Cast: Meera, Sadiq Amin
Director: Khalid Hasan Khan
Nutshell: Pakistani “New Wave” horror with a message is thus far horrible and horrifying in equal measure.
Meera has become such an icon over the last twenty years or so; an accolade and plaudit she would be very well pleased with except mostly it’s for all the wrong reasons. Taking on a new challenge, headlining a horror-thriller-babymamadrama of philosophical and moral proportions, she waltzes through the challenge with aplomb and has much to do with the surreal tone that the movie reflects right from the onset. However, there is a lot more than Meera to the film even though she is the dominating feature and has a share of onscreen time of Striesandesque proportions.
The film has been described as “Lollywood’s first Bollywood film” which was a claim that had one perplexed. After all what exactly do the producers mean by this claim? Because basically it means HOTAL is Pakistan’s first Indian film which if you took it literally would mean something like a Pakistani film funded either partially with Indian money or perhaps Pakistan’s first film to be shot in India. Only the producers of this film will be able to shed light on this claim of being “Lollywoods first Bollywood film”.
Regardless the action begins with Meera living not so happily in a flat in Delhi with her dapper but dull husband Naresh. One afternoon while she puffs away at her “double cigarette” she is paid a visit by a sinister woman introducing herself as Purnima from an adjacent flat and is bearing some sweets (laddoos) as her family is celebrating the arrival of the latest infant. They chat about this and that and each time the camera lingers on the box of sweets there is a jarring sound blast to let the viewer know in a not too subtle manner that the contents within are “dangerous”. Meera let’s on that she is somber because she has lost a child in the past and is very keen to have one again and has a series of tests to determine her current status.
Her doctor is stunned to inform her that after repeated tests he has determined that she is somehow pregnant even though it was medically impossible considering the removal of her uterus. Her husband is equally shocked and seeks advice from a local psychic who advises him to stop the baby from being born at all cost. Meanwhile Meera is delighted to be pregnant even if her scheming husband is not so thrilled at this “miracle” pregnancy.
Naresh consults with a very suspicious doctor who advises him to take his wife to this place he knows where the unwanted are taken care of expertly. He also hands him a murky potion which will help his cause.
Soon enough the not so happy couple are being driven by a typical Mumbayya cabbie who speaks like he has watched too many bad 90’s Sanjay Dutt movies. Finally they arrive in the middle of nowhere where out of the blue sprouts a very majestic gothic castle which turns out to be run as a fleapit hotel where the lost and bedraggled somehow land up from time to time by accident more than by design; a bit like the Bates Motel in many ways.
Meera and Naresh are met by a very overweight bald, elderly man by the name of DB who eyes them up and down menacingly. The soundtrack at this point makes sure you get the point that the guy is supposed to be highly sinister. There is a Bell Boy, James De Souza who is moronic and irritating in equal measure. There is also a cook whom we never see and a gardener by the name of Ramu Kaka whose sole responsibility is to remove all flowers form the garden and leave it bereft of any colour. All appear to be harboring some dark secret.
Then there is the proprietor Mr. Shyam played with a deadpan straight face by Sadiq Amin who spends his time in a darkened playing chess with some kid while running a very sinister establishment with a very dark secret.
A dashing undercover policeman arrives on the scene but can’t be given a room as the HOTAL doesn’t allow single people on their establishment. Soon a perky young thing shows up just randomly and claims that her sister had vanished here and she was on a mission to discover what happened to her. A little like Janet Leigh’s sister Layla coming looking for her vanished sister at the Bates Motel but that is where the similarities end. She teams up with the undercover agent in order to make good her investigation.
Also thrown into the mix is a chubby teenaged girl who roams the forest outside in a white lace birthday dress looking like she wandered off the Ding Dong Bubble Gum set. Think, a good version of Sadako from Ring? Or maybe Glinda the good witch of the North? It is through her interaction with Meera that the penny begins to drop about the mystery of the HOTAL and gradually most of the pieces begin to fall into place and the dark mystery unravels.
The film attempts to tackle some pretty important issues, namely abortion and the mis-spelled HOTAL is also explained in a truly bizarre sequence featuring a corrupt cop who really ought to be recognized for his superb acting skills. There is some totally unconvincing violence when one Mr. Shyams thugs plucks the eye out of the poor Bell Boy’s skull with his bare fingers and later in the most extraordinary scene of the movie; Meera bludgeons an assailant with a rubber cricket bat; square cutting and reverse sweeping her victim to oblivion.
