When Zarrar Kahn moved back to Pakistan, the culture shock was immediate. Kahn was born in Karachi but spent his childhood and early school years in Mississauga, outside Toronto. He returned with his family to Pakistan when he was 13.
“It’s a really impressionable age and while my life, as a young man, wasn’t significantly changed, there was a huge disparity in the lives of the women I knew,” he says. “Their lived reality, navigating in public, was that they were always being watched by men. There’s a sinister sense of being patrolled. The use of gender, as a tool of discrimination, was very apparent.”
For In Flames, his debut feature, which will premiere in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight sidebar and is being sold worldwide by XYZ Films, Kahn translates that sinister sense of being watched into the language of supernatural horror. Taking inspiration from “those amazing French female directors of Titane [Julia Ducournau] and Atlantique [Mati Diop], who are using genre in new and exciting ways,” Kahn transforms Pakistan’s patriarchal reality into an ominous demonic threat to the film’s central characters: Mariam (Ramesha Nawal), a young medical student, and Fariha, her mother (Bakhtawar Mazhar).
Mariam and her oblivious, video-game-obsessed teenage brother — “that’s me at 13,” notes Kahn — live with their widowed mother in a small Karachi apartment. The death of Mariam’s grandfather, the family patriarch, triggers a power struggle as Mariam’s uncle tries to manipulate her mother into signing over their apartment to him, a common occurrence in Pakistan, where women’s property rights are rarely respected or enforced.
“It’s the reality, families apply social pressure on women to get them to give up their property,” notes Kahn. “And few women go to court because of the social stigma, that just being a woman in court means something shameful.”
Frustrated with her mother’s reluctance to fight for her rights, Mariam initially finds solace in a secret romance with Asad (Omar Javaid), a fellow student. But following a traumatic event, she becomes consumed by nightmares, with visions of the dead returning to life. These take the form of dead-eyed demons, inspired by the spirits, or Djinn, of Sufi Islam.
“Karachi is the birthplace of Sufism and there’s a long folkloric tradition of djinn and ghosts,” says Kahn, “in many ways, it resembles the Senegal of Atlantique: Both are Islamic societies with similar mythologies and societies where religion is used in a similar way as a tool of the patriarchy.”
The real men of In Flames are scarcely less horrifying: One throws a brick through Mariam’s car window and reaches in, trying to grab her. A stranger, passing by her balcony, stares up… and starts to masturbate.
“That masturbating scene: That happened to a friend of mine,” says Kahn. “When we were talking about it, the women on set were saying: ‘Oh yeah, that happened to me on the other day, that happened to me on the bus.’ The men were shocked, horrified. For the women, it was just their reality. All the fantastical elements in the film are just taking the reality, the raw material, and pushing it a tiny bit.”
By framing his story as a horror film, not a socially-realist drama, Kahn says he gives Mariam agency over her tormentors.
“I watch a lot of socially-realistic dramas coming out of Pakistan and often in those films we see the protagonist suffer, and that suffering is what the audience takes away,” he says, “but what I loved about horror, what I loved about Atlantique or Julia Ducournau’s Raw, is you can give power back to the ‘final girl.’ You can complain about the trope of the final girl, but at least, in movies like these, she’s still there at the end of the film and she’s conquered her demons.”