In Flames, the feature directorial debut of Pakistani-Canadian director Zarrar Kahn, weaves together a myriad of themes and narratives that comes together to form a throbbing heart crying out in anguish. It cries for the unjust treatment of women born into an unwelcoming environment. It cries for the unspoken pain carried by mothers. Ultimately, it cries for a nation’s loss of innocence.
Bakhtawar Mazhar stars as Fariha, a widow who was forced to rely upon her father’s financial support after her husband died. Upon the passing of her father, Fariha discovers that he left her with a mountain of debt and an apartment and car in his name which cannot be inherited by a daughter according to the antiquated laws of Pakistan. When her Uncle Nasir (Adnan Shah) offers to settle his brother’s accounts, no strings attached, Fariha is optimistic, but her daughter Mariam (Ramesha Nawal) better understands the world they live in.
Mariam, a 25-year-old medical student, seems to carry the weight of her family’s past, present, and future all while trying to live her life as a young woman in Karachi. Her path crosses with a fellow student Asad (Omar Javaid) who has just returned to Pakistan from Canada, and the two soon engage in a chaste romantic tryst that comes to a sudden halt, leaving Mariam haunted.
There is a sombre weight to In Flames that never relents. The humidity of the city paints a sheen over the film that is hard to shake, illuminated by the harsh neon and fluorescent lights against the evening sky. Billed as a horror film, In Flames introduces the ghosts of Mariam and Fariha’s pasts as undead figures, at times, lurking in the shadows and others, aggressively confrontational. However, these beings aren’t the grotesque zombies of The Walking Dead. Their appearance and behaviour is more subtle, but at the same time more egregious.
Where Kahn succeeds in making In Flames evocative and artful is in the poetry he injects. He illustrates the daily monsters that haunt Fariha and Mariam while also highlighting their strength and perseverance in the face of their demons. From the first beat of the film to the last, Kahn creates a sonnet — an ode to the women of his birth country.