Young people looking to escape their surroundings have been a thematic staple of issue-conscious filmmakers around the world since Fellini's seriocomic masterpiece "I Vitelloni." Now Pakistani writer-directors Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi address their own country's significant population of twentysomethings itching to immigrate to the West in the feature "Zinda Bhaag," Pakistan's first submission for the foreign-language Oscar in half a century.
Visions of international gold hang over the movie's trio of young, vibrant, lower-middle-class friends from bustling Lahore. For Khaldi (Khurram Pataras), Taambi (Zohaib) and Chitta (Salman Ahmed Khan), the dream of fast money in another country is a source of ready-made smiles and laugh-filled camaraderie. But the realities of what it might take to get there — dealing with a local strongman (Bollywood star Naseeruddin Shah), forging a visa, gambling — are what give the film its questioning nature and ever darker trajectory.
Providing a contrast is Khaldi's entrepreneurial girlfriend (a magnetic Amna Ilyas), who makes handcrafted soaps and is motivated to be a success at home, chastising Khaldi about his belief that easy fortune is only one possibly dangerous or debt-incurring migration away.
Yet as defiantly unslick as "Zinda Bhaag" often is, and though serious-minded about dramatizing the limited opportunities for a struggling class of Pakistanis, it's also regrettably uneven. Pataras and his costars do solid work evoking the pressure they face as the options get slimmer (and the solutions more treacherous), but the many story strands often get away from the filmmakers. And though this isn't Bollywood, there are song breaks, and even if they happen to address the emotions of the moment, they don't aid the roller-coaster tone. Gaur and Nabi fare better when they avoid stylistic flourishes — a scratchy old film-stock look for flashbacks, for example — and stick to a simple urban realism.
But if its Oscar chances prove slim, "Zinda Bhaag" is thoughtful enough to bode well for the possibility of noteworthy Pakistani imports in years to come.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
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