15 January 2018

Heart of darkness


With Mukkabaaz, Anurag Kashyap has gone where many might fear to tread, crafting a picture of present day North India whose zingy energy doesn't quite hide its depressing core.


The marvellous Jimmy Shergill as Bhagwan Das Mishra in Mukkabaaz
It would be a mistake to go into Mukkabaaz expecting a sports film. The hero might be desperate to win a boxing championship, but his real battles are not in the ring. For the talented small fish trying to make his way up from the bottom, the entire Indian food chain seems to consist of big fish that want to be fed – or they'll gobble him up. Director Anurag Kashyap seems so keen for us to understand this that he makes his Shravan Kumar pretty much invincible as a boxer: the self-proclaimed Mike Tyson of Uttar Pradesh knows he can beat all his opponents – and after a while, so do we.

So while the film's many boxing scenes are painstakingly crafted: taut, grimy, often gripping, all the drama in Mukkabaaz lies outside them. And the stage for it to unfold are the bylanes of Bareilly: a town that seems to have truly arrived in the country's cinematic imagination, with Kashyap close on the heels of 2017's Bareilly ki Barfi and Babumoshai Bandookbaaz. With Mukkabaaz the fictive possibilities of the contemporary UP small town are exploited in the best way -- by hewing as close to the headlines as its characters' realities will allow, and then digging underneath them for unvarnished truths that aren't seen as fit to print.


Much of the unprintable is spoken by the man who can only be called the film's villain: the superb Jimmy Shergill as the boxing-coach-cum-bahubali who plays God in this universe, acting under the deliberate name of Bhagwan Das Mishra. And much of it revolves around caste. “Sauda toh kar nahi rahe,” says Bhagwan in one scene. “Brahmin hain, aadesh dete hain. [I'm not making a deal here. I'm a Brahmin, I give orders.]” At another crucial juncture, he proposes that Shravan drinks his urine, calling it “amrit”.

Elsewhere, he humiliates a rival coach (Ravi Kissen, doing justice to a rare interesting role) with the pointed question “Sanjay Kumar what? Brahman ho, Kshatriya ho, Kayastha ho, kya?” And when Kumar straightforwardly states his caste as “That fourth jaat that you're unable to even name: Harijan”, Bhagwan makes sure to rub his face in it by calling for a separate water container for the Dalit. Shergill's menacing gaze through rose-tinted spectacles in this scene is a remarkable visual touch: the English metaphor for a too-optimistic view of the world is turned on its head.


Certainly this is not an optimistic film. It almost makes us believe that it is, by handing us an old-style unreconstructed love-at-first-sight narrative between a sad-eyed struggling hero we can root for – the brilliant Vineet Kumar Singh, who is also the originator of the script – as well as a heroine whose muteness thankfully doesn't ever prevent her from having her say (Zoya Hussain, also superb). That illusion is aided by conducting us through their courtship and Shravan's career with Kashyap's usual dizzying energy, with much of the action cut to an immersive, subversive soundtrack and clap-worthy lines crafted out of the everyday wit that the North Indian town uses to cope with its dysfunction. 
This must be the only film in which boxing moves have appeared on screen marvellously in tandem with hiphop at one point and the murkis in a gentle, almost Hindustani classical song at another. But this is an adrenalin high, not meant to be sustainable. This is a world that is, after all, controlled by Bhagwan, who is, in some ways, another version of the petty, power-hungry sarkaari sports official who unmystifyingly recurs in Indian films about sporting underdogs: think of Girish Kulkarni's character in Dangal, or Zakir Hussain's devious Dev in 2016's Saala Khadoos.

But the reason why Jimmy Shergill's Bhagwan seems more frightening than those men is that he represents the dark heart of the New India – which is unfortunately just an emboldened, lawless version of the old.

