Gul Makai review: This Malala Yousafzai biopic is tacky and inessential
An embarrassing tribute to the world’s youngest Nobel laureate
Accepting her Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, Malala Yousafzai joked how her brothers, despite all her accolades, still call her ‘that annoying bossy sister’. We get a glimpse of that girl in Gul Makai, an Indian biopic of the Pakistani education activist, who was shot by the Taliban. Malala, played by Reem Shaikh, holds court outside her tiny primary school, ordering a pair of younger girls to bring her something to eat. They return with roasted corn, which Malala chomps off without sharing with anyone. She might just be the class bully, but her friends can’t stop giggling. They crowd around her and listen to her talk. They’re transfixed.
Cast: Reem Shaikh, Atul Kulkarni
Director: HE Amjad Khan
This, sadly, is the lone insight of Gul Makai. The film, directed by HE Amjad Khan, is a tacky approximation of a globe-conquering tale. In late 2007, Taliban militants took over Swat Valley, in northern Pakistan. They banned music and television and outlawed female education. Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who ran a private school, encouraged her to keep studying, having led a pro-education campaign against the Tehrik-i-Taliban. With his support, Malala starts blogging for BBC Urdu, initially under the pen name ‘Gul Makai’ but later emerging as a vocal public figure.
The journey of Malala’s life has been well-documented. Besides her bestselling autobiography, one can check out Davis Guggenheim’s influential documentary He Named Me Malala, streaming in India on Hotstar. For lighter viewing, there’s David Letterman’s interview on Netflix, with fun peeks into her life at Oxford. Under no event, however, are you to watch this film. Shot in Kashmir with an Indian cast, it reveals little about its central figure. It paints her life in the sick-green hue of Indian television, a world where Talibanis walk around in Nike shoes and journalists speak into unplugged mics.
Good intentions do not redeem a bad caricature. They worsen it. The terrorists in Gul Makai have Leprechaun beards, carry plastic swords, and wear suicide vests with bulbs on them. The Pakistan Army has it worse, with shabby uniforms and exactly one military chopper, which reappears throughout the film. It’s exhausting how many great actors turn up for this joint — from Atul Kulkarni, Divya Dutta, and Abhimanyu Singh to cameos by Sharib Hashmi, Pankaj Tripathi, and the late Om Puri.
There’s something that sticks though. Gul Makai is bookended by the image of a man, gun-drawn, taking aim at a bunch of students. Wholly unintentional and hundreds of miles apart, the image assumes an eerie resonance in the India of today. Sure, the contexts vary — and contexts matter. But try seeing that shot for yourself and not feel a lump in your throat.