WTF ASIA 198: Pinky Memsaab (2018)

Uneasy Rich Asians

Pinky Memsaab (2018)

Available in AustraliaCanadathe United Kingdomthe United States, and perhaps a few other countries. Approximately 124 minutes.




Hello, Dubai.

Anyways, the titular Pinky is working at a restaurant as she observes two women talking about a contract for translating a book.

One of the women notices Pinky eavesdropping and asks if there is anyone to take their order. Pinky just stands there uncomfortably. Is it because she does not understand English? Or is there something else? The other woman, Mehr, turns around and notices Pinky. Pinky walks off. Mehr goes after her. Mehr calls out her name and tells her in Urdu to stop. But Pinky keeps going, stopping only when she gets near one of the boats by the river. Mehr stops nearby and they look at each other. What is going on?


Cut to 3 years earlier. Well, okay.

Pinky is in Pakistan. After taking a rest on the flat roof of her house, she gets to her morning chores, milking the cow, doing the laundry, watering the flowers, etc. Just getting it all done before she leaves for Dubai.

Pinky’s aunt calls to her and asks where she was. Pinky says that she was praying at the shrine. Aunt is not particularly happy about that, but Uncle says that it is her village and she is free to go anywhere. And besides, Pinky says that she wanted to go there. All right.

Pinky’s mother is packing her luggage when the zipper breaks. Is this a bad omen? Either way, Pinky’s mother starts tearing up. Perhaps she is just sad that Pinky is leaving, but she also does not know how she will fare in Dubai. Pinky tries to reassure her to have faith, but who knows.

After a bit of a farewell party, Pinky and her uncle are off to the airport, a place that she has never been to before.

Actually, first she stops by Shahid’s shop for some ice cream. Of course, what she really does is meet her ex-husband (the aforementioned Shahid) to tell him that she is going to Dubai. She wishes him, his second wife, and their son a happy life. Let’s assume that she is not being sarcastic, especially since the boy is right there. But once she gets back on the road, she takes out of photograph of their wedding day and tears it up, dropping the pieces on the road behind them.

It is night in Dubai, and Mehr arrives at her large house and goes into her son’s room, where he is fast asleep.

Unable to sleep herself, she goes elsewhere to smoke a cigarette and writes part of her book. Finally, her husband Hassan returns home from his trip. He…um…blows on the back of her head as somewhat of a romantic gesture, but she is more irritated than anything else. She asks how his trip was…it was…good? He also says that she could have come along and would have loved it; she could have gone to all of the places that he could not go to due to all of the business meetings. And did he miss something? He tries to be smooth, but she is not having it. Then he comments somewhat dismissively about her writing and then leaving to take a shower before he can properly absorb just how annoyed she is at him.

Pinky…oh, I guess that we just skipped the rest of the journey to Dubai. She waits at the airport to get picked up…for quite a while, it seems. Finally, a man approaches her and introduces himself as Santosh Kumar from Bihar in UP. He tries to take her case, but she refuses. Still, she follows him. 

Huh…the escalator terrifies Pinky. There were none at the airport in Pakistan? Or did she just avoid them? Anyways, Santosh has to assure her that it is okay, but I am not sure if it works.

Mehr and Hassan are patiently waiting for Santosh to arrive with Pinky. Well, Mehr is; Hassan needs to get to work and is getting antsy. Then he asks Mehr why she had to get a maid from back home, saying that Santosh is a clown. Wait…I thought that UP meant Uttar Pradesh in India. Well, whatever. Mehr counters, perhaps repeating what she had said in the past, that a Pakistani maid can teach Urdu to their son Ahad, cook Pakistani dishes, and give…her head massages? Grace, their maid from the Philippines, cannot do those things. Hassan says that he hopes that this new maid is toilet trained, otherwise Grace will quit. Jeez.

Santosh and Pinky are on their way. Santosh observes with amusement as Pinky gazes out the window with anxious awe, noting that he was like that when he first arrived. Mehr calls Santosh, but Santosh does not pick up, telling Pinky that the laws are very strict. Pinky asks whether Mehr would get upset, but Santosh says that she will understand. He does not explain why he was so late in picking her up at the airport. Anyways, he tells Pinky that his wife left him five years ago, and driving this rich family around is the only way for him to financially support his son and mother. Ah…here they are…Jumeirah. He says that it is a very posh area with many White people lying on the beach all day in their underwear to get…tanned. Pinky does not understand what that means. So, Santosh talks about how he puts sunblock on his face every day, to no avail. He is not THAT dark. But Pinky suggests lemon. Okay, now they have reached the house.

