7 November 2016

Brown Girls in the Ring

My Mirror column:

An Iranian documentary and an Indian short trace the journeys of tough young Muslim women


A still from the short film Leeches (2016), set in the Muslim neighbourhoods of Hyderabad's old city
A still from the Iranian film Sonita (2015), about a teenaged Afghan refugee becoming a rapper
One of the particular pleasures of film festivals is the unexpected juxtaposition of cinematic worlds. Films from different parts of the globe, made on very dissimilar budgets, with strikingly different visual languages, can sometimes seem to speak directly to each other.

This is what happened with two of the several films I watched today in the crisp mountain air of McLeodganj, Himachal Pradesh, where the documentary filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam have created what might currently be the finest small-scale film festival in India: the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF).

Both films are directed by women and happen to be about young Muslim women. The first is a taut, pacy 27-minute-fiction called Leeches, directed by the New York-raised and Tisch-trained Payal Sethi. The film opens in a hotel lobby where an old lady is awaiting the arrival of some big man. A photo album is unfolded before him: an array of young female faces, many with headscarves. It might have been an audition, but for the shiftiness and urgency with which it is conducted. A few scenes later, we find that a teenaged girl called Zainab has been promised in `marriage' to an old man, in exchange for 50,000 rupees. Luckily for Zainab, her elder sister, Raisa, decides to turn protector, and the rest of Sethi's film proceeds to tell the harrowing -- and sadly, entirely improbable --tale of how she achieves her goal.


The second film is called Sonita, which is also the name of its 14-year-old heroine. I use the word `heroine' deliberately, for although Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami's 91-minute-film is a documentary, the sharp, sassy Afghan teenager at its centre is definitely the star of her own life. Maghami, who is Iranian, first discovers Sonita Alizadeh as a young Afghan refugee working as a cleaner in an Iranian refugee centre. Sonita lives in one room-poverty with her younger sister and a niece, but she dreams of being a rapper - her fantasy identity is `Sonita Jackson', the imaginary offspring of Michael Jackson and Rihanna, into whose concert images she carefully cuts and pastes her face.

But the real reason Sonita is a star is that she doesn't just dream: she writes and performs fiery, exhilarating rap songs, with vivid Farsi lyrics that speak directly to her situation as a young woman who wants much more than the fate her culture thinks is her due. For Sonita -- like Zainab in Leeches -- must surmount the real threat of being married off in exchange for a tidy sum of money.


It is striking that in both cinematic scenarios -- the fictional one in Hyderabad and the non-fictional one in Teheran/Herat -- it is the girls' mothers who are intent on selling them off, driven apparently by financial need. Zainab and Raisa's fictional mother seems particularly awful; the unfeelingness with which she pushes her own child towards an inevitably traumatic violent encounter does not seem explainable by mere poverty. Sonita's real-life mother seems unfeeling, too -- but the film offers us a clue to that unfeelingness, via her resigned belief in a 'tradition' in which an older man acquiring a virgin bride is seen as the way things are. At one point, Sonita points to a faded black and white family photo, and says matter-of-factly: "My mother was so young when she married my father that she called him 'uncle'."

These are extremely watchable films, and crowd-pleasers to boot. But if I may sound another cautionary note: in both cases, the filmmakers are women a little older than their protagonists, and belong to a culture that is clearly distinguishable from theirs. Sethi, with a Punjabi-Hindu family name and a New York background, inhabits a world very different from the poverty-stricken Muslim homes of Hyderabad's old city that she seeks to depict here. Maghami is Iranian, but chooses to focus her feminist attention on Afghan practices -- rather than the more nuanced gender imbalances that afflict Iranian society. In 1994, the critical theorist Gayatri Spivak red-flagged the all-too-common phenomenon of white men saving brown women from brown men. We have seemingly only travelled a little way away from there.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 6th Nov 2016.

4 comments:

Shipra Tyagi said...

Your reviews are written in such a simple and understandable manner. I really like your blog.

batulm said...

Must look out for these films. But I get your reservations about the filmmakers. I have often felt that, specially in documentary. It's so tricky to make films about people very different from you, particularly those less empowered and privileged.

Trisha Gupta said...

Thanks very much, Shipra, I'm so glad to hear that.

Trisha Gupta said...

Hey Batul, missed replying to this earlier. Did you manage to catch Sonita or Leeches? And yes, it's really a thin line between expressing 'concern' for a community and tarring it with broad brushstrokes.