No matter where you go in the world, there always seems to be some amount of corruption involved throughout all levels of society. In Jami Mahmood’s Moor, this corruption relates to Pakistan’s once prosperous railway system, which is now in decline. And in typical cinematic fashion, it’s a zealous expose, but it left me sadly wanting.
Moor is set in recent times, in the aftermath of the 1984 closure of the Balochistan railway system in Pakistan. Once one of the best in the world during early 20th century, the network of tracks have now been decimated by the influx of roads for automobiles. In the face of disappearing way of life, many living in the once interconnected towns have been forced to adapt, in ways good and bad. For one station-master and his son, that adaptation comes at a great cost to their conscience and their family legacy.
The two men at the forefront of the narrative are Wahid (Hameed Sheikh) and his son Ehsaan (Shaz Khan). At the beginning of the film, Wahid’s wife Palwasha has just died, leaving both men distraught and reevaluating the lives they lead. Struggling to make ends meet, Wahid has resorted to shady deals to sell his station, its tracks and the land to the mafia. Ehsaan on the other hand has left home to try to make it in the big city (Karachi), where he runs a highly illegal – and highly profitable – document counterfeiting operation. With the memory of the honorable Palwasha (who implored her husband to never sell their beloved land) still fresh in their minds however, guilt is now eating away at their conscience.
Indeed, though the film is framed around the corrupted railway system, it’s most affecting element is the haunting presence of the mother, as its title suggests (“moor” is the Pashto word for “mother”). Shown through elegiac flashbacks, director Mahmood’s projects her as the film’s most important character, reserving his most sophisticated filmmaking – black and white cinematography, intensely emotional dialogue – for her scenes, compellingly acted by Pakistan’s deservedly celebrated Samiya Mumtaz.
But Mumtaz is hamstrung by the limitations of the “dead wife” tropes, representing merely a catalyst for the moral conflicts of the men in her life. And the misuse of her talent is exacerbated by the underwhelming main plotlines attached to those same men. Despite the best attempts of the heartstring-pulling score and a cadre of good actors on hand, the film is disappointingly uninvolving. Most notably, it lacks a sense of danger, being essentially a crime film with little violence.
At one point late in Moor, Wahid goes to report his son’s illegal activity. The response he receives is “Your son hasn’t really done anything…you haven’t witnessed heinous crimes.” As bad as it may sound, I felt the same nonchalance throughout the film. While the history behind the railroad seems fascinating (with relevance to British colonialism and the Partition of India), the more contemporary struggle as presented here fails to provoke the same level of interest. There’s a good story to be told on this subject, but it seems more suited to a documentary, where the context and insight behind its underlying nostalgia could have been better elaborated.
Moor is the Pakistani submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Click here for reviews of other official submissions.