When Pinky arrives, Mehr is on the phone with her aunt, who set up this arrangement. Mehr puts it on speakerphone so that the person can speak to Pinky herself. Mehr’s aunt reminds Pinky not to step out, but Mehr says that she can handle Pinky. And anyways, she just arrived; Mehr says to give her a break. Mehr’s aunt asks whether Mehr had spoken with her father, Qutub. Annoyed, Mehr says no, but sort of says that she will and hangs up. With that settled, Mehr tells Pinky that Grace will show her around the house. Pinky gives Mehr some clothes as a thank you gift. Mehr says that that she does not wear such colors, but that it is nice…and puts it back in the bag. She then looks at herself in the mirror to adjust herself and tells Pinky to go.

Pinky meets with Grace for a little bit before going to her quarters…which is kind of small and sterile-looking. She will have to fix that later, but for now, she sleeps until the evening. She asks Grace whether she sleeps. Grace explains in English that she goes to her sister’s house every day. It is unclear how much of that Pinky understood, but she probably worked out that Grace does not sleep in this house.

The movie kind of speeds through her early days at the house. She settles into a routine of sorts. We don’t actually see her being introduced to Hassan or Ahad, but she does interact with them, especially Ahad. She also bonds with Santosh and Grace, sometimes going out with them on their off time.  Oh, and she gets used to the in-home elevator that had initially scared her.

Pinky goes a money exchange place to send some money to her family back in Pakistan. I am not sure how much that was, but it gets to them. It allows them to paint their house and purchase a TV, a fridge, and…this thing.

Mehr meets with three other women in a café and they talk about…women in Dubai. Cam, a newcomer to Dubai, says that they have way too much time on their hands. Of course they do; husbands pay for maids to take care of the kids. Cam says that she will start working soon, as an architect. In Dubai, huh? Well…anyways, Cam asks what Mehr does and Mehr says that she is a writer. Her friend tells Cam that Mehr was a sensation back in the day and her book was a bestseller. When Cam asks where she can buy this book, the other two kind of wave her off the subject.

Pinky is massaging Mehr’s legs when Hassan arrives. Pinky leaves and Hassan asks whether Mehr wants to go out, but Mehr is not in the mood. After a tense back and forth, Hassan says that he spoke with Mehr’s father. Apparently, Qutub is not doing well and misses her. Mehr is not particularly impressed and does not want to talk about it.

Hassan eventually realizes what is going on. Mehr had spoken with the publisher earlier. Hassan does not understand why she had to pursue them when they can just do it independently. He can finance it. Mehr sarcastically praises his generosity. Does he really want to support his wife’s shitty writing? Hassan says that he was just trying to help, but…yeah…The subsequent argument is loud enough for Pinky and Ahad to hear from…wherever they are.

Hanging out with Grace and Santosh, Pinky says that Mehr is nice, but all Hassan does is scream at her. Pinky finds him scary, but Santosh jokes that Hassan might be scared of him. Santosh asks Grace to back him up, but Grace says that Santosh could not even complain when Hassan did not give him the day off. She slaps him with a towel and tells him not to make himself look macho in front of Pinky. Pinky asks Grace if she has a husband. Grace says no. All of that arguing. No. Santosh tries to explain, but in a way that implies that Grace dates men for small fees. Grace hits him with the towel again.

 Pinky says that she is divorced. She was unable to bear a child. Switching to Urdu, Pinky explains that she got married at 16. He used to write her secret love letters even though she did not know how to read properly then. Still, she fell hard for him. Five years later, with no child, he told her that he would marry again on the sixth year. So, she asked for a divorce first, something that she believes he had been waiting for her to do. I am not sure how much of this Grace understood, but she understands Pinky’s sadness, and tries to comfort her.

While giving Mehr a leg massage, Pinky tells her about her mother’s hospitalization. Mehr says that she cannot give Pinky a leave, but Pinky asks only for a three-months advance. Mehr snorts; didn’t Pinky just send a huge amount last month? They must be taking advantage of Pinky. But Pinky insists that she heard her mother and she sounds very weak. Fine. Fine. Mehr will talk to Hassan about this.

That evening, Hassan gives Pinky the money. He asks about her mother. Appendix. Hassan says that that is not too serious, so she should not worry. Pinky asks if Mehr told him about this, but he merely asks Pinky not to tell her that he had given her the money, otherwise Mehr might accuse him of interfering again. Pinky offers to have the money deducted from her salary, but Hassan says that there is no need for that. Pinky thanks him, but it is as if he has already forgotten.    

