I was skeptical when I first heard that Shoaib Mansoor was writing and directing a movie about a woman’s rape. That’s not a man’s story to tell. Thankfully, that is not the story he is telling. Verna is a story about men.
Shoaib Mansoor doesn’t deal with the physical and emotional trauma that a victim may face due to rape. Instead his focus is on the external aftermath keeping the onus and burden of change on society. Too often this burden is placed on the shoulders of the survivors of abuse. They are expected to act a certain way or say the right things or else they won’t be believed.
Sara’s story is that she gets kidnapped and raped and then plots revenge against her assailant but the story of Verna is how the men in her life hijack her experience to fit their own narrow narrative
Her husband Aami (Haroon Shahid) turns this into a story of how he was wronged somehow because he has a wife who has been raped. The rapist, Sultan (Zarrar Khan) creepily sees this as a love story, begins stalking his victim, and expects her to fall in love with him. Her father and father-in-law only see her and her ordeal as a blot on their honor. Government officials are sure that the whole thing is conspiracy by their opponents. Television evangelists use her as an example of how some women are “asking for it”.
Despite the posters, it is a mistake to think that Mahira Khan’s Sara is the protagonist of the film.
She is strong, determined and proactive from the very beginning when she offers herself to Sultan’s lackeys to save her sister in law, Mahgul. None of these things change when she leaves her husband, fights her case and ultimately gets her life back. Her husband Aami (Haroon Shahid) on the other hand has a much more affecting arc. He evolves from an insecure, self-centred loser to someone with empathy, understanding and willingness to take a back seat.
When Sara is first released from her captors, Aami can barely look at her. This is not because he does not know how to help her but because he expects her to comfort him. Instead of trying to understand her ordeal, he blames her and callously compares three days of torture to past affairs. Even when the thugs who picked her up begin to stalk them, he’s more worried about his own ego than the fact that his wife may be in further danger.
We’ve seen toxic masculinity like this in Pakistani cinema before, but the difference here is that we are not expected to sympathize with Aami for even a second. The movie makes it clear that he is in the wrong. In fact, before Sultan shows up 2/3rds of the way in Haroon plays his character like the main villain. He’s aggressive, dismissive and sometimes downright cruel. He’s so busy feeling sorry for himself it never even occurs to him that the person who actually went through all this might have a bigger struggle.
At one point he says “Men who stay married to women who have been raped must be very noble”.
Aami was stricken with polio as a child and earlier in the film expressed concern that Sara has married him out of pity. He believes himself to be less worthy of love because he feels physically ‘broken’ and then considers Sara similarly damaged. He does not understand that the our misfortunes do not define us. Aami is not weak because he has a disability, he’s weak because he cannot deal with it. Sara is not weak because she was raped she’s strong because she recognizes that it doesn’t change her worth.
It’s incredibly telling when Aami shows up unexpectedly to Sara’s house, she is reading an article about the initial reactions of significant others to rape. She wants to understand how he feels even though he cannot do the same.
Mahira Khan may have a somewhat limited range, but when she is in her wheelhouse she can be incredibly effective. She is perfectly able to be on the verge of breaking and then bounce back. The moments where she learns to stop explaining herself to the world are more poignant than any graphic violence would have been. In scenes with slimy political scion Sultan, Sara is alarmingly cool. She charms him and challenges him in a way that no screen rape survivor possibly has.
Was Sara too calm, did she not react fast enough, did she not show the ‘right’ kind of emotion? Verna has many viewers asking these questions and the answers is there is no such thing as an ‘ideal’ victim.
While Sara’s extremely implausible and desperate scheme for revenge may have shocked audiences, the complex cover up conducted by the government agencies had most of us nodding along in agreement.
Is it possible to love a movie while hating the main plot? It makes no sense to me that a lawyer would advise a survivor to go get raped again just to collect DNA evidence. The guile and manipulation it takes, has unfortunate implications. Sara technically faked a rape, a thing mens right activists fear despite its rarity. This is a very tricky line to take and is the main reason I am hesitant to recommend a movie which got so many things right.
Shoaib Mansoor said that he was inspired by rage when he made this film, one can only hope that this rage is contagious. A survivor should not have to turn in to Batman to achieve the justice that she deserves.