Cast: Sultan Rahi, Babra Sharif, Asif Khan, Jehangir Mughal, Humayun Qureshi
Director: Jehangir Mughal
Nutshell: if Jodorowsky and Tarantino had been Pakistani and directed a typical revenge masala film…it would have been something like Zabata.
Within moments a seasoned Lollywood viewer can sense there is something not quite right with Zabata. The film begins with a montage of music from Belly dancing to Jackson’s Thriller set to some startling visuals of various shady looking Bad Hombre’s getting ready to take on some bounty hunters seeking the head of legendary crime king, their boss Zabata.
The attackers are mercilessly repelled before the title sequence kicks off to an exquisite version of Giorgio Moroder’s “Chase” which was used to accompany the 9 O’clock News once upon a time here in Pakistan. This version is fused with strains of “Zabata Zabata” and is quite excellent. Suddenly the titles freeze and the music stops dead in its tracks. Then they start up again dramatically as the last few big names on the credits are revealed in this dramatic stop-start manner. It’s a familiar start to any Daku film on the lines of Sholay but it is executed with such bizarre visual flair that it evokes thoughts of Jodorowsky and the most excessive spaghetti westerns and when this style is fused with a typical masala laden Punjabi epic the result is something truly delectable and extraordinary.
Zabata’s opening sequences are among the most visually compelling moments of Lollywood cinema ever captured on film; utterly bizarre. Bizarre enough to make a viewer want to know the who, why and how of the film. It was shot in 1992 when Sultan Rahi was into his 60s and the team that bankrolled it and indeed put it together was the Fighters Association of Pakistan. This group of stuntmen and fighters united to create a feature film to showcase their skills and thus Zabata was written to exhibit their brilliance to full effect. Another remarkable fact is that the Fighters Association soon ran out of money and so the major cast all performed in the movie without drawing a fee.
It takes just moments into the film to be able to tell that a considerable amount of thought and effort has been put into the way the film is presented. The camerawork is reminiscent of Khatarnaak (1974) at its most mesmerizing but where as in Khatarnaak the funky scenes were used mainly in the fight scenes, here the entire movie is shot with this unique visual flair that this viewer has ever witnessed in a home production. The result may not be a masterclass in filmmaking techniques but almost every shot is composed quite deliberately and to some extent the sound design strives hard to enhance the wonderful weirdness on screen.
The story of the film is threadbare with a Sholay like scenario as the backdrop. Zabata is a Gabbar Singh like character devastating villages in the vicinity turn by turn with his gang of hoodlums bearing the dreaded Eagle symbol. Zabata himself is a ruthless and utterly cold-hearted psycho who lives for brutality and sadism.
Sultan Rahi, an earnest farmer working the soil in the hot burning sun is recruited by the desperate villagers to save them and sets off to take revenge. Along the way he encounters a Ninja Warrior in the form of Babra Sharif with her own tale of woe at the hands of Zabata and his goons. The two unite and head out to do what no man could dream of; destroying Zabata.
There is nothing new or extraordinary about the plot or anything ground breaking about the film at all, it is very much the usual rape revenge thing done to death in these parts. And yet it is surely one of the few films that works solely on the strength of delicious style over substance. Jehangir Mughal must be given due credit for being the driving force and undoubtedly the man who forced the film to be shot in a certain stylized manner. He wrote, directed and acted in the film and having watched this slice of masala brilliance it is now imperative that the other movies her directed must be tracked down and watched.
Sadly, the film didn’t score at the Box Office and there were no follow ups nor any attempt to replicate the visual flair of this flawed bit of genius.
Alas as the second half rolls around the film starts to lose impetus and falters due to the obligatory songs and the injection of some needless romance. There are some interludes where Babra is given a song or two and all it does is slow the film down. Still, there are some extraordinary fight sequences to relish as well as some surprisingly wonderful gore and it would have been interesting to see these gruesome sequences in their uncut glory because it looks as though the censor had some major cuts enforced. Just as the movie appears to be stumbling to a standstill there is yet another fabulously demented sequence involving babbling Psychos having their limbs hacked off “Black Knight” style while cackling in defiance! The balance is restored and the film’s climax is a glorious concoction of flailing and flying limbs, gushing blood, gouged eyes all done with spectacular dash and verve.
Without a shadow of a doubt Zabata is one of the most memorable and extraordinary visual experiences in the history of Pakistani cinema. Note “memorable and extraordinary” do not necessarily translate to “aesthetically pleasing” or “good cinema” in any language. What Zabata is, is damn good delirious fun!