Pinky takes a taxi to the money exchange place…except it is a different one. He insists that all branches are the same. Okay…

Mehr goes to the school (without Hassan, who is on another) to talk with the teacher about Ahad’s academics and behavioral problems. The teacher suggests tough love.  

On the drive home, Santosh observes to Mehr out that Hassan has not been going to the school with her. She asks whether Santosh has seen him bothering about anything other than his own work. A little nervously, Santosh asks why a housewife cannot simply focus on the house? Mehr tells him to focus on driving…and stop watching soap operas. And then she tells him to take her to the publisher, Mr. Shahzaib.

Pinky goes to a restaurant for some tea and who should be there, but an old acquaintance, Kulsoom. A cousin? In any case, Kulsoom had eloped and left with her husband, but then he left her two years ago. And she cannot go back to Pakistan like that. Not with her son. She shows Pinky a picture of him.

Mehr asks Mr. Shahzaib if there is anything that she needs to do with her new book. What needs to be edited. Mr. Shahzaib says it is simply that her first book was good and this one is not. And, why does she need to do this anyways when Hassan is making so much money? She can write as a relaxing hobby instead of stressing herself like this. Mr. Shahzaib says it bluntly. It’s. A. Crap book. He tells her not to get angry at his honesty, as if that is going to work. At least she has a resigned calmness…so…it kind of worked?

Pinky hails a taxi and asks to go to Jumeirah. The driver asks where in Jumeirah. Pinky checks her phone…oops, it’s dead. The driver drives off.

Finding that Pinky has not returned, Santosh goes out looking for Pinky. He wanders around seemingly everywhere.

Meanwhile, Mehr goes through a quiet breakdown at home, culminating in her setting fire to her notebook. I guess that that did not set off the smoke detector. In any case, Santosh has returned and calls for her.

Santosh drives Mehr around the city as they look for Pinky, hoping that she is somewhere around one of the various money exchanges. They eventually do find her sitting on a stairway near one. Santosh is about to go to her when Mehr yells at her to get in the car.

Pinky is in tears on the ride back, wondering if Mehr will send her back to Pakistan. Mehr tells Santosh to take them to the airport. Santosh is unsure if she is serious, but he complies. Pinky says that her mother was right about being cursed. Mehr calls her a drama queen. She says that Pinky is supporting her entire family and earning far more than other Pakistani women, who would never get the chance to work in Dubai. And here she is crying like a helpless child and feeling sorry for herself because she did not know the house’s address. Pinky counters that Mehr can say all of this because she is well-educated and well-traveled, while Pinky is just a girl from a remote village. Mehr says that Grace and Santosh are the same as Pinky. Santosh, trying to be helpful, wonders if the perfect and modest Mehr could help Pinky a little in the ways of the greater world. Mehr tells him to focus on the road, but she does think about it.

Well, they do go back to the house. And Mehr does start to spend time with her, giving her some more modern clothes to wear and teaching her to speak English beyond the broken sentences that she had picked up. She teaches Pinky how to write in English. She even styles Pinky’s hair a little and teaches her about makeup. Of course, these “studies” start to keep her away from Grace and Santosh. Grace does not mind, but Santosh is a little bothered.

One day, Mehr is hosting a small get-together with Cam and her friends. Pinky comes to ask if they need anything. Cam assumes that Pinky is Mehr’s sister. Mehr laughs this off and lightly corrects her, but…something bothers her. Something is wrong here.





Quick note before going forward: Yes, Dubai is located in the United ARAB Emirates, but as of 2013, Arabs and Arab-speakers are a minority in the city. In 2013, 51% of the population were from India while 16% were from Pakistan. Now, while not all of those Indians speak Hindi, it is probably not completely unreasonable to assume that one could travel through the city simply speaking Hindi-Urdu and English. So, yeah, aside from when people greet each other, I am not sure that I heard a single word in Arabic in this movie. Anyways…

This is the first full-length movie directed, co-written, and co-produced by Shazia Ali Khan a Pakistani who has been living in Dubai for I am not sure how long. So, some of this movie is semi-autobiographical, though not necessarily a 1 to 1. I cannot say which aspects or moments of the movie were based on her real life or how much of her is reflected in either of the main characters.