In an era when a film like Padmavat(i), with what appears to be its overt celebration of 'Rajput' valour and barely-disguised vilification of the meateating Muslim as uncivilised, somehow manages to be identified with courageous filmmaking, Kashyap's fearlessness makes one want to cheer. Mukkabaaz's fictional depiction of how gau-raksha and the spectre of beef are used to shut down inconvenient voices is both chilling and entirely credible. There is also another long-drawn sequence in which caste plays an overt role, and here it is an OBC character – a Yadav, to be precise – who decides to rub Shravan's nose in the dirt because he thinks he is Rajput. Kashyap's script leaves a deliberate loophole on the question of Shravan's 'real' caste.

Whatever one one thinks of this script decision, or of the fact that the Yadav character's attempt at caste payback earns him only nasty humiliation, Mukkabaaz deals with our darkest selves, head on. 

This is a world where the most soaring dreams must be dreamt without recourse to the rules of justice or fair play. Dysfunction is assumed, and incorporated into plans. Whether it is expressed in a don harassing a family by sending a henchman to keep cutting off their (permanent) illegal electricity connection (the “katiya” that was at the centre of the documentary Katiyabaaz), or in strategizing how to defeat an opponent whom one knows full well is on steroids but cannot report because the system will not listen, Mukkabaaz depicts a world beyond the hope of law. And in this world, to win can mean losing.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Jan 2018.

7 January 2018

The Year of Sex - II

My Mirror column:

Hindi films in 2017 made more space for sex than ever before, but there’s still a self-fulfilling hierarchy to be overcome. (Second of a two-part column.)




2017, as I wrote last week, was a year in which sex got more screen space than ever before. Films like Lipstick Under My Burkha, Haraamkhor, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, Tumhari Sulu, Anaarkali of Aarah and others gave us a whole host of characters, many female, for whom sex was a factor in their lives. Its role in these films was as varied as in real life.

But whether sex appeared as a painful yearning, a trigger for excitement, a source of anxiety or a comfortable anchor, after a near-century of watching butterflies alighting on flowers, it felt remarkable that it was allowed to appear at all. Having finally made its entry into an area reserved for romance, however, sex remains a second-class citizen. This hierarchy was expressed over and over in what the Hindi film industry put on our screens.


One way in which the hierarchy appeared was the traditional one — to pretend that romantic love has no sexual component. Tu Hai Mera Sunday, which I mentioned last week, did this in all the relationships it wanted us to root for. The test of love was doing things for the other person: Rashid’s connection with his neighbour (Rasika Dugal) involved watching out for her disabled children, Barun Sobti’s romancing of Sahana Goswami took the route of babysitting her ageing father, a third relationship blossomed over being on the same side in an office battle. All very heart-warming, but there was something incongruous about the way the film kept the erotic at bay — as if the appearance of sex would make these loves less true.

Another instance of this in 2018 was Bareilly ki Barfi. For all its sharply-observed portraits of masculinity, there was a deeply asexual quality to the film. Its old-fashioned romance, produced by the old-fashioned means of handwritten, hand-delivered letters, unfolded with zero erotic charge.

The hierarchy becomes clearer when you compare Bareilly’s chaste world of Mishras and Dubeys with another 2017 film set in the Uttar Pradesh small town: Babumoshai Bandookbaaz. If Bareilly’s Brahminical universe has not a smidgeon of sexiness, Kushan Nandy’s thriller (which also had a Dubey) seems wholly propelled by it. Right from the first scene where a man gets off on watching his wife receive a massage, to the heroine Bidita Bag’s ‘intro’ scene demanding that Babu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) pay her double for the privilege of having checked her out as she repaired his sandal, all the way through to the lust-fuelled denouement, this is a film intent on delivering a sock in the jaw to old-school romance. It is of a piece with that ambition that Nandy makes ‘Kucch toh log kahenge’ the soundtrack to Nawaz taking a shit in the open, and has ‘Maine tere liye hi saat rang ke sapne chuney’ playing in a butcher’s shop. In Babumoshai’s world, love is fuelled by lust — but so is violence. And the lusty woman’s loyalty is always suspect.

