When Zarrar Kahn returned to Pakistan, the culture shock was immediate. Kahn was born in Karachi, but spent his childhood and early school years in Mississauga, outside of Toronto. He returned to Pakistan with his family when he was 13.
“It’s a very impressionable age and while my life, as a young man, hadn’t changed significantly, 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 is a sinister sense of being patrolled. The use of gender as a means of discrimination was very clear.”
For In flames, his feature debut, which premieres in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight sidebar and is sold worldwide by XYZ Films, Kahn translates that sinister feeling of being watched into the language of supernatural horror. Inspired by “those great French female directors of titan (Julia Ducournau) and Atlantic (Mati Diop), who use the genre in new and exciting ways,” Kahn transforms Pakistan’s patriarchal reality into an ominous demonic threat to the film’s main characters: Mariam (Ramesha Nawal), a young medical student, and Fariha, her mother. (Bakhtawar Mazhar).
Mariam and her ignorant, video game-obsessed teenage brother—”that’s me at age 13,” notes Kahn—live with their widowed mother in a small apartment in Karachi. The death of Mariam’s grandfather, the patriarch of the family, sparks a power struggle when Mariam’s uncle tries to manipulate her mother into handing 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 exert 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 by 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 after a traumatic event, she is consumed with nightmares, with visions of the dead coming back 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 is a long folkloric tradition of jinn and spirits,” says Kahn, “in many ways it resembles the Senegal of Atlantic: Both are Islamic societies with similar mythologies and societies where religion is used in a similar way as an instrument of patriarchy.”
The real men of In flames are hardly less horrifying: someone throws a rock through Mariam’s car window and reaches in, trying to grab her. A stranger passing by her balcony stares up… and starts masturbating.
“That masturbation scene: that happened to a friend of mine,” says Kahn. “When we talked about it, the women on set said, ‘Oh yeah, that happened to me the other day, that happened to me on the bus.’ The men were shocked, shocked. For the women, it was just their reality. All the fantastical elements in the film just take the reality, the raw material, and push it a little bit.
By framing his story as a horror movie, not a social realist drama, Kahn says he gives Mariam agency over her tormentors.
“I watch a lot of social realist dramas that come out of Pakistan and often in those movies we see the main character suffering, and that suffering is what takes the audience away,” he says, “but what I loved about horror, what I loved about Atlantic or that of Julia Ducournau Raw, is that you can give power back to the ‘last girl’. You can complain about the last girl’s figure of speech, but at least in movies like this she’s still there at the end of the movie and she’s conquered her demons.”