By Patricia Lee Sharpe
The film Kashf: The Lifting of the Veil is a captivating homage to a Pakistan of tolerance, grace, aspiration and good humor, a Sufi-influenced Pakistan that is tragically under threat today from violent, grimly-puritanical, Saudi-financed salafism. So real and well-publicized is the political black veil of looming Talibanization that most outsiders see Pakistan only in those terms.
This sad, pervasive blindness has been inhibiting distribution efforts in the U.S., according to Ayesha Khan, who wrote, directed on location in Lahore and acted in Kashf. “Film festival organizers are looking for honor killings and shuttlecock burkhas,” she says, with a sigh. “They want bombs and terrorists and ski masks. But there’s another Pakistan, the real Pakistan, of ordinary people with ordinary lives. I wanted to show that.”*
She did, beautifully, and fortunately I was able to see Kashf, which was featured in the clearly more venturesome Santa Fe film festival, then given a longer run by the Cinema Café. I’ve lived in Pakistan, even in Lahore, the setting for Kashf, and I instantly recognized everything I saw in the film. The wet streets in a monsoon rain. The Mall jammed with traffic. The old mosques of red sandstone and white marble. The mazars and shrines, like the featured Datta Durbar, nightly resplendent with the equivalent of Christmas lights. People’s casual intermixing of English and Urdu. (The dialogue is perfectly subtitled, where needed.) The upper middle class milieu, where mothers and aunties hover anxiously over sons and nephews, especially those who don’t slide seamlessly into “proper” upper middle class life, in which context becoming a Sufi pir would be as shockingly declassé as becoming a Lollywood star, the relevant aspirations of the young co-protagonists in Kashf. There’s love here, love, exasperation and endless hope, all depicted with a fond, delicate hint of ridicule that serves as a rebuke to the slapsticky stereotypes that populate Urdu soap operas on TV or Lollywood productions.
So, let me pause here to say that Kashf, for all its deep seriousness, has some very funny moments. The call center scenes are masterpieces of absurdity. A car sequence that has a hallucinated Armaghan weaving through traffic is hilarious—and scarier by far than most crash-bang-and-explode set pieces. Ali’s manic dance sequence is a hoot of skipping, scarf-play and coy tree-hugging along the banks of the Ravi River, not least because he’s aping a choreography that’s meant only for women in Lollywood film productions, according to Ayesha.
Movie-lovers should not imitate the cinema gate-keepers. If Kashf comes your way, see it and be enchanted. It’s human. It’s funny. But it’s much much more. It reminds us of the redemptive Sufi appreciation that the paths to happiness and fulfillment (and God), though obscured or veiled, are many and findable, with effort and determination. What’s more, the physical and the spiritual are not natural antagonists. Every path has many stepping stones.
The garish veils that Ali twirls, wrings and twiddles with as he struggles to master the hero’s role in a remake of a classic Pakistani farce are not merely frivolous bits of silk. He’ll succeed only when he gets rid of his self-defeating hangups and gives himself freely to the process of realization. He won’t need drugs or meditation tapes to relax and banish panic attacks. His natural ebullience will shine out. He will be (and is) irresistible, even though Ali Tariq, who plays the character Ali, is not a cookie-cutter hunk. Once he’s on the right path, moreover, he’ll not only attain his dream, he’ll have fun and be happy, too, the very antithesis of character-building, puritan-style, though denial and humorlessness—and no music or dance, for sure!
Armaghan’s search-and-struggle is a a more difficult assignment for an actor because it's an internal process, because this thread is never played for laughs and because Armaghan's face is often much obscured by a seeker’s hippie-like beard, which of course does not prevent us from knowing that Bilal Zaman is achingly handsome. At times I found myself thinking (Sorry!) that this is what a handsome young Christ must have looked like. At other times, I just wanted Armaghan to get a good trim, the sort of thing a mother would think.
Armaghan is puzzled. He has hallucinations or visions that he must decipher or lose his sanity. He must find and follow the enigmatic beautiful woman who is the Messenger and he must open the green (Muslim green?) door behind which, he intuits, something or someone important awaits him. He must discover his fate, his kismet, his karma/dharma. I’m not kidding here. We are, after all, right next door to India. Advaitic mysticism was congenial to the Sufis who, in turn, made Islam palatable to Hindu converts. Sufi pirs are still revered today by Hindus, which of course does not boost their stock with Islamists.