The suspect-ness of sexual passion is clearly a powerful narrative in our heads, appearing even in what was the year’s most programmatic attempt to frame female desire as a legitimate thing. In Lipstick Under My Burkha, Aahana Kumra’s Leela broke from a long lineage of coyly resistant Hindi movie heroines when she showed up at her lover’s room proposing a bout of passionate make-up sex. But Lipstick also shows how easily all the power of that openness can be turned against her, as soon as the man decides to demean the woman’s desire by calling it ‘merely’ physical.

Even in a film with as risk-taking a heroine as Simran, the old separation between sex and love has not left us. Despite the non-judgemental calm with which Kangana Ranaut’s Praful deals with her friend’s and her own sexual escapades, the film’s only depiction of a loving, potentially-long term relationship for Praful is one in which there is only conversation, and the conversation isn’t even flirtatious. The having of sex, it seems, is now allowed, but it is a marker of non-seriousness. Of non-love.


So it should be no surprise at all that the year’s self-proclaimed big romantic release, Imtiaz Ali’s Jab Harry Met Sejal, turned on precisely this hierarchical division between lust and love. The film’s plot, such as it is, turns on a whirlwind journey through Europe, during which Shah Rukh Khan’s tour guide character Harry becomes unwillingly, unwittingly involved with his sort-of client, Anushka Sharma’s Gujarati heiress Sejal. Harry is the textbook hero of modern romantic fiction aimed at women: cocky on the outside, unhappy on the inside, the man for whom flirtation is a game in which he always wins, until he loses his heart — to you. But what’s relevant for our purposes here is that even when the man is a player — or perhaps especially when he is one — and the relationship hinges on a tantalising sexual chemistry more than anything else, sex must be removed from the equation, to prove it is love.

I’d be the last person to suggest that sex must be necessarily tied to love, or even to a relationship. Sometimes sex is about pure erotic thrill, and that can be a wonderful thing. But it is the converse that worries me. As long as Hindi cinema continues to insist that true love must be produced independent of sex, all lust will continue to remain suspect.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 7 Jan 2018.

The Year of Sex - I

My Mirror column:

Looking back at what sex has meant in 2017, both onscreen and off. The first of a two-part column.



Looking back at Hindi cinema in 2017, it seems to me that the theme of this year was sex. I’m not suggesting at all that we’ve suddenly got it all figured out; no, that we certainly haven’t. In the world outside the screen, the anxieties of politicians and principals alike coalesced around matters sexual – condom advertisements on television were banned as “indecent”, two teenagers were suspended from a school because they were seen hugging…. These anxieties reached ridiculous heights when it came to the silver screen. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) tried to block Lipstick Under My Burkha for its “lady-orientedness” and delayed the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer, When Harry Met Sejal because its trailer contained the word “intercourse”.

Later in the year, the international award-winner Sexy Durga was rechristened S Durga and then unceremoniously dropped from the Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), along with a Marathi film called Nude. A censored version of S Durga was later screened for the jury following a directive from the Kerala High Court.


But such anxiety is a barometer of cultural transformations. It should perhaps come as no surprise, then, that what did manage to reach our screens revealed a society in the midst of unbuttoning – and so intent on the task at hand that it no longer cares if some people are gaping.

The year began with Shlok Sharma’s wonderfully rich and strange debut, Haraamkhor, with a radically nonjudgemental portrait of sexual comingof-age that was buoyed by Shweta Tripathi’s simply stellar turn as the teenaged schoolgirl Sandhya. Less stark but equally significant was Vidya Balan’s thoroughly charming portrayal of the non-posh, non-svelte housewife in Tumhari Sulu. Balan’s channelling of her character’s warm, enthusiastic, sari-clad self into a public persona as radio jockey on a late-night-show gave us a rare model of sexiness based on being comfortable in one’s own skin.

Other female characters speaking of sex and actually acting on their desires appeared in Alankrita Shrivastava’s imperfect but pioneering film Lipstick Under My Burkha. The radicalness of these depictions came from their wrenching frankness about the body’s yearnings, forcing viewers to think about how the possibility of pleasure is suppressed by an overarching social discourse of shame.

