Wakhri: “dynamic, exhilarating and important”

A Midland Arts Centre presentation for Birmingham Indian Film Festival. Jessica Harris watches.

Inspired by true events, Wakhri portrays a Pakistan that is a world away from the prevailing representation of the country in our media. It depicts a country where people are standing up for the right to be who they are and are demanding the freedom to express themselves as they wish.

Noor Milak is a school teacher in Lahore, and a feminist. A single mother following the death of her husband, she faces struggles with her in-laws who deem her unfit to raise her child alone. Her mission is to help her son question the norms of the world in which he is growing up, and to build a better school for the girls she teaches.

Her challenge is to raise the money for this, despite the authorities saying that boys should be the priority. Supported by Gucchi, her non-binary best friend, she adopts the persona of Wakhri and takes to the stage in Gucchi’s nightclub to speak out against patriarchy, oppression and control in the name of faith. Her words and performance go viral and she quickly becomes major news, stirring up both supporters and adversaries.

So the scene is set for a film which is fast moving and gripping. It deals with issues of gender fluidity and trans rights. It deals with rights for women and girls and with the practice of honour killing. And it touches on issues of hypocrisy. The leader of the protection squad whom Gucchi pays in return for security tries to sexually assault her, and in a live TV debate with a mullah, when the presenter says that she is more suited to the West, she retorts that she has many Pakistani followers.

Ultimately, unlike the outcome for the real-life figure of Qandeel Balach, Parkistan’s first social media celebrity, on whom the film is based, there is a message of hope in Wakhri. When Gucchi says, “What’s one school? We will start a factory of schools now!”, there is a sense of a future that will be different.

The photography has a rich quality to it and locations, from the club scene to the graveyard, are given depth and texture by lighting and great attention to detail. The script doesn’t always flow smoothly: some links between scenes feel abrupt and some of the action is overly spelt out. Yet, overall the film is dynamic, exhilarating and important.

Wakhri was directed by Iram Parveen Bilal and is just one of 11 days of screenings and events being shown across six venues in Birmingham’s Indian Film Festival. The Festival is supported by the BFI, National Lottery and the Bagri Foundation.

For further information visit Birmingham Indian Film Festival.