Remember Zenith Irfan, the ‘motorcycle girl’ who became the first woman to travel the distance from Lahore to the Khunjerab Pass solo on a bike? Her story, narrated through the Facebook page and photo blog 1 Girl 2 Wheels, was covered the world over – including CNN and RT – in 2016.
That story has now been transformed into a film, with Motorcycle Girl being a biopic – albeit self-admittedly heavily fictionalised – of Zenith Irfan’s story. And a week since its worldwide release, the film has completely a much needed one-two punch for the Pakistani film industry, along with Cake, after what was an year of stinging mediocrity for Lollywood.
However, the name Motorcycle Girl, rather interestingly, can be interpreted as a misnomer. For, what the film also has in common with Cake is a (relatively) subtle – and yet profoundly punching – take on overcoming gender disparity, and hence isn’t in-your-face in the ideas it wants to convey.
Similarly, the motorcycle – which one would assume would be the joint lead in the film – enjoys more symbolic value than screen time. This, in turn, means that Motorcycle Girl isn’t necessarily a road film, per se.
Even so, make no mistake about the fact that the film’s cinematography is every bit as majestic as one expects of a movie that involves shooting up north. You see all the scenic beauty you would expect, but the film has kept that aspect of its screenplay as the backdrop – giving its visual production the splendor of a scenic background that Pakistan’s mountainous north personifies.
But the fact that none of the places other than Lahore (the starting point) and the finish line (Khunjerab Pass) aren’t focused on, means that wanderlust isn’t the central theme of the film, with the travel itself being the pretext for what it represents.
That representation is the quest for independence that completes the coming of age of 20 year old Zenith – masterfully played out by Sohai Ali Abro – along with the fulfillment of her father’s dream.
That the film does not intend to endorse the man-woman binary is depicted by the influence the father posthumously have on the protagonist’s journey – both as an individual, and literally – along with the portrayal of other men in her life as nonchalant upholders of misogyny, all the while depicting Zenith’s grandmother as the greatest patriarch in her life.
The latter men in question are Zenith’s boss (Sarmad Khoosat) and fiancé (Ali Kazmi) who have both played nailed their roles as your average Pakistani men for whom casual sexism is the default position, without coming across as vociferous women-haters.
Samina Pirzada as Zenith’s mother is reminiscent of Meher Vij’s role as the ammi in Secret Superstar, albeit with neither the same centrality to the script nor similar intensity of the predicaments facing her.
The credit for getting the best out of the cast – stellar though it undoubtedly is – goes to director Adnan Sarwar. He, of course, is no stranger to the biopic genre, having debuted with the equally impressive Shah in 2015, which narrated the life story of boxer Hussain Shah.
Xulfi’s music too adds the needed feel to the film, with both tracks – Urr Chalay and Pahiya – being top-drawer productions, and blend in perfectly with the video fronting the music, and the cinematography that is gelling it all together.
However, while the acting, direction, music and cinematography are undoubted highlights of the movie, its editing definitely is not. One can argue that not only does the film’s time duration overrun its content, the fact that the non-chronological screenplay could’ve been better sequenced – and outlined –by sharper editing.
Even so, at the heart of Motorcycle Girl is the audacity to dream, which the film encourages all its viewers – not just young women – to do. It is a quintessential underdog tale, where the protagonist’s adversary is life – or the obstacles we choose to define it by, clinging on to our fears.
Our fears might differ from Zenith’s, our obstacles mightn’t be the same, and what we call life mightn’t mirror what the film depicts as hers, but we have our versions of each. And Motorcycle Girl urges us to get on the proverbial bike, take charge of the handle and steer it where we aspire to take it