O21: Comically bad?

Published: October 18, 2014

It is quite evident from O21 and Waar that Pakistani filmmakers are competent at shooting drama, but lack any skill whatsoever at directing action sequences. PHOTO: OPERATION O21 FACEBOOK PAGE

Perhaps the most impressive thing about O21 is that it was made at all. Aside from the fact that this bi-lingual Pakistani film boasts a talented cast of both Pakistani and foreign actors, and is helmed by filmmaker Jamshed Mahmood Raza, aka Jami – who here has directed his first feature length film – O21 also takes a risk by featuring a narrative that avoids all the cliché-ridden trappings of a Pakistani film.

A bigger risk, however, is the pacing of the film, which at times is so slow that it makes the deliberately paced cinematic Steven Kubrick classic 2001: A Space Odyssey seem like Usain Bolt running on angel dust by comparison.

I have been dismayed by the many published Pakistani film reviews terming O21 as an ‘intelligent’ film simply because it takes its time. Certainly, there seems to be some confusion where reviewers are apparently identifying slowness as a sign of smartness. In fact, it has been amusing to note that plenty of O21 fans have been dumb-shamed into liking the film. Anyone who doesn’t like the film is told that they aren’t grasping the finer points of O21’s filmmaking and can’t appreciate how captivatingly it moves, as if it were some beautifully slow ballerina rather than a limping horse that should have been shot after the first act.

Wonderfully engrossing films that reward patience such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, SolarisThe GodfatherZodiacLawrence of Arabia and the likes, aren’t cinematic masterpieces simply because they are slow. If sluggish pacing had been the only benchmark, then any filmmaker could capture paint drying and win the hearts of critics and fans alike. No, there has to be some method to the madness. For example, the long iconic scene in Lawrence of Arabia where we scan the dry landscape for a sign of life until we finally see a dot in the distance, which slowly but surely reveals itself to be a man approaching on a camel, is a piece of filmmaking where every second was used effectively.

That’s not to say that O21 fails to use any of its relaxed speed without effect. For my money, the first half of the film is as gripping as any film I’ve seen. It certainly takes a lot of talent to evoke tension without resorting to gratuitous violence, and in various ways I was reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic as well as Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, with what certainly was edge-of-the-seat stuff. I also enjoyed the time gimmick that may have been inspired by the TV show, 24. Clearly, Jami is one of the most talented filmmakers in the nation.

Jamshed Mahmood Raza. Photo: Operation O21 Facebook Page

But like a roller-coaster that keeps climbing without a payoff, O21 fails to bring its foreplay to a satisfying conclusion. Eventually, O21 begins to resemble a South Park episode parodying the spy genre. When the climax does come, it is desperately disappointing. Here, the house of Kashif Siddiqui (Shaan Shahid) is attacked in an action sequence which is atrociously edited.

It is quite evident from O21 and Waar that Pakistani filmmakers are competent at shooting drama, but lack any skill whatsoever at directing action sequences. Sadly, the over produced action sequences in O21 are comically bad, where the characters are magically teleporting between shots from one corner to another.

Photo: Operation O21 Facebook Page

The poor and rather unintelligent second half of the film also weighs down the fairly interesting narrative. O21’s examination of the spy network between Pakistan and Afghanistan is quite absorbing, where most of the players are motivated by personal objectives rather than nationalism. The characterisation of Pakistani spy Kashif is a mixed bag however. On one hand I enjoyed how Kashif wasn’t presented as a squeaky clean military man, but on the other was disappointed that Shaan – for the umpteenth time – was playing a character weighed down by the guilt of a dead wife. This is just a lazy piece of writing designed to evoke empathy. Ladies, he may look good in a suit, but that’s too many dead spouses.

O21 suffers from other flaws as well. The cinematography is quite dull, and the grainy muddy camerawork does little justice to what should have been gorgeous backdrops. On the other hand, the performances, though at times uneven, are generally quite good, especially from veteran actor Ayub Khoso (Abdullah).

Ayub Khoso. Photo: Operation O21 Facebook Page

Despite the glaring imperfections, O21 is an important instalment in Pakistan’s woeful cinematic history. It might not be a smart entry on the silver screen but it certainly raises the average intelligence level of Pakistani films by several notches, and is hopefully paving the road for great films.

Noman Ansari

Noman Ansari

The author is the editor-in-chief of IGN Pakistan, and has been reviewing films and writing opinion pieces for The Express Tribune as well as Dawn for five years. He tweets as @Pugnate (twitter.com/Pugnate)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Abdul

    certainly better than crappy bollywood films and their childish action sequals!

  • Asad

    This movie is surely not for masses, if you want people flying in the air after being punched it surely not a movie you should watch.
    We have set our own standards now and there is absolutely no comparison of such movies with Bollywood at all!!Recommend

  • Prashant

    Abdul, you must have seen a lot of bollywood else how did you get to know it is crappy?