I will admit that the first sequence seemed awkwardly stilted to me. I am not sure if that was due to it being in English or whether it was because Kiran Malik had not really acted before being cast as Mehr. But I am glad that I stuck with it. It is an interesting look at two women from somewhat similar backgrounds, but at different points of their lives. Pinky is maybe in her early mid-twenties and from a poor village. She had been married, which could have limited her future. But, long divorced, she has been given the opportunity to travel far from the only home that she has ever known. Mehr came from a high-class intellectual family, but married an up-and-coming businessman, moved to Dubai, and had a son. Now, Mehr finds herself approaching 40 and feeling restless.

The relationship between Mehr and Pinky is inherently unequal. Mehr hired Pinky as a live-in-maid. In exchange for housing and income, Pinky is to tend to Mehr’s needs. Pinky accepts that…although it turns out that getting that money sent to her family is not always an easy task. Eventually, that hierarchy gets a little fuzzier. They strike up a friendship of sorts, but its foundation is fragile. It turns out that being Pakistani women in a foreign country goes only so far.

Previously comfortable and somewhat outspoken within the familiar confines of her village, Pinky arrives in Dubai meek and scared of all of the unusual things around her. After one particular mishap that was not entirely her fault, it is almost like she hits rock bottom. With the help of Mehr, Santosh, and Grace, Pinky starts to realize that the unfamiliar is not necessarily scary, and becomes excited to try new things and find out what is possible for her. She is able to, once again, be herself, but in a new context.

As Pinky is starting to enjoy the strange freedom that her supposedly subservient job has provided her, Mehr is struggling with the limits to hers. When Hassan and Mehr first met for a semi-arranged marriage, Hassan had wanted to be a tennis player. He had chosen to go into banking in order to be worthy of Mehr’s hand in marriage. Now a successful banker, he is…rarely home. And Mehr resents him for it. Not just for not being there, but for trapping her in the life of a housewife. 

Mehr had hired Pinky in order to give herself more free time and peace of mind. Not so that she could just lounge about like the idle rich, but so that she could pursue her passion. In keeping with her roots, she had written a book a while back, which had done fairly well. She wants to write another book in order to retain something of her own. But she is struggling to make that happen; and worse, the people around her are not taking her seriously, including Hassan. Why does she not want to simply lounge around and host parties or sell jewelry like a normal socialite wife. Why is she not content to merely rest on being the wife of a businessman, a doting mother, and day-sleeper like Yeon-gyo in Parasite?

Instead of helping Mehr feel better, Pinky actually seems to be just one more burden. But, thanks to Santosh, Mehr starts to treat Pinky as not just a maid, but as a Pygmalion-esque project. And that gives her a sense of purpose…for a while. Then Pinky seems to cross the threshold of comfort. And Mehr’s control. And the closer Pinky gets to the freer person whom she had been back home, the more Mehr reverts to her irritable and suspicious attitude from before.

The movie takes a somewhat ambivalent stance on this life of luxury, neither denouncing it nor fully romanticizing it; but making the people seem human. Sometimes sympathetic, sometimes less so. Perhaps this unwillingness to pick a lane is a reason why it did not fare particularly well financially; I don’t know.

It also has an ambivalent stance on marriage itself. The marriage between Mehr and Hassan is rather shaky. Mehr’s father remarried merely six months after his wife died, which caused a rift between him and Mehr. Pinky married young and got divorced. Santosh’s wife left him. Kulsoom’s husband left. And Grace does not believe in marriage at all. It is all sad, but there is not really any judgment about it.

One somewhat interesting thing that the movie does is speed through certain key transitional points in the characters’ lives in montages. Other movies may have focused on the various major moments, but this movie seems to treat them as just the logical trajectory of the characters’ evolution. It is an unexpected choice, but I kind of like it.

This movie seems to be primarily about finding one’s personal identity, either through being put in a new situation or returning to one’s roots. I suppose that it would have been easy writing to have Pinky just be overwhelmed by Dubai and return home to the simple life in Pakistan. But I guess that a movie made by an expat in Dubai would not really do that. Also, the movie depicts the city…rather positively, I guess. It looks like a nice place to live, even if you are not filthy rich. There are some seedy parts, yes, but it doesn’t show, for example, those artificial islands with abandoned construction projects. And, while there are allusions to laws and rules, there are no specifics. I cannot tell if that is due to censorship or just how Khan wanted to tell the story.

Anyways, the story goes in several different directions, a few of them I expected, but a few that I most certainly did not. And while I was not necessarily on board for all of the turns, I appreciate where they ended up. And overall, I quite enjoyed this movie.





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