Rahm film poster

(This post is written by Shabanah Fazal and posted by Roy Stafford)

Rahm (Mercy) is an impressive independent British-Pakistani film that was well received by the few critics who gave it attention, but it did not perform well at the box office, probably due to problems with distribution and publicity. It was the producers’ first film to be released in Pakistan and has been on wider release – notably in Britain and France – but deserves a much wider audience. It’s a clever, compelling adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure but I want to stress that you neither need to know the play nor be a Shakespeare lover to enjoy it. It tells the story of a wise but overly lenient Duke who falls ill and puts his zealous, puritanical deputy in temporary charge. The young deputy imposes new draconian punishments for immorality and condemns a man to death for fornication, to be spared only if his devout sister submits to him sexually. The tale has been transposed to an imaginary modern-day Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital, ruled by a governor who has allowed vice in the form of brothels and corruption to run riot. The central characters are impressively played by accomplished Pakistani actors. Sajid Hasan brings the right degree of kindly gravitas to the role of governor (Duke), Sunil Shanker captures the sinister charisma of Qazi (Angelo), Rohail Pirzada the human weakness of the condemned brother Qasim (Claudio) and Sanam Saeed the pious passion and dignified self-control of his sister Sameena (Isabella).

Sanam Saeed as Sameena

It’s a play I’m very familiar with, having studied and taught it at college level. Though fascinating in terms of themes and characters, it is categorised in Shakespeare’s oeuvre as a ‘problem play’. It is rarely staged these days, because of its mix of tones and genre elements that are hard for a contemporary western audience to take. But I found it actually worked far better in a Pakistani Islamic setting, because of the close parallels with the Elizabethan world of Puritan hypocrisy, corruption of power and sexual honour. Perhaps its most powerful theme is the struggle between mercy and justice: in the film governor and deputy perfectly embody the tension between homegrown Sufi traditions of tolerance and compassion, and the increasing infiltration into Pakistan of an extreme punitive Saudi Islamic ideology.

A key problem for western audiences has traditionally been sympathising with the pious sister (a nun in the original play) determined to preserve her chastity, even at the cost of her brother’s life. The recent London Donmar Warehouse stage production succeeded by putting her story into the context of the ‘Me Too’ movement of women standing up to the abuse of power by males. In the film, her stance is even more credible not just because she’s defending her honour as a Muslim woman, but also like many younger, educated Muslim women these days, asserting a new knowledge of her rights within Islam. I was intrigued by the very closing shots, which created a subtler and less problematic ending for her than in the play, and gave me much food for thought. The play’s plot, though gripping, can also seem implausible at times and strains credibility in the second half with the infamous ‘bed trick’. In the film though, it’s far more convincing and easier to suspend our disbelief because the women’s faces are veiled. The few changes to the original made complete sense to me – for example, rather than couples being engaged, here they are Islamically married but missing documentary proof. And inevitably, to get past Pakistani censors, the script had to ignore many of the ‘low life’ characters’ obscure, obscene jokes from the original, which barely translate well even into modern English, the humour usually being lost on a modern audience. However, veteran Pakistani TV actor Nayyar Ejaz, as Qasim’s dissipated friend (Lucio in the play) still manages to capture his character’s comic irreverence and he gets his come-uppance through a visually entertaining gag. What’s more, replacing the play’s clownish pimp Pompey with the scene-stealing hijra (transsexual) character Gulzar provides more interesting, subversive comic relief.

Sunil Shanker
Sunil Shanker as Qazi

I saw the film at Square Chapel, Halifax, as part of a short festival of independent Pakistani film. We were lucky enough to have a Q&A afterwards with the creators, British-based director Ahmed Jamal and his brother, producer/writer Mahmood. They are devotees of both Shakespeare and Sufi culture, and the film is clearly a labour of love: it took 8 years to make, was shot on a very limited budget in just 27 days, and it was a tough fight to get distribution in Pakistan, through HKC Entertainment. Thankfully, their dedication paid off eventually and the film is also due to be screened on Channel 4 and released on DVD. Mahmood, a poet who has written and translated a great deal of Urdu poetry into English, stated that he wanted to keep his English-subtitled Urdu script faithful to the poetry and spirit of the original. And he succeeds admirably, with many echoes, paraphrases and even direct translations of Shakespeare’s lines that work remarkably well in Urdu. Not surprising then that Rahm won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2017 London Film Festival, as well as other Pakistani awards.

Sajid Hasan as the Governor
Sajid Hasan as the Governor

Some online reviews have complained of a lack of depth to the characters. I understand why they would say that, but in my view, the script portrays their essential qualities economically. And as with other new Pakistani independent films, the roles are played convincingly by quality performers, many from their highly acclaimed TV dramas. A few other reviews have suggested Rahm is more of a TV than a cinema film. True, it’s not cinematically adventurous, and there are a few clichéd shots (one in the trailer below, unfortunately), but the new wave of independent Pakistani directors are still struggling with tiny budgets and access to technical expertise. Above all though, the Jamal brothers have wisely focused on clear, intelligent storytelling. Like Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol (2011) and Josh (2011) – the other film in the Halifax season – Rahm’s central character is a strong heroine fighting for justice against abusive, powerful men, but the film style is more restrained. The focus on story makes for gripping viewing, and the film works for those who know the play well or those new to it. The audience I saw it with was about 50-50 white/Asian – all levels of Shakespearean knowledge and none – and judging from the spontaneous ringing applause at the end, everyone seemed to love it. In fact, it was all the better for the brothers’ decision not to go down the arthouse route, but instead to create a quality commercial film with dual international/Indian subcontinental appeal.

Anyone who enjoyed the 21st century Indian film adaptations of Shakespeare such as Omkara (Othello), Haider (Hamlet) and Maqbool (Macbeth) should definitely check out Rahm. I’ve seen them all and this is far superior: not only is it much more faithful but it avoids their masala elements, instead weaving in more authentic Sufi qawwali music and traditional dance of Lahore courtesans. Ahmed Jamal is clearly familiar with the shady charm of old Lahore, its winding streets, colonial and Moghul architecture and the red light area of Hira Mandi – all beautifully shot by cinematographer Jono Smith. Jamal celebrates the old city in Rahm almost as a character in its own right, revisiting places he first captured on screen in his 1991 TV documentary The Dancing Girls of Lahore. I enjoyed watching it many years ago, and it was a pleasant surprise to discover he had shot
that too.

Mahmood Jamal calls the film a ‘plea for tolerance from the heart of the Muslim world’, and one that should have much wider resonance in a world where some societies are increasingly drifting towards authoritarianism. Rahm makes a significant contribution to the recent Pakistani/diaspora film revival, but also works as a compelling human drama that anyone can enjoy.

Written by Shabanah Fazal – see her other posts on this blog