Pakistani cinema has recently been in the international spotlight, thanks to films like Joyland. Coincidently, Kamli shares some connections with that acclaimed film — director Sarmad Khoosat was one of the producers of Joyland and actress Sania Saeed performs in both movies.
Kamli is about three women in rural Pakistan who each face a different yearning and desire that cannot be fully expressed. Saba Qamar, a superstar of Urdu-language films, plays Hina, a beautiful and dutiful young woman who spends her days caring for her blind sister-in-law Sakina (Saeed) and posing for wealthy artist Zeenat (Nimra Bucha).
For eight years, Hina and Sakina have been patiently waiting for the return of Hina’s husband, who never sent word back to his wife or sister since leaving. While there is little conflict between the two women, Hina is seen by friends and neighbours as an unfortunate and too-young widow who deserves the happiness that only Sakina can bestow by letting her remarry. Obediently, Hina continues to serve the older woman and hold out hope for the return of her husband, but the pity of others begins to seep into her thoughts and actions.
A chance encounter in the wilderness where Hina accidentally falls into a stream and is saved by a mysterious man named Amaltas (Hamza Khawaja) awakens quiet desires in her. Far from Sakina’s religious judgment, Hina and Amaltas then have several secret but chaste meetings in the woods, their blooming love demonstrated by musical interludes. Like muted Bollywood sequences, these moments tip toward shared fantasy where the song lyrics and fluid dancing of the two characters symbolize their growing romance instead of what is literally happening.
Meanwhile, Hina’s employer, the imposing and emotional Zeenat, struggles with maintaining her artistic zeal while her marriage also suffers from lack of passion. Although surrounded by every luxury and convenience provided by her husband, Zeenat feels the embarrassment and discontent of a life without children. Her plan to rectify this unhappiness is a disturbed one that points to how society has imposed a crippling sense of dissatisfaction to her situation and pushed her to act in the extreme.
This storyline of the film is the most heightened and jarring one in an otherwise slow-moving and grounded story. Zeenat’s scenes often feel like a French marriage drama, with world-weary characters, visually striking shots, and somewhat belaboured dialogue. Perhaps something is just lost in translation with the subtitles. Although exciting, this setting and story is a strange departure from Hina and Sakina’s modest lives. It also feels anachronistic to see smartphones.
About three-quarters into this slow-burn film with long musical interludes and a protagonist who gazes more than she speaks, a few revelatory twists finally kick things into gear. Hina’s love for Amaltas, Sakina’s self-preserving decision, and Zeenat’s desire for a full family come to a head. Kamli then settles into being a fabulistic examination of women pushed to bizarre and harmful behaviours by the restrictive society around them.
Kamli was released in 2022.