“Night of Henna’s” Black-Tie Gala in San Francisco
By Ras H. Siddiqui

It was certainly an eventful week for Pakistanis here in Northern California (and beyond) as the first ever Pakistani-American English film, Hassan Zee’s “Night of Henna,” officially opened for viewers at locations here amidst both curiosity and controversy.
Besides a private technical showing at the Dolby Labs on March 1, and the World Premiere at San Francisco State University (followed by a reception at the Naan-n-Curry Restaurant) on Thursday, March 3 along with a Black-Tie Gala on Friday March 4 at the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco (followed by Distributor Illuminare’s VIP Dinner) plus a North-Bay opening at the Lark Theatre in Marin County, one can easily write that Hassan Zee has had a very busy week. And after reporting on this project for over two years and now finally having seen the completed film at the Black-Tie Gala, a review finally becomes possible even though it seems to have been long overdue.

  Hassan Zee with Pooja Kumar
Dinner reception
Night of Henna premiere
  L to R:Mrs.Farah Siddiqui,Hassan Zee and Ras Siddiqui

The curiosity that “Night of Henna” is bound to generate will be from here in America where Pakistanis are not exactly known as movie makers. And the controversy will come from within the Pakistani and Muslim community worldwide as the subject matter will not be popular amongst parents of young people who are considering their marriage options. So now, on to the film.
Night of Henna starts off with a henna ceremony, but unlike the usual happiness associated with preparations for wedding nights in Pakistan, there is also trouble brewing. We jump back to six months earlier as the main female character dupatta clad Hava (played by Pooja Kumar) lands at San Francisco Airport. Sent back to Pakistan for a “proper” upbringing by her struggling parents, taxi driver Abdul (Girja Shankar) and mother Rafia (Ponni Chesser), we meet a lonely girl in Hava, one who terribly missed her family while in Pakistan. Her brother Shani (played by Italian American Giuseppe Distefano) does not have to undergo the same separation because “boys are different.”
The family reunion and struggles are intertwined in the taxi breaking down on the way home. And here we meet Justin (Craig Marker), a blond American college student who along with his friend assists in pushing and starting the car. Justin lives in the same neighborhood and frequents a café run by another Pakistani, Baboo (Reef Karim).
And while Hava’s family struggles with its financials, their relatives Bashir (Azhar Shah) and Zakia (Noor Shic) are a couple mourning the “loss” of their own daughter because she married outside their culture and race. Bashir who is not doing well in terms of his health and Zakia have a son in college named Salman (Suhail Tayeb). They are well off financially and are continually helping out Abdul and Rafia. And naturally Hava is spoken for at an early age as her marriage to Salman is on the minds of both parents. But Salman has a relationship going at college with Molly (Jeanette Penley) and Hava is in the process of changing herself upon return. She wants to go to college, and is happy with her new found financial independence after finding a job in Baboo’s café, but she remains troubled about her growing relationship with Justin. In a nutshell, the parents of Hava and Salman want to follow tradition and want to see them married. But these two young people are caught between pleasing their parents and pursuing their own dreams.
That dilemma and the choices that are made is what Night of Henna is all about.

L to R :Pooja Kumar,Suhail Tayeb and Noor Shic
L to R :Mrs.Siddiqui,a guest,Ashok Malani and Craig Marker
  L to R :Giuseppe Distefano,Hassan Zee and Brunella Lisi

Before going into the weaknesses and strengths of the movie let us briefly critique the acting. Pooja Kumar (former Miss India USA) is both pretty and pretty convincing as Hava. Craig Marker does justice to the role of Justin and Suhail Tayeb pulls off his Salman role in an effective manner. Reef Karim does a wonderful Baboo and Girja Shankar is convincing as Abdul. But it is Ponni Chesser as Rafia and Noor Shic as Zakia, the two mother figures, that really stand out in this film (due to the difficulty of their roles?). One cannot guess if this is what Writer/Producer/Director Hassan Zee had in mind here, but the strength of the characters of the mother figures in my opinion eventually ended up in their dominating this film. Torn between traditions and the love of their daughters, Rafia and Zakia are themselves caught up in having to make the most difficult individual choices.
A number of weaknesses in the movie cannot be overlooked. There are some generalizations made about Pakistan and Pakistanis that the more knowledgeable, affluent and liberal in our community will find bothersome. Since 9/11/2001 the religious figure or Mullah in our community is already under pressure. His further vilification here was not too necessary. That women in Pakistan are oppressed is no secret. But women in the wWestern world are struggling for their rights too. And some women do drive cars, have careers and are active political and social figures in Pakistan today. It is another matter that the media in the United States is too busy highlighting the role of demonstrating religious rightists in Pakistan who still have trouble getting more than 10% of the popular vote in any election held in that country.
The strength of this movie lies in its dealing with serious issues without open confrontation. It does not have the shock value which Hanif Kureshi has almost patented in his British-Pakistani movies. Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala” will come to mind as will Gurinder Chadha’s “Bend it Like Bekham” but those are about the India diaspora experiences and were not made with a small budget - $500,000. For a super economy film, the cinematography here is great (thanks to Hiro Narita) and the made for TV/ Pakistani drama feel is not there. San Francisco appears as beautiful as it is here. And the use of Pakistani music by Hassan Zee adds a great deal, making the experience of viewing it richer and more tasteful. Two of Pakistan’s historical singing legends Noor Jahan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan are very much present here.
Night of Henna confronts the issues raised in it with a degree of sensitivity that may not shock the American movie critic into liking it, but will appeal more to our South Asian and Muslim community (to a point). Hava and Salman have differing views about their future from those of their parents. But at no time are they disrespectful or hostile towards them.
But a cautionary note is in order. There is some raunchiness and a couple of scenes in this film are for mature audiences. The scenes are added mainly by the character of Justin’s landlady who appears to be guided by hormones and little else. One Pakistani-American mother when asked after the show if she would recommend the viewing of this movie to our youth said “No”. And even if Hassan Zee wants to “go with the flow,” as he said, the drinking and smoking and other lifestyle choices of Salman may not be too popular within our Pakistani and Muslim community parents, even though they are used to seeing such content made by Hollywood and the Indian diaspora. That is where some the controversy is bound to will come in.
Some words of thanks are in order to Hassan Zee for making the first Pakistani-American English movie ever and to Brunella Lisi, CEO of Illuminare Entertainment for picking up its distribution. Thanks also to all the people who helped Hassan take this project towards its completion (some of whom were Pakistani-Americans). And even though this movie is not going to become a classic, it is a first for Pakistanis here in America, something that the embattled liberals amongst us can be happy about. It will certainly help build more understanding between Pakistanis and Americans, especially within our college going youth. Plus help from the Indian community in America will not be forgotten here either. It is a decent movie, but not an unforgettable one (like Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Pani or “Silent Waters”). And like the patterned henna that is a part of our Pakistani wedding rituals, time and a washing with soap and water will erase the patterns and the memory of this film too. But weddings and nights of henna are also about hope. One wonders if Hassan Zee, a young medical doctor from Chakwal in Pakistan who once worked at hospital burn wards and treated female victims of violence there, has fulfilled his dream of making a movie about Pakistani female empowerment here in America? Or is this just the beginning of his long career in filmmaking?



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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