Zarrar Kahn‘s debut is an elegant social drama that utilises a supernatural twist to examine the monolithic but nebulous constructs of misogyny and female oppression in Pakistan. The themes of In Flames are stark and blunt, the execution anything but. It’s a slippery and hallucinatory experience that never lets its ghostly trappings overpower the very real dangers it depicts.

Mariam (extraordinary debutante Ramesha Nawal) is a medical student in Karachi who we first meet enduring an attempted assault from a stranger simply for having the temerity to drive while female. It’s emblematic of the intolerance and misogyny endemic in Pakistan. She’s already dealing with the death of her beloved Grandfather which leaves her and her widowed mother Fariha (Bakhtawar Mazhar) vulnerable to a slippery uncle who has designs on their apartment. Yet worse is to come.

Mariam meets her friend’s brother Asad who quickly falls for her, and offers something positive, but when an unexpected incident occurs, Mariam begins to lose her grip on her sanity, suffering terrifying visions and bouts of dislocation. Her reality is tough enough without her inner life turning malevolent.

Ramesha Nawal does an incredible job as Mariam as she navigates the confusing malleability between the real and the corporeal. It’s no surprise that it’s a smothering patriarchy that is the real villain; an all-encompassing force that will even seek to control the internal life of women. Even the few benign male presences in Mariam’s life come with an edge. The potentially romantic bond she forms with Asad (Omar Javaid) is portrayed as positive, although his attentions straddle a fine line between persistence and stalking that maintains a certain tension.

Kahn steeps us in these quotidian incidences of masculine threat before inflicting dead-eyed apparitions and lurking shadows on his heroine. These hauntings are accompanied by an eerie whistle, which becomes as effective in eliciting a Pavlovian chill in the viewer as the death rattle in The Grudge or the tongue click in Hereditary. The use of these tropes is lowkey, but effectively done, eventually illustrating Mariam’s backstory in a way that emphasises that the personal is always political.

Writer/ director Kahn resides and works in both Canada and Pakistan, having insight into both liberal and theocratic societies. Like Babak Anvari with Under the Shadow and Mati Diop with Atlantics, he is a confident and skilled filmmaker using the visual language of horror to address a dual identity in an unusual and beguiling way. It’s not as outright scary as Anvari’s film or as ethereal and strange as Diop’s, but it’s a beautiful and ultimately cautiously hopeful drama that is all the richer for its controlled flirtation with the trappings of genre cinema.

In selected cinemas from Fri 24 May 2024