Sex and shame were also on the menu in one of the year’s chirpiest films, Shubh Mangal Savdhan, with director RS Prasanna serving up the unspeakable subject of erectile dysfunction with remarkable warmth and wit. Ayushmann Khurana and Bhumi Pednekar followed up their previous pairing as a just-married-and-havingproblems couple in Dum Laga Ke Haisha with an often hilarious turn here, aided in no small measure by Seema Pahwa’s magisterial comic timing and Ali Baba, gufa and Chaalis Chor euphemisms.

Irreverent humour was crucial to another of the year’s most ambitious bad girl films, Simran. In one of the film’s emblematic dialogues, Kangana Ranaut’s Gujarati-American heroine Praful tells a joke. A small girl asks her mother, “What is a boyfriend?” “If you become a good girl, you will get one,” the mother says. “And if I become a bad girl?” the little girl asks. “Then you will get many!” concludes Praful, laughing hysterically. Praful’s guilt-free pursuit of the good life includes a happy hook-up with a stranger at the bar, made even more fun by her abandonment of the proceedings when she discovers he has no protection.

Something particularly pleasing about this year’s crop of films was that it wasn’t only bad girls who made out: whether it was Parineeti Chopra’s Bindu Shankar Narayanan in Meri Pyaari Bindu’s 80s Calcutta, or Anushka Sharma’s rural Punjabi poetess from a century ago in Phillauri, the good-girl-fromgood-family is now allowed to sleep with a lover without being disqualified from niceness.

Sex scenes of charm and intensity also appeared in films that weren’t necessarily ‘about’ sex at all – I think, for instance, of the spontaneous erotic encounter that sets Sandeep Mohan’s quirky road movie Shreelancer off in an atmospheric new direction, or the moving seduction of Rajkummar Rao’s bespectacled hero in a ratty bedroom in Trapped.

Sex in a ratty Mumbai bedroom also made an appearance in Tu Hai Mera Sunday, with Avinash Tiwary’s Rashid as the player who brings home a stream of attractive young women. But Tu Hai Mera Sunday, despite having several unexpurgated discussions of all sorts of things, seemed to me to hold back when it came to sex. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film judges Rashid or his sexual partners as immoral (in fact it makes a point of having Rashid tell us – and his male buddies -- that these young women are all “decent”), I wondered why it needed to shake love apart from sex. Because sex, then, seems naturally to fall to the bottom, emerging somehow as the inferior of the two.

The question of sex versus love is of course, the great chestnut – and I shall return to it next week.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 31 Dec 2017.

4 January 2018

We girls are lions

My Mirror column:

Young girls battle the odds of childhood in Kampala and Kabul: thoughts on Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe and Yosef Baraki's Mina Walking.



Queen of Katwe, directed by Mira Nair
You only have a childhood if the world allows you one. And much of the time, much of the world doesn't. Yosef Baraki's incredible 2015 film Mina Walking tracks the everyday life of one such 'child', the 12-year-old Mina. We walk with Mina from the shack she shares with a senile grandfather and a drug-addict father through the streets of Kabul, where she joins the war-torn city's endless stream of hustlers, selling cheap mass-produced scarves with the plaintive and unbelievable tag of “I sewed them myself”.

The 27-year-old Baraki, whose family migrated from Afghanistan to Canada when he was a child, was inspired to make the film after he met a group of young streetsellers on a trip back to Kabul as an adult. Having cast a real-life 12-year-old called Farzana Nawabi as Mina, Baraki's approach was to give her only segments of his fluid script, often shooting her in real-life situations. Following Mina and the other characters around the city's crowded bazaars and empty backstreets, the skeletal 5-6 member crew tried to blend in whenever possible.


The result is a gritty film whose performances and locales both have a wrenching, dry-eyed aridity – the wasteland of a graveyard, a polluted river, plastic everywhere, Airtel umbrellas providing little shade to the blue-burkaclad women with whom the film ends. Some of Baraki's urgent, discomfiting immediacy comes by placing us in medias res. As soon as the film begins, we are accosted by the vision of a child shouldering more responsibilities than most adults.

