You can’t expect a terrible venture from Adnan Sarwar. Sarwar’s keen eye and sense of self-identification from core Pakistani values and social currents were clearly visible in Motorcycle Girl and the only trap he seems to set up for himself is the occasional preachy sermons peppered into the narrative for good measure. Apart from this small hiccup, his eye is on the ball. Baarwan Khiladi continues to retain your attention with its tension and doesn’t let up. The cast is much to be credited for this but you can see it’s an Adnan Sarwar triumph too.
The story is set around a fictional cricket league, the Lahore Super League, where a young man named Akbar (Danyal Zafar) is selected for the ‘playing eleven’ but as it should happen, Jahangir (Shahveer Jafry) replaces him and Akbar becomes the ‘twelfth man’ or ‘Baarwan Khiladi’. Supporting Jahangir are his flunkies (Khaqaan Shahnawaz and Meer Yousuf) and Akbar’s love interest is Aliya (Kinza Hashmi). Saba Faisal plays Akbar’s simple and unassuming mother and Usman Peerzada plays Jahangir’s rich but not completely immoral father. The series is produced by Nina Kashif and Mahira Khan and is currently streaming on Tapmad Entertainment.
Sarmad Khoosat as Coach Ikhtiyar is vicious and appears as the classic villain we have all somewhere or the other witnessed in our lives. Ikhtiyar has no principles except money or connections and he manipulates the broken system to his benefit, destroying the careers of people he knows he can bully or subjugate and he, of course, lies easily. Sarmad shines as Ikhtiyar as he chomps on chewing gum, curses liberally and his hunched back and sharp stare make him a formidable character you dread on screen. Shahid Dogar, the writer, brilliantly encapsulates in Ikhtiyar, the markings of the corrupt small player in a largely messed up system.
Danyal Zafar shines as Akbar. The persona he has otherwise, a musician and all-around social media star, is somewhere in a forgotten distance as Danyal disappears into the role of Akbar. Even the hair seems to be following Akbar’s journey more than Danyal’s, though they have been characteristic of his musical avatar. Akbar is sweet and kind-hearted but not without his complexes and anger issues. In a particularly fantastic scene, where you see Akbar lashing out and breaking down, Danyal Zafar and Fawad Khan (who plays a has-been cricketer trying to counsel and coach Akbar on the side) argue about the merits of being a team player and surviving in a system which is designed for disadvantage for someone in Akbar’s position. Danyal brings empathy and emotion to the surface and makes you feel for Akbar more than ever before.
Fawad is brilliant as always and Danyal Zafar holds his own opposite Fawad and manages to make it about Akbar’s anger and resentment at everything and everyone.
One does wish Fawad’s character’s backstory had been explored in more detail and instead of him narrating his history to Akbar, there would have at least been a montage for the audience to feel the impact of his failure and why he was so keen on helping Akbar, despite being in recluse. But I guess, we can’t have it all. The fact that we got to see Fawad’s genius onscreen is the best we can hope to get. With his good looks, charisma and impeccable talent, Fawad is a trailblazer, even if he appears for a guest cameo.
The episodes flow in easily, they make for an enjoyable binge-worthy ride. Sarwar gets the pace right and doesn’t compromise on it. The scale of the story may be small and perhaps a bigger budget would have given it a shinier, more expensive feel but that’s the prowess and exceptional talent of Pakistani filmmakers and writers: they can deliver big punches on a small scale and it’s all the more convenient that the Pakistani audiences, many of them acclimatized to tv, have the patience for it. Adnan Sarwar has extracted the best from a set of newcomers such as Shahveer Jafry who has made a decent acting debut in the web series.
The only flaws in the show are some of the easy exits the story takes and the preachy dialogue that seem to be overkill in some places. Aliya’s rant about hypocritical men and their blatant misogyny is well-placed and thought-out well but the long paragraphs weren’t needed. Sometimes less is more, especially when it comes to web series. Similarly, constantly stating that Akbar has a good heart and he does the right thing when it’s time, was an overplayed theme and the series would have benefited with a more complex climax or a resolution of said climax than an emotional dialogue or an appeal to Jahangir’s humanity. Mira Sethi’s role (though well performed, especially the scene between her and Saba Faisal where Mira gently converses with her in Punjabi) as the journalist determined to expose the real story behind Akbar being the twelfth man is too convenient to digest.
But these are minor expectations. Overall, the web series is gripping and well-executed. The settings, the language are authentic and the performances are top-notch. This is the kind of content the audiences are hungry for and this is exactly the non-tv, niche demographic that web series producers all over the world target (watch a conversation with the cast here). Barwaan Khiladi is a near-perfect effort at pulling it off and it is hoped that the team produces more content such as this, with possibly dipping into other authentic stories throughout Pakistan, waiting to be told.