There's an apocryphal story that not a single contestant at a movie quiz in Singapore was able to recall the name of Pakistan's film industry. It might have been a particularly ignorant panel, but it's also true that "Lollywood", which derives its name from the city of Lahore where it was based until a decade ago, is barely known outside Pakistan. And mostly shunned by Pakistanis while they secretly watch pirated Bollywood films. But suddenly there's a new buzz on the back of UK-based young director Asim Abbasi's debut film, Cake, which premiered in London on March 30.
It's being hailed for putting Lollywood on the international film map after winning the Best Director award at the UK Asian Film Festival. Abbasi, who gave up a career in banking to turn to film-making, said the award was a recognition of the coming of age of Pakistani cinema.
In a rare notice of an Urdu language film, Britain's Guardian newspaper described it as "quietly revolutionary" and "more expansive in its attitudes ...far richer and worldlier than anything previously observed coming down the Khyber Pass".
“Pakistani cinema has long struggled to match its Indian cousin’s commercial reach, but this impressive debut from Asim Abbasi feels like a sound bet,” it wrote.
In Pakistan, The International Express Tribune called it a "must-watch" movie for its "fresh and realistic portrayal of family dynamics and relationships."
Clever PR has also helped boost its profile – like arranging a special screening of Cake for Imran Khan, Pakistan's cricketer-turned-politician who has more than seven million Twitter followers. It worked. Khan promptly tweeted a generous review and a photograph of him with leading members of the cast. "Impressed by both the acting and quality of the film. We have immense untapped potential in the Pakistan film industry," he wrote.
“That one tweet by Imran was worth loads of free publicity,” one Pakistani journalist said.
A bigger publicity coup was to pull off a celebrity-studded red-carpet premiere at London's Leicester Square– the first Pakistani film to have a West End opening, an honour normally reserved for Hollywood films. The line-up included Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai and popular DJ and music producer Naughty Boy (Shahid Khan), and England cricketer Monty Panesar. Abbasi says: "It was surreal. This experience of Cake being the first Pakistani film to premiere on a world stage at Leicester Square has been unlike any other, and has contributed significantly to positioning Cake on the international stage."
Speaking from New York where he is promoting his film, he says he had been “overwhelmed” by the response. The film resonates with ordinary people who recognised the “grey shades” in human relations it explored.
"Cake is an alternative voice in Pakistani cinema. It has no flashy gimmicks, no unnecessary dances and melodrama. This is a simple, nuanced slice-of-life film with the theme of family members reuniting in times of crisis," he says.
Public reaction has ranged from "authentic, impressive and worth watching" to "just what the Pakistani cinema needs." But in conservative circles it has been criticised for scenes showing the lead female protagonist smoking and characters swearing. Some have called it too "elitist".
Abbasi says he welcomes criticism. “Cinema is, and should be, a divisive art form. I expect audiences to question. This is my way of engaging them and making cinema a two-way dialogue rather than a one-way entertainment.”
According to its producer, Sayed Zulfiqar Bukhari, the response shows Pakistan is ready for "intelligent" films made to international standards. "We wanted to showcase the power of authentic storytelling and bring fresh, new voices in cinema to the forefront and we have achieved that," he tells Asian Style magazine.
The film’s title has intrigued critics.
"Why Cake?" is a question Abbasi is asked in every interview. "I've answered this 200 times," he jokes, explaining that it was a metaphor for the "layered" nature of family life that Cake dealt with.
“I don’t like very obvious stuff. It’s a very layered story about people with lots of shades of grey. And slowly you discover that they are not the same as they appear in the beginning of the film. It’s the same with a new cake. What you see outside is a delicious facade, but inside it are multiple ingredients – like family members who have come together like a layered cake. It’s only a symbolic and metaphorical name.”
Shot on location in London and Pakistan and featuring two of Pakistan's most popular actresses – Sanam Saeed and Aamina Sheikh – Cake is a contemporary twist on Leo Tolstoy's notion of a family that "all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". It's a story of three siblings – two sisters and a brother – and their often difficult relationship with their parents and with each other. As the story progresses, tensions explode in a burst of acrimony, including physical confrontations. At its heart, Cake is about the passage of time seen through the eyes of one conventional middle-class family.
Saeed, who plays the individualistic younger sister who returns from Britain for the family reunion and struggles to adjust, described the film as a “reflection of your own life”. “There hasn’t been a more realistic film in Pakistani cinema yet,” she says.
Debutant male lead Adnan Malik calls it “a very strong film, made with great honesty”.
Not everyone is as excited. There's a view that the hyperbole surrounding Cake ignores the fact that lately several other unconventional films have come out of Pakistan such as Shoib Mansoor's 2017 Verna about rape survivors in a patriarchal and misogynistic society, the first Pakistani mainstream film to tackle the issue. "It's important to see Cake in perspective. It's a part of the churning that's already going on in Pakistani cinema," one London-based Pakistani critic has said.
Meanwhile, if Bollywood fans are watching Cake, don't miss its nod to Indian cinema. It revives one of Bollywood's classic cabaret numbers, Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja, from the 1971 film Caravan. Sung by Asha Bhosle, it remains a chart-buster after all these years. Play on, Lollywood.