The motherless Mina not only takes care of her ailing, half-demented grandfather -- cooking for, and feeding him, even begging neighbours for milk for him -- but has to also save him from himself when she goes to school, by tying his ankle to a post so that he doesn't wander off. In school, her textbook theorises about the equal responsibility of men and women to educate themselves. On the street, she is the one given the job of breaking in the new entrant, and the only one who defends the young ones against the older boys. Back at home, she must defend both her earnings and her school-going against a father who constantly berates her, arguing with her as if he is a child himself.


“Boys are so weak. We girls are lions,” preens a schoolmate of Mina's. Her childish bantering tone befits the classroom, where there are still children with childhood troubles, such as not being able to do homework because visiting grandparents have caused a late night. But it seems utterly incongruous when applied to Mina, precisely because it is true.

Another indomitable young girl, hustling for survival on the streets of another third-world city, is at the centre of Mira Nair's 2016 film Queen of Katwe. Nair's film and Baraki's couldn't be more different – Baraki is a first-time filmmaker funded by his father, Nair is an established international director backed by Disney. And Nair is telling a real-life fairy tale. The film's eponymous 'queen' is Phiona Mutesi, a ten-year-old from the Ugandan slum of Katwe, who went to a chess class run by missionary 'Coach' Robert Katende for the free porridge and ended up reaching the World Chess Olympiads.

But the comparison springs to mind, partly because Phiona's surroundings, like Mina's, are desperately poor. Nair's frames are not gritty and her camera isn't handheld, but she does not shy away from the indignities of the Kampala slum: the murderous traffic, the putrid heaps of garbage, the laborious daily filling of water in yellow plastic containers at an open tap – and conversely, the terrible annual rains that flood the Katwe shanties, making families homeless. For a film that a lot of children have watched, Queen of Katwe is also impressively frank about this being an economy in which women can often survive only by selling their sexual selves. We see Phiona's fear of treading the same path as the many young women she has watched graduate to high heels, only to keel over into the laps of men. “Very soon men will start coming after me. Where is my safe square, Coach?” says Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), soon after she has learnt that her older sister is pregnant.

In different ways, sexual adulthood seems to loom over these girls as a threat: increasing their supposed value in a market in which they don't wish to become commodities. Young Mina's struggles for money, for food, for dignity, come to a head when her father decides to use his position as an adult man to trade in the only capital he still possesses: his daughter. (The same premise appeared in two films I wrote about a fortnight ago, Closeness and What Will People Say. If it recurs so often in realist cinema, I wonder, how much more terrifyingly often must it occur in life?)

Nair's film picks out the one narrative in a million where a young woman in a dysfunctional society manages to pick herself up out of grinding poverty. It celebrates the inspiring exception, turning an African underdog story into the perfect American dream: as a classmate tells Phiona, “In chess, the small one can become the big one.” Mina's story doesn't allow her – or us -- that sort of happy ending. And yet there is something that lets us believe, even as her bright courageous gaze is covered up by a blank blue flap of cloth, that Mina is still out there somewhere, walking.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 24 Dec 2017.

24 December 2017

Sex and Sympathy


Why sari-wali-bhabhi and late night show go perfectly together, and other thoughts on sexiness in India, after watching Tumhari Sulu.




Tumhari Sulu is a delightful film, though it contains several different ideas jostling for primacy, and sometimes it seems a pity that it refuses to plump openly for one of them. The first of the themes advertising man Suresh Triveni picks is the gap between the heard and the seen, the imagined and the assumed, the external and the internal. At one level, the narrative focus on voice is a way of undercutting modern consumer culture's unrelenting focus on the visual, on how appealing things look - as well as playing with our idea of what a sexy woman looks like.

The seductive disembodied voice of the radio jockey is the perfect device to make us rethink our painfully circumscribed ideas of what - or who - is sexy. We've already had one depressing cinematic subplot this year about a young man who can't reconcile his actual experience of sexiness with his preconceived notions of what sort of woman could turn him on: in Lipstick Under My Burkha's segment about Ratna Pathak Shah's intimate telephone conversationist, "Rosie". And back in 2011, Shujaat Saudagar directed awonderful two and a half minute short fiction film called A Day in the Life of India (Belle de Jour) which turned on a similar disjuncture between our unimaginative mainstream ideas of sexiness and the multi-hued, unpredictable reality of it. (The short is available on Youtube, and worth looking up, not only because Tumhari Sulu seems to owe it some acknowledgement).

