“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
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.
Zee with Pooja Kumar
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.
to R :Pooja Kumar,Suhail Tayeb and Noor Shic
to R :Mrs.Siddiqui,a guest,Ashok Malani and Craig
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
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
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