In Flames Review | A Must-See Genre-Bending Pakistani Horror Movie


In Flames may be marketed as a horror film, but, in actuality, it is so much more than that. Indeed, for a film that’s currently making its global festival run — it made its world premiere at Cannes earlier this year before arriving at the Toronto International Film Festival for its North American premiere — horror fundamentally serves as a universal entry point for audiences who might be watching a Pakistani film for the first time. Once seated, audiences will find that while In Flames fulfills its promise of thrills, it also offers a story brimming with heart.

From writer and director Zarrar Kahn, making his feature-length debut, In Flames is set in modern-day Karachi, and finds Mariam (Ramesha Nawal) and her family, her single mother Fariha (Bakhtawar Mazhar) and her young brother Bilal (Jibraan Khan), in mourning; Mariam’s grandfather — Fariha’s father — has just passed. In the midst of their grief, Fariha’s scheming uncle Nasir (Adnan Shah Tipu) returns to their lives, claiming to be the new “man of the family,” but Mariam doesn’t trust his pronouncements of generosity (from settling their debts to paying for the funeral services). When she voices her concerns to her mother, she is shot down.

In addition to watching out for her family, Mariam is completing her medical education. It’s through a friend at school that she meets Asad (Omar Javaid), a seemingly charming man from Canada, who pursues Mariam with gusto. However, a motorcycle accident prevents any happy ending for Mariam. But that’s the least of her worries: the accident unlocks something in her, and as a ghost from her past starts to haunt her day and night, she isolates herself from her family, left to fend off the demonic presence on her own.

Trauma in Fundamentalist Culture

In Flames
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As with many feminist horror movies, In Flames utilizes the genre to explore the traumas that Mariam, like many women living in a fundamentalist culture, experience from gendered abuse and misogyny. Throughout the first act, Kahn is deliberate in the film’s steady pace, carefully stitching the tapestry that makes up Mariam’s circumstances: a man throws a brick through her passenger seat window because she is driving without a male escort; an official breaks up her and Asad because they are sitting too closely to each other on a public bench; Mariam spots a strange man on the street spying on her as she stands on her balcony (he then proceeds to masturbate while staring at her).

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In short, Mariam is already under constant surveillance by the men in her community (even Asad’s insistence on romancing her toes the line between innocent wooing and creepy obsession). In this regard, cinematographer Aigul Nurbulatova’s camera is crucial as it stalks around Mariam to reveal the ghost — a man, of course — that lurks in the shadows. What’s more, Nurbulatova often shoots Mariam either from an angle or through the many mirrors in her home. Combined with a stark contrast between light and shadows, especially when the ghost is involved, we, like Mariam herself, are left feeling like we can’t trust anything we see.

One thing that is certain is the efficacy of Kalaisan Kalaichelvan’s score. While most horror movie scores enhance the experience for the viewer, in In Flames, the music, lean but emphatic, is used to signal to Mariam when the ghost is nearby. It’s a small detail, but the fact that she hears it, and is unable to control or predict it, underscores what she fears: something is not right with her, and she is alone. Here, Nawal is a sight to behold, which is especially impressive considering this is her first-ever on-screen role. As Mariam, a lot of her performance is internal, and she communicates her character’s unraveling with the talent of an actor twice her age and experience.

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A Triumphant Mother-Daughter Story

Toronto International Film Festival 2023

As In Flames approaches its third act, Kahn switches to Fariha’s point of view. It’s unexpected, but nonetheless a seamless and genius transition. As it turns out, Fariha has also experienced being haunted by a demonic force, and, what’s more, the ghost that stalks Mariam is the same one she encountered years ago: that of Fariha’s deceased husband (Mariam’s father). A flashback scene reveals that Mariam saved her mother from her physically abusive father, though Fariha dealt the fatal blow. When the ghost appears before Fariha, she instinctively knows that Mariam is in trouble. This time, it’s Fariha that saves Mariam from almost being raped by a stranger.

Shifting its focus on their mother-daughter dynamic, this is where In Flames truly shines. Mariam and Fariha, after all, are both victims of the same oppressive beliefs of their fundamentalist culture. Uniting the women, who otherwise spent the majority of the film at complete odds with each other, exposes the beating heart of the film — the only way they survive is together. Astonishingly, Mazhar is also making her feature film debut here, and her performance in the last act effectively steals the show. She’s fierce in her desperation to save Mariam, and she shows us, as the title of the film suggests, that sometimes the only way to start anew is by setting it all on fire.

For more information on In Flames and the film festival, visit the TIFF website.

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