Triveni's script might be seen as a response to a world in which people's potentially varied individual tastes are mainstreamed into predictable singularity by mass advertising. Tumhari Sulu pushes back -- though perhaps not with enough conviction -- against the increasingly ubiquitous vision of the attractive female body peddled by the Indian fashion and entertainment industries. By turning Vidya Balan's middle class housewife, with her ample sari-clad figure and unfashionably plaited hair, into a fantasy woman for the (mostly male) listeners who tune into her late-night radio show, Triveni plays with one of the more visible contradictions inherent in contemporary Indian sexual culture: the fact that while Bollywood and fashion valorise the skinny, fair, straight-haired, urban, Westernised young woman, a huge amount of desi erotica and porn is built upon the sexualisation of the generously endowed, sari-wearing bhabhi figure.



That is the powerful trigger that the radio channel boss, Neha Dhupia's Maria, is drawing on when she comes up with the idea of a programme for Sulu to host: "Sari wali bhabhi, late night show". It is an association that at least every Indian man in the film's audience will have no trouble making. There's no disjuncture there.

And yet the "sari-wali-bhabhi"'s attractiveness can apparently now only be a dirty secret. Everywhere that Vidya Balan's character goes looking for a job, the ostensibly English-speaking, Western-clothes-wearing, thinner and inevitably younger women who give her the once-over are visibly judging her for not being more like them. "Sari-wari nahi chalegi," declares the woman telling Sulu about a low-paying job at the gym. "Kabhi job kiya hai?" asks the reed-thin, shrill receptionist at Radio Wow, looking down her nose.

But while she's too 'behenji' for the gym types, Sulu is too free-spirited for her superior elder sisters. A desperately unlikeable pair, Sulu's sisters stand in for the stultified idea of respectability that holds the middle class in its vicelike grip. The terror of being seen as 'cheap' is deep, and it isn't just men but women who use it to police other women. And judgements fly thick and fast from this end, too - based on what you wear, how late you're out, whom you speak to.

Sulu is that wonderfully identifiable in-between figure, squeezed by both sides, and still effervescently herself. She embodies both the underestimated housewife character that we have started to see on the Hindi film screen from Gauri Shinde's English-Vinglish onwards, and the unapologetically lusty wife with a taste for the good things in life, played by Balan herself in 2013's Ghanchakkar and 2014's Shaadi ke Side Effects, or by Huma Qureishi in Jolly LLB 2.

Watching Balan light up the screen as Sulu, it's blazingly obvious that no-one but she could have conjured up this combination of playfulness and wholesomeness, producing gentle innuendo out of domestic metaphors - and vice versa. In the film's most sugary scene, Sulu gets a call from an elderly gentleman who says she reminds him of his wife. There's some channelling here of Balan's own earlier turn as an RJ, a decade ago, in Lage Raho Munnabhai, where her slightly insufferable goodness was on display in her attachment to an old age home. 

But even apart from this homage to Balan's filmic history, Triveni knows what he's doing. He plays on the use of radio in the cinema (a huge subject which this column has barely touched) by combining the visual and the aural: making sure we see the sympathy-generating figure of the old man heating up his dinner for one, and showing us that Sulu, though she can't see him, has the instinctive femininity to respond to him exactly as she should: with warmth and just a smidgeon of flirtation, but nothing too inappropriately risque. Here the sari-wali-bhabhi shows us that sexuality can't be divorced from one's womanhood as a whole, and that can't be separated from one's humanity. It is a fine model of sexiness with which to leave the cinema.

18 December 2017

Girls, Interrupted

My Mirror column:

Two disturbing 2017 films — one set amidst Norwegian Pakistanis, the other among Russian Jews — present gripping portraits of young women fighting to not be sacrificed at the altar of community.



