'In Flames': Canadian Pakistani filmmaker uses horror genre to explore the real terror of the patriarchy

"The idea of the man coming in and saving the day is rooted in the patriarchy, and also not giving women agency," Zarrar Kahn said

Canadian Pakistani filmmaker Zarrar Kahn's movie In Flames (now in theatres) is an intensely gripping use of the thriller genre to look at the real horror of a patriarchal society. Set in Karachi, Pakistan, the filmmaker tackles topics like oppression, misogyny and violence with a bold point of view, and real terror.

In Flames introduces us to 25-year-old medical student Mariam (Ramesha Nawal). She lives with her mother Fariha (Bakhtawar Mazhar), who has raised two children on her own after her husband's death. When Mariam's grandfather dies, who the family relied on financially, an estranged uncle arrives to "help" Mariam's grieving mother, including the family's finances. While Fariha is pleased to have the help, Mariam isn't particularly trusting, and can see that her uncle intends to manipulate her mother to take control of their home and inheritance.

Amid this tension Mariam finds an opportunity for romance with fellow student Asad (Omar Javaid), but when that relationship takes a heartbreaking turn, Mariam is alone and in a more vulnerable state, haunted by nightmares.

While Kahn's work before In Flames consisted of a number of short films, the filmmaker got a sense that what he wanted to see in cinema was shifting.

"As my style was growing, as the kind of cinema I was attracted to was changing and evolving, ... as my world view changed, ... I was like, I need my protagonist to win," Kahn told Yahoo Canada last year, during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). "I need them to succeed, I need them to thrive, and I think that was also what kind of attracted me more to genre."

"A lot of cinema from our part of the world, it's this tragedy of, 'Oh it's so terrible for women and people in Pakistan.' And yes, that's true, but there's also an incredible level of resilience. There's also overcoming that, and that was something that I really wanted to be a part of the story."

Zarrar Kahn's film In Flames (Game Theory Films)
Zarrar Kahn's film In Flames (Game Theory Films)

'These characters are more than their suffering'

With those ideas in mind, the COVID-19 pandemic also impacted what the final script for In Flames ultimately looked like, specifically through collaboration.

"I had drafted a script that I was pretty happy with and then the pandemic happened, and we all thought the world was ending," Kahn explained. "Suddenly the women who had done the short film with me, they were part of my script writing process, and they were sharing their stories with me about what it's like to navigate Pakistan, what their lives are like in Pakistan."

"There was a level of honesty that we had during the pandemic with each other, which I think just came from thinking that the world was ending. So it's like, we can say whatever we want now. And hearing their stories really contextualized for me the horror, the very real horror, of what it's like. And at the same time, the incredible bravery that they have to still want to be an artist, still be a mother, still navigate life in society. That really inspired the version of the script that ended up becoming the film."

While it may initially seem like In Flames has a focus on trauma, these characters aren't defined by that trauma.

"I wanted to show, with Mariam, ... she's still a young woman who's falling in love for the first time, who loves pop music, who has dreams of being a doctor," Kahn said. "It is this thing of life going on,and the small joys that you find in life."

"That's something I wanted to show in this film, these characters are more than their suffering. Yes they're suffering, but they're not defined by it."

"[For] women of colour stories being told, it's very easy for an outsider audience to come in with a preconceived notion of victimization and abjection, and that's something, I think, that really needs to be addressed in the cinema world," producer Anam Abbas added.

"Abjection is designed to dehumanize. So we really, really shy away from that, because that's not our experience. That's not my experience as a woman in Pakistan."

TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 14: (L-R, back row) Meesha Shafi, Justin Moses, Carol Ann Noronha, Omar Javaid, Ramesha Nawal, Zarrar Kahn, Bakhtawar Mazhar, Iman Vellani, Kristi McIntyre, Kalaisan Kalaichelvan, Anam Abbas (L-R, front row) Shant Joshi, Mohammad Ali Hashmi and Craig Scorgie attend the

The 'delusion' of the 'protector patriarch'

One of the most compelling concepts explored in In Flames is this notion that's been normalized of men coming to "save" women form difficult circumstances. In a particularly brilliant use of cinema, this film showcases the real threat and consequences of that being a norm.

"I really wanted to drive home the point of, you can only save yourself through community, and through finding your community," Kahn said. "The idea of the man coming in and saving the day is rooted in the patriarchy, and also not giving women agency, and saying that, 'Oh, I'll take it away. I'll make it OK.' It's like nefarious in its own way.'"

"A lot of my friends in Pakistan, they work as lawyers, and they tell me about these cases, which happen pretty frequently, where the family steps in after the father dies, or the husband dies, and it's like, 'I'll help this family, this poor woman with your kids.' And that saviour takes away all of her agency, all of her money. ... I think when you're from a marginalized group and you're living in an environment that is not necessarily the safest, community is what will allow you to not only survive, but thrive. And that was my intention."

"I think that the family unit that's held in such high regard is also just seen in one way," Abbas added.

"I come from a single parent household, and I think the structure of society just assumes that protector patriarch is in their position, and acting as the protector patriarch. Very much the reality of so many people is that does not exist in their lives, or it exists in a negative way. So it was important for the delusion to be addressed."