words: the genre-blending film stands in a category of its own, offering equal parts thrills and sentimentality.

A young Pakistani woman cautiously peeks through a slightly-ajar door.
XYZ Films

And yet, according to Mazhar, “It’s not an easy film to watch. It’s an uncomfortable watch, and that’s the beauty of the whole thing.” She shares how, though her entire family came out to support her, her own brother walked out of a screening. Later, when she pressed him about it, he revealed how watching the film asked him to confront his privilege, which, at the time, he was not willing to do. “He said, ‘I didn’t want to sit through it because it recalled a lot of stuff I didn’t want to face at that time.’” 

Mazhar’s brother leaving a screening mid-way through unfortunately isn’t an isolated experience, and perhaps explains the generational (and, obviously, gender) divide in In Flames’s reception. We see it in Western cinema every time a movie directed by, starring, or centred around women is released and unfolds their experience living under the patriarchy: large subsets of men cry “woke” and refuse to engage in any meaningful or productive way. 

“This is a film you can only watch if you feel something has to happen after — if this dialogue needs to open up and you need to talk about it at the dinner table with your own kids, for example,” Mazhar says.

For Nawal, it was immediately apparent how unique In Flames was from the moment she received the casting call. Prior to her audition, she watched Kahn’s short films and was instantly drawn to his work. “He has this empathy that any director or actor [needs] to work together and move forward with a character,” she says, recalling how comfortable and supportive he made everyone feel on-set. Moreover, considering the subject matter of the film, Kahn was intentional about filling his cast and crew with women. “The experiences he had with the women in his life, he definitely put them into the story. You can see through Mariam and Fariha’s story that it’s all about empathy.”

“He makes it his business to understand and make them feel heard and seen,” Mazhar adds, who says that tidbits from her earliest conversations with Kahn about her life and personal journey actually wound up in Fariha’s character. “He gave a lot of layers to Fariha because he was listening.”

It’s hard to believe that this is Nawal’s first-ever on-screen role and Mazhar’s first role in a feature. But this entire process — of working with Kahn, taking part in a story that has moved the needle in many ways, and travelling the world in the name of art — has, more than anything, solidified this path for them.

“This is a dream come true,” says Nawal. 

“Theatre came much, much later after I became a mother,” Mazhar says, “so now that I’m here, and now that I’ve made a film with people like Zarrar, Anam [Abbas, the producer], and Ramesha, I don’t see why I should not hope for more.”

In Flames is now playing in select theatres.


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