By Ila Ananya
One of my favourite scenes in Saba Imtiaz’s novel Karachi, You’re Killing Me! is when 28-year-old journalist Ayesha is on a flight. She is heading back to Karachi from Dubai, and has just heard from an overjoyed UK-based editor who desperately wants to publish her interview with a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner.
It’s the biggest interview Ayesha has ever done (potentially award-winning, she writes), and she refuses free alcohol on the flight and begins to write. She uses the empty seat next to her to spread her notebooks, props one against the window, and types away frantically on her laptop. She tries to recall exactly how she felt in the interview — the trick, Ayesha says, is to be able to write from memory.
I like this part in the book, because it reminds me that the story Imtiaz is telling us is about Ayesha, a journalist who works crazy hours, from covering a fashion show to interviewing a gangster. So it becomes incredibly frustrating that Sunhil Sippy’s Noor, which we were looking forward to eagerly because it’s meant to be based on Imtiaz’s novel, never has such moments.
In the beginning, Noor remains firmly in the comfortable rom-com territory. During the first hour of the film, all you want to do is to block Noor (Sonakshi Sinha) out. Imtiaz’s Ayesha is bitter and drinks illegally procured alcohol, incessantly smokes cigarettes, and makes biting statements about Pakistan’s elite, but Sinha as Noor appears all over the place while trying to be endearing at the same time.
The story is essentially this: Noor is stuck in a job she hates, doing stories she doesn’t like until she uncovers a scam, and the journalist she’s dating steals her story, telling her, “it happens in journalism”. The story then has a terrible impact on the people involved, and a guilty Noor tries to fix everything that has gone wrong.
If you’ve read Karachi, You’re Killing Me! Noor will make you desperately wonder why she cannot be like Ayesha, who obviously loves writing and her work intensely. This never comes across with Noor, because apart from cribbing that her weight is more than her Twitter followers, she takes herself too seriously. By the time the interval arrives, Noor seems unable to decide what tone it wants to use, or the story it wants to tell. Karachi, You’re Killing Me! had a lightness to it that the movie loses out on, particularly in its second half, when it becomes a story with a moral.
In the book, Ayesha’s interview with the former Guantanamo prisoner — where she fills up notebook after notebook with his story as she takes down notes — is her big break as a journalist. Noor replaces this part with Sinha finding her story in her maid Malti’s (Smita Tambe) brother. It’s when the movie makes us feel most uncomfortable. Sinha as Noor is sitting in Malti’s house and Malti is crying because her brother has lost his kidney in an organ scam. Noor never stops capturing (through video) the conversation even when Malti tells her she doesn’t want to do this because she is scared that both she and her brother will be killed. For Noor, this is about her big break, and not the people who are living the horrifying story she wants to tell — a discomfort we never feel with Ayesha throughout Imtiaz’s book.
Noor tries hard to make broad statements about journalism and ethics but keeps falling short, because it doesn’t allow Noor to be a journalist in the way that Ayesha obviously is. There is too little about her reporting itself, and even in her biggest story, Noor only comes across as lacking any kind of journalistic skills because there is no research that goes into her piece except for a single interview.
And only after a war photographer Ayananka (Purab Kohli) steals her story does Noor even pay attention to her editor Shekhar (Manish Chaudhury), who yells at her about how publishing a story is not more important than the people involved — this is when she is upset that he hesitated to run it. This is also when Shekhar delivers the deadly punchline of, “We aren’t just journalists; we are human too.” The Ayesha we remember from Karachi, You’re Killing Me, would have never let anyone dismiss stories so easily.
From the beginning, Noor also sets up an annoying binary between ‘serious’ journalism — “serious journalism ko apni Barkha milne wali hai,” Noor says — and fluff, like entertainment pieces. There’s an unbelievable scene where Noor is sent to interview Sunny Leone, and keeps yawning throughout it. When Shekhar demands to know what all that was about, Noor simply makes snide references to Leone’s ‘past’, calls her a “bloody pornstar”, and says she knows why the country loves her. It’s Shekhar who then says that Leone is “self-made”.
In the end, Noor’s fame comes through a viral video, Mumbai, You’re Killing Me, which she makes after her organ scam story has terrible repercussions. It’s obviously a not-so-hidden reference to Imtiaz’s book, but it doesn’t work at all. Her monologue (in the video) about people staring at her on the road because she is a woman, that as tax payer she gets nothing, or that Mumbai’s air is polluted, only seems terribly forced. Karachi, the city that obviously influences Ayesha’s stories, is almost a character in Imtiaz’s book even without her having to mention it. In Noor, however, Mumbai needs to be forced into the narrative because until that moment, the city never comes across as a place that influences Noor’s journalism.
Perhaps Noor would have worked if it figured out for itself what story it wanted to tell, and let Noor actually be a journalist like Ayesha and her friends (there are so many women journalists in the book who’ve all disappeared in the movie). In the process of rushing towards establishing a moral, it doesn’t let Noor be even half the woman Ayesha is.
Co-published with Firstpost.