A smart spy drama about overworked Pakistani intelligence agents
An American secret agent is languishing in a Pakistani jail for a crime he almost certainly did commit. As diplomats from both nations wrangle and posture, a growing mob demands justice. This taut tale by Aamina Ahmad has all the usual ingredients of a political thriller – tense negotiations, plot twists and lashings of local colour. But in her skilled hands, the straightforward black-and-white morality of a Boy’s Own adventure soon breaks down into more shades of grey than a row of American generals’ heads.
Although she pokes fun at the eccentricities of the Pakistani secret service – big boss Chaudhry sends a quivering flunky to the market to buy delicious goat balls for their rich American friends, while his protégé Tariq sleeps with his shiny gold medal – Ahmad also makes them so much more than the two-dimensional bogeymen that inhabit American spy thrillers. Colonel Tariq is torn between his need to be a hero and his tendency to get ‘caught up in the details’ – allowing himself to sympathise with the fates of the ordinary people he must trample on to get to the top.
He’s married to Farah (played by a warm and witty Goldy Notay), a frustrated artist whose fury at the Stepford wife existence she’s forced to lead is unleashed in hurled paint. They’re both desperately human – and CIA agent Lowe (an appropriately maddening David Michaels) exploits their foibles to the max.
It takes a while to adjust to this play’s off-kilter, faintly ramshackle world – key moments are underlined with frenzied violins and dramatic lighting, and stilted English accents collide with a flood of Pakistani pop and poetry.
But what makes the streets of Lahore outside feel real, rather than token splashes of local colour, is the authenticity of dialogue that effortlessly namechecks not just rickshaws, but gulab jaman, sabzi wallah and qawwali parties. Even as Ahmad’s plot careers through intriguing twist after twist, there’s always a deep sense of affection and compassion for Pakistan as a failed state that staggers on, somehow, even as Americans maraud through it, observing local laws with the cursory shrug of a tourist chucking on a shawl to enter a mosque
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