'Cake', now streaming on Netflix, was created by debutant writer-director Asim Abbasi.

Cake review This Pakistani drama slices past stereotypes to create a compelling tale
Flix Review Friday, May 31, 2019 - 17:25
Written by  Saraswati Datar

Cake. It comes in different shapes and sizes, colours and textures. The icing on top can often conceal what lies underneath, or whether the cake is actually as delicious as it looks. Quite like families. They are always around, whether physically or in spirit. Each one is different, but they are all familiarly comforting when enjoyed in small slices.

Cake, now streaming on Netflix, is co-produced by Indus Talkies and ZAB films. Debutant writer-director Asim Abbasi creates a layered drama that seems inspired by realistic Bollywood films like Piku for its visual treatment, and possibly the Hollywood comedy-drama Hanging up (2000) where three sisters are reunited as their difficult father nears his end. Set in Karachi, Cake tells the story of estranged siblings Zareen (Aamina Sheikh) and Zara (Sanam Saeed) who are forced to reconnect when their father is rushed to the hospital. While they do have an elder brother Zain (Faris Khalid), its Romeo (Adnan Malik), their old manservant’s son who has stood by the family through its most trying times, making the ultimate sacrifice when it was needed.

Abbasi’s approach is fresh and he fills the film with small, telling details that give it depth and complexity. A cantankerous mother who sits around with a tube of lipstick, tries on wigs, and affectionately abuses her husband, a hanky that gets twisted over repeatedly during a seemingly never-ending wait at the hospital, siblings remember how they tried to secretly kill each other as kids, and cigarettes that are smoked in secret and flushed innovatively. The family gangs up against a flatulent father while playing cards, and there is more than one mention of a catheter. The moments are familiar and have all perhaps happened in our homes at some point or another.

Abbasi never strays from his directorial approach of realism, except perhaps for the last half an hour of the film that starts veering into familiar Bollywood tear jerker territory. The powerful climax which unfolds in one long take is technically flawless and engaging but has a jarring hint of melodrama that the film so astutely avoids up to this point.

Abbasi populates his story with a cast of talented actors who play characters that are nuanced and realistic. While the men serve as strong emotional anchors, they never dominate the story that clearly belongs to the feisty sisters. Zareena and Zara are women in their mid 30’s whose life choices have put them at odds with the expectations of their gender. Aamina Sheikh is brilliant as the bitter but loyal Zareen, the unmarried middle child, who is quite literally stuck in between her ambitious siblings who have moved away from the family home. She has sacrificed her dreams of learning at Le Cordon Bleu to look after the family’s estate and her ageing parents who can be quite a handful. Sanam Saeed, well recognised in India thanks to a popular Pakistani television show, is equally good as Zara the sheltered youngest sibling. She is coming to terms with her marriage ending and harbours guilt over an incident from the past that she has run away from.

In a wonderful scene, Zara talks about how she didn’t want children because having kids seems like an innately selfish thing to do. Saeed is particularly good in the one take climax where she learns of how the family collectively betrayed her while demanding a huge price from Romeo, who she regularly dismisses.  

Adnan Malik is impressive as Romeo, their childhood acquaintance. While Abbasi writes him as a strong, silent man whose loyalty is commendable, he is never put on the pedestal of heroism. Interestingly the first-born son who is usually considered the family’s salvation is kept in the margins of the narrative, almost deliberately underwritten so the focus stays on the sisters. The matriarch Habiba played by veteran Pakistani actor Beo Raana Zafar is also a delight. While old men are often portrayed as amorous, vain or foul-mouthed, Abbasi cleverly subverts this stereotype by making the father tender and soft-spoken and the mother loud, self-obsessed but lovable.

Abbasi liberates Zara and Zareen from the norms of how women are represented in cinema from the subcontinent and this perhaps has helped the film pass the Bechdel test. It’s wonderful to see two women be so unapologetically angry, have commitment issues and refuse to get pregnant. When friends and family annoy them about marriage and kids, they vandalise their homes with eggs. They refuse to be treated like damsels in distress or ‘rescued’ by men. When Romeo, who gets Zareen admitted to Le Cordon Bleu without telling her, she is annoyed at his interference instead of feeling his grateful for his attempts to change the course of her life. Yet the film never puts these breakaway moments in the spotlight, encouraging us to view them as perfectly normal behaviour from a woman.

In a special mention, the film has Bollywood songs that appear at regular intervals, a hat tip to the popularity of Indian cinema in Pakistan. The film is also edited by an Indian editor Arti Bajaj who creates a measured pace that reflects the slow passage of time when a loved one is ill.

Cake is a cinematic breakthrough that deserves praise. It’s sweet, layered and has a delicious icing of nuanced feminism that makes its flavour soar. Take a bite into this delicious film, it’s a rare treat.