There is a remarkable sequence of spectacular special effects as the Psychic makes reappearance and goes into a trance and her brain waves set off all sorts of cataclysmic chain reactions in the solar system ending up with a sonic boom of gigantic proportions. The solar system virtually explodes due to her psychic forces; it’s quite a trip. Finally somebody resembling a Tooth Fairy makes an appearance as the drama climaxes and those unseen pet baying wolves Mr. Shyam evidently keeps in the back garden go into overdrive Hammer style.
Will Meera be able to give birth to a healthy normal child and live happily ever after or will the forces of evil infesting the Hotal have their way as they have in the past? Who will survive and what will be left of them?
The film has received some accolades recently at the Delhi International Film Festival with awards including a Best Film award and an award for its leading star Meera as Best Actress. The director is Khalid Hasan Khan, a man who has recently graduated from a crash course in film making offered by the New York Film Academy and as a debut it shows a flicker of promise. Actually I lie, it’s a total mess of a disaster and shot in such a weird and irritating style where extreme close ups are the order of the day and we never even get to see the surroundings of where the film is shot which rather suggests that one location was basically used and re-used and over used for most of the scenes of the film and so the HOTAL bedroom looks suspiciously like the Doctors surgery and the policeman’s office as well.
Many scenes are shot in lighting that barely illuminates the characters and renders the background totally black. Though supposedly the action is setut you never actually even get to see what the HOTAL looks like form inside because ALL The shooting is done in extreme close up almost all the time and you get to see nothing but people’s faces unflatteringly close up; overdose on pockmarks, blemishes, nose hair, bad teeth and Meera’s caked-on make-up. The most logical explanation appears to be monetary constraints because if it was done for artistic effect aping the French New Wave of the 60s it was a total fail.
The background music is horrendously jarring and the frequent sound blasts that are meant to create horror just end up creating an irritation. There is no subtlety to the film making, no sense of tension is ever developed, and little intrigue and to be honest if we hadn’t come to watch this movie with the right spirit and pinch of salt, undoubtedly we would have been exiting the theatre like 80% of the audience did before us.
Only the brave and foolish and thick skinned made it to the very end…the end of one hell of a mess that incidentally includes three sleazy item numbers spliced into the movie that appear as hallucinations of men who watch “too much wrestling”. The first is an intriguing belly dance style number featuring some exotic beauty and makes absolutely no sense in the movie and moments later there is a full on item number featuring three saucy dames twitching and writhing in typical Lollywood style; Garish, cheap and loud.
A third number is a music video that has recently been added to the movie pre-release (the film has been released almost 2 years after completion) in some an attempt at alleviating the tedium and injecting some energy into proceedings but all it does is prolong the agony even further.
HOTAL is a movie trying to deliver a potent message about abortion but it’s so badly scripted and so shoddily executed that it ends up as one confused, hideously acted jumble of moralistic claptrap and despite Meera’s star power , everything just falls horribly flat.
The film will not last long in cinemas (judging by the way most of the ticket buying audience abandoned their seats within minutes of the movies running time )and it’s quite an effort to even get this garbage to release on the big screen. However that said at least for Director Khalid Hasan Khan things can only get better and hopefully his next work will display a better ability to tell a story without torturing his audience as HOTAL clearly did.
Is it the worst film you will see all year? Quite possibly, but to its credit at least it wasn’t another Rom Com shot in beautiful pastel colours with colour-bursting shaadi numbers and the prerequisite “feel good” factors and Javed Shaikh. (I Do Love Shaikh Sahib, but talk about over exposure and typecasting!) Let’s at least be thankful for small mercies in that there are some people attempting to make films that are not just “candy wrapper” brain-dead fodder even if their efforts miss the bulls eye by a mile.
Soon there is to be the first “found footage” horror movie made in Pakistan to hit theaters and even if it’s a total misfire, at least it’s a step towards diversification of our output; something sorely needed.
Props to the HOTAL team for attempting something unusual even if it was a total disaster at least for a debutant director, this should prove to be a valuable learning curve; “Should” being the key word here.
I did really like one shot in the movie though of the camera panning up a great looking tree. The shot lasted about 3 seconds and was totally unconnected to events otherwise. Symbolic of the movie in general…inexplicable.