Shoaib Mansoor's Verna released last weekend and it hasn't exactly enjoyed glowing reviews.
Critics seem to agree that the film was overburdened with themes and wasn't able to meaningfully explore the crux of its story: all the ways Pakistani society lets down a rape survivor (Mahira Khan as Sara) and how she surmounted the odds to achieve 'justice' for herself.
Still, there's no doubting that it was a well-intentioned project. Here are some ways Verna could have been better:
Warning: Spoiler alert!
1) Verna shouldn't have created a gender divide in its characters' reactions to rape
What happens: Women like Sara are the sole bearers of the progressive messages in Verna and they push the story forward. Tasking the women alone with imparting the film’s message not only places an unfair burden on the few female protagonists, it also lumps all men under one label: bad.
In Verna no man stands up for Sara, not her father, not her husband, certainly not the authorities. The film's moral compass is provided wholly and solely by women, who lecture men on how to become better; for example, Sara's lawyer lectures Sara's husband Aami (Haroon Shahid) about how he has failed Sara.
In another instance, Sara tells Aami that it’s men who are the reason for her pain and anguish.
But is this the right way to impart a universal message? No.
What should have happened: While women are the true champions of women’s rights and empowerment, men can play a huge role in changing mindsets because of the influence and power they hold in society.
Verna could have quite easily shown even one male character supporting Sara or even pushing her agenda forward, however, that never happens, all the men are shunned and shamed for the actions of a few.
We can't help but feel that this is a missed opportunity. A strong, progressive male character could have served as a much-needed example or hero for male viewers, someone they could aspire to emulate.
Instead, by showing all men as weak or evil, Verna ends up demonising (and possibly alienating) an entire gender.
2) The unfair burden on Sara (Mahira Khan) should've been shared with another character
What happens: Sara, having been through the horrific ordeal, is surprisingly her own support and the strength of her family.
She receives no comfort from her loved ones and is constantly fighting her battles while also trying to break her family's regressive views.
Her character is overburdened with being the voice of reason. She single-handedly moves the plot forward; from planning her revenge to every strategy that she must take in order to seek justice.
With so much responsibility lumped on one character, isn't it evident that the film will seem implausible?
What should have happened: To responsibly address the trauma of rape, Sara should have had a support system that she reached out to, or just an individual she could rely on for her emotional and mental sanity.
The fact is, looking at Sara's place in society, her education and her background, we felt it was implausible that not even one person — be it a female friend, a boss, a colleague or extended family — stepped in to provide Sara moral support.
Sara's sister-in-law could have been the support Sara needed, but her character was underwritten and underplayed immensely and she was lost in the background.
Another character who had the potential to be Sara's brace was her lawyer, but yet again her character failed to rise to the occasion due to wooden acting and terrible dialogues. Instead of giving Sara advice, she was on the receiving end of Sara's plans.
Again, we felt this was a major opportunity to show a roadmap for how women (and men) organise and provide support to each other after sexual violence.
In showing Sara to be an island, Verna set up expectations that every woman is just as kickass as Sara, placing an unfair burden of recovery solely on the victim.
3) Aami shouldn't have had polio
What happens: Verna shows how Sara is deprived of her husband's support after she is raped because he is too wrapped up in his own misery at being mocked as a coward and suffering the horror of having another man lay hands on his wife.
He is out-and-out selfish and lacks moral strength, but these weaknesses of him are partly explained away by him being a polio-stricken man. Within the film's first few scenes, the film establishes that Aami is plagued by insecurity due to his disease...
What should have happened: But we ask: can't a physically healthy man also be insecure? A man's insecurity can exist for reasons other than an ailment, and the film stops short of painting Aami as a truly reprehensible man.
The film also does a disservice to polio-stricken people because it makes use of their illness as a sign of weakness. On certain occasions, Aami is told in all seriousness that he's an incomplete man or that he's weak.
If the film went on to show that Aami surmounted the odds to achieve an act of great strength, then it would have done justice to a polio-stricken man's portrayal. But that breakthrough never occurs.
It's okay for a man to remain weak or never redeem himself but if it comes at the cost of a just portrayal of a certain subsection of society, then that's a problem.
4) Shoaib Mansoor should've portrayed the legal process more accurately
What happens: The film is riddled with unrealistic depictions of court proceedings. For instance, in a key scene in the film, evidence brought by the defendant is not reviewed by the presiding judge, simply because the plaintiff's father pleaded him not to. Is it really so simple to discard evidence in court?
What should have happened: In Verna, it’s obvious that Shoaib Mansoor wanted to educate his audience. He plugs into his script facts like the 72-hour time frame for medical examination of rape victims, or the need to preserve rape evidence by not showering or discarding clothing.
So it follows that the film should accurately portray how a rape case can play out in a Pakistani court. The film presents a series of highly dramatised court scenes that only cursorily touch on a rape survivor’s hurdles to justice, like tampered evidence or attempts to slander, when it should have more comprehensively unpacked the legal loopholes that allow a rapist to get away in Pakistan.
Verna’s shallow attempt to do this makes light of both rape survivors’ ordeal and their lawyers’ efforts in court.
5) Verna shouldn't have promoted vigilante justice
What happens: When the justice system fails her, Sara takes the law into her own hands. Initially, it backfires. Then, Sara devises an even more far-fetched plot to exact revenge against her rapist. It works.
What should have happened: When writing a revenge drama, screenwriters get to exploit their viewers' willing suspension of disbelief. By the end of such films, viewers may experience a sense of catharsis after a traumatic watch, but they're not likely to interpret the film's events as a lesson in how to avenge a wrong.
So it would have been quite okay for Shoaib Mansoor's Verna to roll out as a fantastical series of events, in which lead character Sara answers the legal system's failings with a spot of vigilante justice. We’re down for some dark, gritty drama.
However, in packing his film with didactic messages, Shoaib Mansoor doesn’t allow Verna to justifiably pan out this way.
If Mansoor seeks to educate his audience in some parts of his film, this introduces the risk of the audience interpreting its more fantastical elements such as Sara's plot for revenge as a real means of recourse.
So in the film, when Sara's initial plan backfires, we felt that that’s a good thing because it sends a very important message about how dangerous it is to resort to extrajudicial measures to get justice for oneself. But then Sara succeeds in another more ambitious plan, it works and the film comes to a happy close.
This is irresponsible, at best, and dangerous, at worst, because vigilante justice is a means of recourse that can not be reasonably endorsed.