    I also think much of the bollywood is crappy but could not understand where did bollywood come into picture over here, seems you just can’t have enough of India.Recommend

  • harsh
  • Geoff

    YOU FORGOT Geoffrey…

  • koshur_batta

    and yet you love watching them. Recommend

  • M.Saeed

    The great movie O21 flopped because it is meant for intelligent audience. It may do well outside of Pakistan.Recommend

  • Prashant

    “This movie is surely not for masses, if you want people flying in the air after being punched it surely not a movie you should watch.”

    You have not yet seen the real Indian movies, they not only fly in the air when punched but remain in the air until the hero wants him back.

    Also see how he acknowledges his name by saying yes, yes and yes.Recommend

  • Faizan Suleman

    I think 021 is conscious attempt to bring commercial cinema back alive as if you are aware of the production ride it went through.. Moor will tell us what Jami is really made of.Recommend

  • cloud9

    Why do you have to compare your movies to the Indian ones ?
    No one in India says that the rubbish XYZ movie is acceptable because it’s better than the crap Hollywood or Lollywood produces.For reasons known to Pakistanis all those rubbish movies from India,end up as superhits in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Jami

    Thx for comparing it with Lawrence of Arabia :) I’m not sure how to take ur review as im seeing a pattern at Tribune they really go for shocking headlines. . I guess I know that’s how one could survive, to have amazing shocking Geo style headlines or awaam paper.

    Btw spy genre unlike skywalk is a slow paced genre. Tinker tailer soldier spy is a pure spy film. It’s slow and highly stylized film. May be u guys not expecting it but then I’m not going to give u what u want as an audience u might want item numbers or waar or bang bang or shahid Afridi. Sorry we r confused nation forget about audience. So I will test my boundaries and keep giving pk my way which is non item number non gujer films. U like it fine u can’t take it then write another review and survive another great headline day.


  • Hmm…

    The Indian film industry (Hindi & other languages) makes films of many genres,many of which,win international & national awards. You seem to be familiar only with the worst genre of crass pot-boilers,(which aren’t generally watched by urbane,cultured people) -why are you familiar with that ? A random sampling of a few Hindi movies I’ve liked- Mirch Masala (Smitha Patil ), Mausam (Sharmila Tagore),Mammo (Farida Jalal) Saudagar (Nutan),Sholay,Do Aankhen Baraah haath (Shantaram),Black (Rani Mukherji), Shabd (Aishwarya Rai),Chupke Chupke,Golmaal (Utpal Dutt),Daddy (Pooja Bhatt),Garam Hawa & Kabuliwala (Balraj Sahni ),In my opinion,generally South Indian,Assamese & Bengali films are even better.Recommend

  • Critical

    Judging Indian movies based on Ballayya movies is like judging Hollywood based on Tyler Perry’s movies….

    I think you should start viewing the real South Indian movies…Its not all bam..piff…boom…

    Compare the Jury awards won by South Indian movies to Bollywood in the last 10 years and you will know the difference in qualityRecommend

  • Prashant

    Agreed, the reason was not to belittle the Southern Cinema at all, I have seen many of them myself.Recommend

  • marik

    The last Indian movie I saw was Mardani, a couple of weeks ago. It was surprisingly good. Better than Waar I’d say.Recommend

  • Hmm…

    Try ‘Namukku Parakkan Munthiri Toppukal ‘- a 1986 Mohanlal Malayalam film. Tamil-‘Mouna Ragam’ by Mani Ratnam.Satyajit Ray’s Bengali-‘Pather Panchali’. ‘Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha'(Mammooty)

  • sarahraz1

    yeah Bollywood movies are good and there is no comparison between bollywood and us but hw just wanted to say that it is much better than some of your stupid movies for example kick,Tiger,Boss and its likes, when one can watch and appreciates those craps then why not this…? one should have a decent mind to praise the efforts :) i m not abetting you right..!Recommend

  • Prashant

    I do not understand any of the languages in South other than Telugu and it is difficult to get every movie with subtitles online, I will try though, thanks for the suggestion.Recommend

  • Hmm…

    You’re welcome.I think generally DVDs have subtitles. I usually get out-of-state stores to post them to me ( don’t find eveything on flipcart/amazon ) My husband & I pause films & translate for each other over some weekends. He manages four regional south Indian languages & I,only one (sometimes,subtitles don’t convey the depth & nuances of the script )Recommend

  • Ahmed Islam Ansary

    Its good to be a critic @noman but i think we should cut them a slack for the effort, we can criticize all we can but if someone is trying to change the perception of viewers especially Pakistan’s around the world let them try and appreciate there struggle. We all watch all kinds of from our neighboring country and the Hollywood and don’t complain, we say we are watching it for fun so why not our movies “which at least have something related to us and our current issues not the regular romantic crap”.Recommend