Balu Mahi: Paving the Path to Empowering Women through Comedy

By Sanniah Hassan

The Pakistani film industry can be seen trying to get back on its feet since the last few years. Although this process of reinventing itself is gradual, it is somewhat constant. With films like Karachi Se Lahore (2015), Jawani Phir Nai Ani (2015), Dukhtar (2014) and Cake (2018), some commercial successes in a long time. One such endeavor of the industry is Balu Mahi (2017) a tale of two people who find love in an unlikely situation. It starts off in a very Jab We Met (2007) style with the brokenhearted male-lead sitting in his car, it then takes on a cliché turn, Balu’s (Osman Khalid Butt) attempt to break up his ex-girlfriend’s wedding. Thus ensue, a series of comedic episodes that lead to an end that alludes to Shahrukh Khan in Dilwaley Dulhanea Le Jaengey (1995).

Although the plot is a somewhat predictable mix of ideas, it is significant as the writer is able to highlight the issue of women empowerment and female emancipation through the rebellious character of Mahi (Ainy Jaffri Rahman) the lead girl, who is the daughter of an IG police officer. Mahi desires freedom from the oppression of her male family members (there is not a single female member that she can connect with) which is why she often acts in ways which are considered the opposite of the norm. The audience learns within the first 10 minutes of the movie that Mahi was planning on running away from home because she wanted to make her own decisions, and not just to marry someone and become a home-maker. Mahi’s character is full of life, unfulfilled dreams and ambitions that can only reach fruition away from the dominating behavior of her grandfather (Shafqat Cheema) and brother (Muhammad Jamal), respectively.

Over the course of the movie, she runs away twice. Her family is concerned with finding her so she can be restrained from humiliating and tarnishing the family name a third time. None of them have the thought of questioning her motives. None, except for Balu who at the start of the movie accidentally and without meaning to, helps Mahi escape the tragic fate of entering into a marriage contract she is not interested in, in the first place. As the plot progresses and Balu and Mahi get to know each other, he decides to help her live a life of the freedom she so desires by again aiding her in her escape from the clutches of the protective family when she is at the train station. There is a sense of relief when Balu says to her, “Main aj aik shaadi tou rok nai saka, par doosri honey nai doonga” (I couldn’t stop one marriage from taking place but, I can stop another from happening). The two constantly grate on the other’s nerves but are also able to get along since they both have a past. This past in Mahi’s case is the lack of a female mentor and family member she can look to for guidance, love and care. In Balu’s case, it is the fact that he has been brought up by his Dado (Durdana Butt) because his parents separated when he was still young.

It is due to this similar familial history that Balu manages to feel sympathetic towards the wacky girl he considers Mahi to be, and it is because of it that he inevitably hopes to help Mahi.

Typically around this episode, the villain must have their side presented to the audience. In this case, Mahi’s brother and grandfather are the contributing forces, who manipulate Balu by means of his old grandmother and he agrees to help reunite Mahi with her family, which he successfully does.

At this point, he has an epiphany of the wrong decision he has made and attempts to set it right but, in true fashion, dramatically a fight ensues between Balu and Salar (Mahi’s brother) and there is a time shift where the plot jumps two months into the future. Suddenly, Balu has returned to Pakistan in hopes of apologizing to Mahi for having betrayed her and eventually comes to learn that she has once again, run away from home (the first time being when she escaped with him from her wedding). Leading to another very-Jab We Met (2007) style scene where Balu sets out to find Mahi. Several more comedic episodes later in which the characters of Hasan (Mustafa Ali Khan) and Sharmeen (Sadaf Kanwal) friends of Balu and Mahi are explored in greater detail.

Then a big development occurs, in the form of Abdul Ghani a very Shakepearean twist. Abdul Ghani is a promising and hopeful Polo player who loves horses and is passionate about proving himself. As it happens in Twelfth Night or What You Will by Shakespeare, Mahi takes on the form of Abdul Ghani to protect herself from detection. Balu eventually ends up finding her and takes it upon himself to earn her forgiveness which then leads to an intense episode where Balu confronts Mahi’s family. This is the climax where through the character of the ultimately courageous Balu, the questions of seeking freedom from a life of suppression are brought forward. Balu questions Mahi’s grandfather and brother as to why they want to control her, why she cannot choose what/who she deems acceptable for helps, why she cannot have dreams, and hopes of fulfilling those dreams. He further questions Mahi’s father for always staying silent and not standing up for his daughter.

Balu’s most significant dialogue, where he says, “Daleri apni beti ko azaadi deney main hai” (Courage lies in giving your daughter freedom) which is the crux of the film: a daughter deserving of the freedom to pursue her passions and dreams, a daughter deserving of the love of her family. Although there are moments when the plot drags on or there are technical issues with sound, even forced comedic moments and unnecessary and culturally inaccurate episodes filled with sexual innuendos and abusive terms, overall, the cinematography of the film is delightful. The scenic beauty enhances the plot tenfold in the second half of the movie when Mahi travels to Hunza valley to visit her mother’s grave so she can say a prayer and put flowers on the grave. In typical Victorian style, the film comes to an end with a very Shahrukh Khan/Kajol declaration of love on the train station hinting at a happily ever after.

In the long run, the film is a great attempt by the director Haissam Hussain, the producers, and the writers and of course, the actors.

Such films not only succeed in advocating what they set out to do which, in this case, is the feminist agenda of female empowerment, but also provide some much needed relief from the hustle and bustle of daily life.