The movie opens with the following message:
“Land disputes are prevalent throughout Pakistan. There are over one million cases pending. Groups take possession through legal and extra-legal means. All too often resolutions perpetuate existing biases against female ownership.”
Based on a true story, My Pure Land takes us to an environment we are rarely exposed to on the big screen, a small village in Pakistan with dusty roads and grassy fields. We are introduced to two sisters, Nazo and Saeda, who are armed and ready to defend their home from their uncle Mehrban. He demands ownership of their land because the land he inherited was barren. Nazo’s initial resistance ends up with two of Mehrban’s men being killed. Troubled and enraged, Mehrban calls in the local for-hire ragtag militia. Nazo’s only hope is a local police force that can be bought like cattle, and what her father has taught her.
Written and directed by British-Pakistani debutant Sarmad Masud, My Pure Land subverts a genre rarely seen beyond the scope of America and Europe. Sarmad takes an otherwise patriarchal and misogynistic genre, the western, and drops in our protagonist Nazo Dharejo played by Pakistani actress Suhaee Abro (Yaqeen Ka Safar) who impresses with her subdued yet powerful performance. The movie opens with the stand-off between Nazo’s family inside the house and Mehrban laying siege outside of it. Flashbacks are used to fill in the blanks of how the situation escalated to this finality. At the beginning we see Nazo’s vulnerability bubble just below the surface, hiding underneath a stiff upper-lip and a steely-eyed gaze. However as the siege continues we see Nazo overcome the limitations that her father struggled to confront, the inevitability that Mehrban was willing to kill to claim their land as his own. She is tasked with leading the defence of her home, in a patriarchal society, where that onus falls onto her father and her brother.
Generally, westerns aren’t realistic depictions of gun battles; they are action-heavy and bloody with a whole lot of bullets flying for minutes on end. However, Masud’s vision includes subverting that trope in order to put authenticity at the forefront. In a small Pakistani village, bullets are a luxury and we are constantly reminded of that. Even the hired thug-in-chief retorts in anger when Mehrban suggests storming the house, “Shut up! Has your mother paid for all these bullets?” However, the choreography for the action scenes is underwhelming; several times we are cut away from an action scene into a flashback that fizzles out the tension that was built up so well. As a result, we never really see Nazo engage in a fire fight that visibly puts her life in danger.
Having visited Pakistan recently, I can personally vouch for how beautifully the cinematographer Haider Zafar captured the visual essence of village life in Pakistan; from the scenery of day and night to the claustrophobic depiction of the local police station, the movie does a good job of setting a scene before anything is said or done.
My Pure Land is an authentic look at Pakistan; from the importance of a father empowering his daughters; to the commonplace land disputes; to the ugliness of police corruption. It deserves to be seen if only to highlight the importance of being an empowered and independent woman in a deeply patriarchal society.