A teenager brought up in Norway is suddenly transplanted to a Pakistani small town and finds herself the subject of prurient attention. “Why have you come here?” hiss her headscarf-wearing new classmates. Aware that she is on display, the new arrival tamely offers up what she thinks is the good-girl response expected of her: “I’ve come to learn about my parents’ culture”. But what’s flung back at her is a stinging accusation: “Not your parents’ culture! Your culture!”

It is a relatively minor moment in what is a film full of harrowing scenes. But that misrecognition goes to the heart of Iram Haq’s What Will People Say: What happens when your parents’ culture doesn’t feel like your own? One answer – a wrenching, difficult one – is that sometimes, then, your parents don’t feel like your own.
Haq’s film stars Ekavali Khanna and Adil Hussain as Pakistani immigrants who are happy to educate their daughter Nisha (the affecting Maria Mozhdah) and even imagine a career for her – until they come to suspect that she is leading the life of the Norwegian teenager: dancing, drinking, dating. At home, she obeys when told to wear a jacket over a revealing blouse; she serves snacks to the aunties; she pretends her texting exchanges are all about school work. But Nisha is indeed leading that life, just secretly. All hell breaks loose when her father discovers a boy in her room.


The film paints a depressing picture of the Pakistani community in exile, but it doesn’t ring false. If you’ve grown up in South Asia, you don’t need to be told that Haq based her film on a traumatic episode from her own Pakistani-Norwegian childhood to be convinced by Adil Hussain’s finely wrought transformation from loving, indulgent father to uncontrollably violent patriarch. The father who proudly displayed his academically bright daughter now feels only burning shame on her behalf: “Sab log hum par hans rahe hain.”

The community’s solution is to send her ‘home’ — to a country she has never lived in. Under the tutelage of her stern Phuphi (the always effective Sheeba Chaddha), Nisha learns to roll rotis, drape a dupatta and keep her head down. But the sexual awakening that was sought to be crushed in Norway happens instead in Pakistan, with worse effects. Now the only way to deal with such a wayward daughter is to marry her off, to trade her freedom in for the family’s honour.

Haq’s film was shown at the Dharamshala Film Festival in early November.

At the International Film Festival of India a few weeks later, I saw a stunning Russian film called Closeness in which, too, a young woman is sought to be clamped into conformity. Set in the late 1990s in the filmmaker’s hometown of Nalchik in the Northern Caucasus, Kantemir Balagov’s film won the International Critics’ Prize for best film in Un Certain Regard at Cannes. It centres on the tomboyish Ilana (the superb Darya Zhovner), who likes nothing better than helping her mechanic father fix cars. But as in Haq’s film, a young woman of a certain age must start behaving a certain way, and it is her mother who lays down those rules. In a celebratory family scene with strong echoes of WWPS, a sulky Ilana is made to change her overalls for a dress and help her mother in the kitchen.




Ilana is also carrying on a clandestine affair with a boy from the town’s Kabardian community, which has a tense relationship with the Jewish community to which she belongs. Where Haq largely uses marked shifts in body language to register the contradictions of her heroine’s life, Balagov unsettles us by alternating between the raw, barely-lit seediness of Ilana’s secret backstreet life and the family’s domestic interiors, whose rich rusts and deep greens have the dramatic shadows of a Caravaggio painting.

Nalchik’s Jews are different from Norway’s Pakistanis, but Ilana’s clash with her parents resonates strongly with Nisha’s. In one exceptional scene, Ilana’s mother instructs her angrily, “You won’t be with him. He’s not from our tribe.” Ilana’s response is fierce and wordless — she puts her hand to her mouth and produces a long ululation, mocking her mother’s use of the word ‘tribe’. Unlike WWPS, the crisis in Closeness is not bought on by Ilana’s sexuality – but her insistence on displaying proof it certainly causes the sensation she intends it to.

These are not films that will be viewed as similar, and indeed they are far apart in pitch and tenor. But both produce for us the disturbing figure of the young woman forced to recognise that she is not quite as human as her brothers; that her social value lies not in what she might desire —but only in who can be made to desire her.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 10 Dec 2017.