Equal parts cynical and inspirational; Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy's 3 Bahadur is a film about the possibility of greatness. The adept balance of slapstick and satirical humour, cutting edge animation, life truths and a good story ensures that adults and children will essentially be watching two different movies.
What looks like a grand adventure tale about unlikely heroes banding together to defeat evil can also be seen as a film about a bleak but familiar world where political apathy and oppression are overcome only by unflinching optimism and tireless struggle.
As Pakistan's first animated movie, 3 Bahadur will inevitably be judged not just on it own merits but also as a yardstick for all future entertainment catered towards children. The risk has paid off. This is the most ambitious and genre expanding entry in the revival of Pakistani cinema.
The fantasy rooted in mundane human angst will speak to audiences on multiple levels.
PLOT: Mangu has killed Sadee's father who dared stand up to him and question his authority and his men intimidate the towns people until they have no political will. The people of AndherBasti live in perpetual fear of him. Amna, Sadee and Kamil are three school children who sorely feel the injustice of the situation. One day they feel the pull a mystical force to Mangu's tower where they receive magic power than enable them to fight back.
When three ordinary but incredibly brave children receive powers by magic they become the towns last hope. The very accomplished comic book style art is lovely to look at but the movie's real strengths are the wonderful little touches like 'Gabru' candy and an artistically inclined thug which keep it from ringing cartoonish, it rings true.
The beginning of the film may be too dark and scary for very young kids but once Amna, Sadee and Kamil get powers the pace picks up and the fun begins.
In the movie's original mythology there are two keys - the red key of evil and the blue key of good which are almost identical in form and purpose- equal but opposite. The powers of good and evil come from the same place. Mangu found the red key but he was already evil, the powers he received were simply tools to implement his plan of world domination.
The key would not have made the children evil though. In the 3 Bahadur world just like our own powers are neutral good and evil comes from inside. Evil is not some force from outside but what you do.
The central message that resonates throughout the film is that not the powers you are given are never as important as how you choose to use them. The children choose to use their powers to save their town - it is their own will and not a magical force that makes them brave.
Defeating the villain might be the main goal but there are small personal journeys for each of the main characters on the way. The dynamic between the three is interesting because there is no one hero, all three use their unique talents to work together.
Smart but troubled Saadi needs to deal with the tragedy of his past in order to face his future. Amna's desire to protect everyone gets her in trouble until she learns to strengthen herself first. But the real hero is the underdog of the group the rambunctious and exuberant Kamil. He may not be as confident as Amna or as intelligent as Saadi but his fierce passion to do something can be seen in his bravado and his love for a stray dog that he wants to adopt.
This leads to the one major criticism I had of the movie, that too much of it was spent on the villains. The heroes were so great, that I would have liked to have spent more time learning details of their journey. It is a shame to create such good characters and not explore them. Focusing on the villains is negative messaging, teaching kids to hate bad guys instead of learning to be good guys. We have enough media telling us who to hate, we need more characters to look up to. While these goons were amusing and well drawn, they were best utilized in the scenes when the kids outsmarted them.
The scenes where they were conspiring with each other felt like watching a crime movie. It is called 3 Bahadur not 7 Thugs.
The only other thing keeping 3 Bahadur from becoming a modern classic is the distracting branding. Throughout the movie I was tempted to play “spot the product placement”. A figurine on a nightstand and random graffiti were somewhat well integrated but giant billboards and a fast food slogan shouted mid-battle definitely took one out of the moment.
In a fascinating bit of not so subliminal message Amna's dad ‘Imran Uncle’ is the only adult to pay attention to the young people and speak out for them. He is a shopkeeper but really an eloquent community leader who urges the townspeople to support the children in standing up against oppression and injustice. Interestingly his name is Imran so the rallying cry of "Imran uncle Zindabad" sounds familiar.
The subject matter and storyline may not be particularly groundbreaking but the film is funny, endearing, imaginative and a whole of a lot of fun. It entertains while lifting your spirits and its energy creates such an infectious mood of exhilaration being pulled out of it feels like a loss. Sneakily perceptive 3 Bahadur has a charm and delicacy that will appeal to everyone. Children will find something to relate to and adults will be reminded of what it is like to be a kid.