Growing up in Karachi, we would joke that Asim Abbasi will be Pakistan’s Karan Johar. But he’s done one better. He’s chosen to create rather than imitate. His debut film, Cake, which released in Pakistan on March 30, presents a new mould for contemporary Pakistani cinema, which sits comfortably between big-budget Bollywood wannabes and quirky art productions.
The story of embattled siblings forced to confront their parents’ ageing breaks new ground for Pakistani film in terms of storytelling, character development and cinematography, and has already won Abbasi the award for Best Director at the UK Asian Film Festival.
I’ve known Abbasi since we were pre-teens. He was always the biggest Bollywood fan in the room, marking major life events with repeat viewings of recent Sridevi or Madhuri releases. Fandom transformed into an obsession for him in his late teens, and by the time he was a Londonbased investment banker, he would return from 18-hour days to spend several more hours writing Bollywoodesque scripts replete with hip-shaking heroines and heartthrob heroes.
But when Abbasi left banking to pursue his dream to make films, he resolved to find his own voice as a writer and director. As such, Cake has been a long time in the making. It was preceded by several short films of increasing sophistication and two scripts that scared off producers because they were “too political” or “not commercial enough”. But Asim did not give in to industry expectations, nor did he give up.
He then connected with Sayed Zulfiqar Bukhari, a London-based businessman who said the magic words Abbasi was waiting to hear: “Make the film you want to make.” The result is a work of art that sets new standards not only for Pakistani but also regional films, a story that touches the universal themes of family, love and death, but does so without resorting to clichés, and by developing compelling characters. As Sanam Saeed, who plays one of the siblings, put it, “Cake will remind Pakistani directors and producers of the power of storytelling. Our audiences are capable of more than being mindlessly entertained.”
Cake has created much buzz for being dominated by strong female leads. The men are vulnerable, sensitive, flawed. They do not drive the story, but they hold it aloft
Cake has created much buzz for being dominated by strong female leads: Aamina Sheikh and Saeed playing squabbling sisters and Beo Zafar as their eccentric mother steal the show. But Abbasi’s portrayal of male characters is novel and also worth highlighting in an era of #MeToo. He dispenses with the usual tropes of domineering patriarchs and aggressive lover boys; the men in Cake are vulnerable, sensitive, flawed. They do not drive the story, but they hold it aloft. “These are men strong enough to love strong women,” says Sheikh, “and this is something Pakistani men and their mothers need to see.”
And everyone else too. The notion of a Pakistani film renaissance has brewed in recent years, thanks to the growing number of film releases. But quantity without quality does not make that happen. Abbasi’s film will help change that, and Pakistani viewers will be able to have their cake and eat it too.
The Cake star cast. The film has won Asim Abbasi the Best Director award at the UK Asian Film Festival