Less a documentary and more an unflinchingly personal essay, director Arshad Khan’s Abu: Father is moving and harrowing in equal measure. Utilising home video footage he has amassed since his childhood in Pakistan in the seventies, as well as scenes from the pop culture that played a pivotal role throughout the important stages of his life, Khan’s film deals with his lifelong struggle with his own sexuality and his relationship with his religiously conservative family.
Every filmmaker will claim that their films are “personal” to them, but Arshad Khan has made a film so deeply integrated to his own identity, it frequently feels like the audience are bearing witness to a private home movie that was never intended to be shown to audiences. That he has the bravery to publicly display a lifetime of raw emotional trauma, with as many lovelorn highs as there are self doubting lows, makes this an utterly commendable achievement.
Abu is the Urdu word for “father”, and although his struggle for acceptance from his Muslim father is a central, lifelong battle, Khan’s film is significantly more comprehensive in exploring how a closeted gay man attempts to find acceptance within the whole conservative family unit – including from himself. He has managed to condense lifelong personal struggles regarding his culture, religion and sexuality in to a brisk eighty minutes, without ever diluting his self identity to fit the comprehensive running time. Even more impressive is that this is Khan’s feature length debut. He’s built up an entire lifetime of courage to tell his story, and it has paid off completely.
Countless coming out narratives are sold to their target audience based on how “relatable” they are. And it is partially true, as elements of Khan’s life story will be recognisable to many – the idea of hiding yourself from who you perceive to be an unaccepting family, the trauma of sexual abuse, the pubescent suicidal thoughts that come hand in hand with recognising your own identity. Like everything in the film, he presents each element of his life with a sharp directness; he doesn’t use unnecessarily long words to ponder a lifetime of suppressed emotions, instead relishing the opportunity to cut to the chase and speak bluntly about the feelings he spent a significant chunk of his lifetime hiding.
With the majority of the film presented via personal, unearthed archive footage and snippets of his beloved Bollywood movies, there is the sense that he’s curating key moments from his own life in a way that’s equal parts romanticising and merely documenting his backstory. As a teenager in Pakistan, falling in love for the first time only for the relationship to end via his lover’s parents finding out, he found solace in lovesick Bollywood lyrics – and, oddly enough, Roxette’s mid eighties power ballad “It Must Have Been Love”.
The situations presented and the emotions within will surely be familiar to many viewers, but all with a cultural specificity that ensures it would be detrimental to ever suggest Khan’s film possesses a relatability that’s “universal”. It’s certainly universal in terms of the emotional power it leads the audience to feel – but aside from that, this can only be seen as a haunting, personal cinematic essay.
Abu: Father is an utterly moving documentary, with enough brutal emotional honesty to fill a thousand movies. It may have taken over forty years for this debut to reach the big screen, but let’s hope it doesn’t take another forty before we get a chance to see another of Arshad Khan’s candidly honest and uniquely moving autobiographical efforts.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Arshad Khan