Arts

Not your typical romcom: '7 Din Mohabbat In' empowers women and tears down toxic masculinity

The film was always meant to be more than a fun, flimsy romantic comedy — one that offered sharper insights and subtle subtexts for an audience craving just that.

The film offers sharper insights and more subtle subtexts than your average fun, flimsy romantic comedy

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This past Eid, 7 Din Mohabbat In (Love in Seven Days) opened at nine theatres across Canada — the perfect movie to light up screens for the occasion. Starring famed Pakistani actors Mahira Khan and Sheheryar Munawar Siddiqui, it's the type of wholesome, over-the-top romantic comedy you can take your family to watch.

However, there's more to the script than meets the eye, says Siddiqui. Alongside the more comedic moments, the movie also slips in messages of women's empowerment and a critique of toxic masculinity.

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"The directors [Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi] call it an urban comedy...but the movie is based on the reality of the frustrations faced by young Pakistanis today," says Siddqiui in a phone interview from Karachi, Pakistan. Tipu, the protagonist Siddiqui plays, is nerdy and naive, unable to stand for himself against his overbearing mother, neighbourhood bullies and even his boss at work. "He's a scared sort of a guy. He hasn't had the guts to talk to a girl in a proper way. His wish is to break free."

"The layers of the story has him finding love. And in the process he realizes that the morals and the ethics that made him who he was — he is compromising those."

7 Din Mohabbat In is just one recent example of the resurgence in Pakistani cinema over the last decade. The industry suffered a steady decline beginning in the late '70s through the '80s following the Islamization of Pakistan by the late Pakistani president Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.

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These films do find large audiences in Canada — especially in city centres such as Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary—with fans flocking to the theatres to see their favourite actors in their larger-than-life glory. While Muslim characters are noted for their anomalous appearances in popular American shows such as Quantico, Orange Is The New Black or even Mr. Robot, Pakistani films such as 7 Din Mohabbat In give their Canadian audience a chance to feel represented in a variety of roles ranging from gritty to glamorous.

Since the release of Bol (2011), Pakistani cinema has been offering compelling movies that have brought out audiences to the movie theatre in droves. These movies have also been well-received by its critics: the last film by 7 Din Mohabbat In's director duo, Zinda Bhaag (2013), was Pakistan's entry to the foreign language film category at the 86th Oscars.

7 Din Mohabbat In was always meant to be more than a fun, flimsy film — one that offered sharper insights and subtle subtexts for an audience craving just that. There's a transgender character who plays a small but important role, portrayed by Pakistani transgender model Rimal Ali. (It was only last month that the Pakistan government passed a law guaranteeing basic human rights to transgender people — yet still the community faces discrimination and this character's inclusion is significant.) Then there's Tipu's best friend, played by dwarf Danish Maqsood.

"Just like in the Game of Thrones, we have glorified that character," says Siddiqui. "His height is not an issue. My character actually looks up to him. There are small things like that throughout the film, which might go by your average audience, but they might stay in some people's subconscious."

Khan is one of Pakistan's best-known and highest paid actresses, even making an appearance at Cannes this year representing L'Oreal Pakistan. For her, 7 Din Mohabbat In was a chance to perform an out-and-out comic character, largely very different from the roles she usually gets. Her most recent performance includes the Bollywood movie Raees (2017), playing the love interest to Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan's turn as a bootlegger turned politician. In the Pakistani film Verna (2017), she essayed a rape survivor. And she perhaps remains best known for the role that brought her national and international fame: Khirad in the Pakistani TV drama Humsafar (2011). There, she played a simple but self-respecting young woman from a small Pakistani town who wins over the elite family she's married into.

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While Khan concedes that 7 Din Mohabbat In is more the story of Tipu and how he manages to stand up for himself, she finds her own character's story empowering.

"Neeli is a filmy type of a girl, and stays in her own dream world, and she likes Tipu," says Khan. "She's innocent. She has something that every young girl of a certain age has — when you watch TV behind closed doors, or dance to a song. I saw myself in her, which I liked."

"But the best thing about her character was that even though she's an orphan, and you feel sorry for her, and think that something bad is going to happen to her, and she's engaged to someone she doesn't like...all the things that might make you think she's a weak woman, even then Neeli is not weak. An empowered woman doesn't belong to a certain class — lower, middle or upper class. It's not necessary that an empowered woman needs to be a college-educated woman. An empowered woman is an empowered woman; she can come from anywhere."

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For Siddiqui, the narrative arc of his character Tipu fits into the larger conversation about toxic masculinity going on today.

"At the end Tipu realizes that, in trying to become a hero, he's hurting the people he loves. All the qualities that make him a great person are already in him — he just needs the confidence," he says. "This thing bothers me personally as well. If we step outside the discussion of the film, there's this image of a manly man, how a man must be...I think this has a bad effect on men as well because it leads to a lot of psychological issues, especially since men aren't encouraged to express their feelings."

He explains that the deeper problem is that these ideas are spoon-fed to you even as children. Boys are told not to cry, for example, or are told stories of warrior men. But everyone can play a part in changing these perceptions, however small. For example, Siddiqui has recently decided that he will no longer pose in photo shoots that have him brandishing a gun or have a cigarette dangling from his lips just to give the shot a certain masculine and dramatic look.

"I have come to the realization that even a small thing like that can affect people," he says. "A small kid can see that photo and say, 'Oh, he's so manly. We should act like him.'"

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As for how 7 Din Mohabbat In will be received in Canada, Siddiqui says that while the movie will be relatable for Pakistani and Pakistani diaspora viewers, it can also show the country and its culture in a different light to an international audience.

"It will be an insight into issues faced by young people in the subcontinent, societal pressures faced by them and how they react," he says. "It will be an insight into a new culture. So I think this film can work both ways for a [South Asian] and a Canadian audience."

About the Author

Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. She has been published in Canadian media including CBC, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and Walrus magazine. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com.

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