Director: Shazia Iqbal
Cast: Sarah Hashmi, Vipin Sharma, Sheeba Chadda, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Bebaak (Defiance), by Shazia Iqbal, is a short film that unflinchingly locates womanhood as an instrument that is used to connect faith with fate. Fatin (Sarah Hashmi), a young Muslim architectural student in need of term fees, is forced to interview for a scholarship with a conservative cleric (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) of a Madrasa. The man, who gleefully brandishes his position of power, condescends on her sense of dressing and a lack of “religious education”. Fatin is left with a decision to make – one that will force her to treat ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ as dichotomous concepts. Can she sacrifice her individualism for an (ancient) identity that will allow her to pursue her (contemporary) ambitions?
Most Indian films aren’t angry enough to make a point. They are too satisfied with the labels of ‘woman empowerment’ and ‘feminism’ to contextualize the generational conflict at the core of our culture. Early on we see Fatin editing a Whatsapp message to her (Hindu) friend, in which she replaces the geographical orthodox-ness of ‘Bhendi Bazaar’ with the general liberalism of ‘town’. In any other film, a moment like this might have been designed to judge the ignorance of a “millennial” protagonist. And her shame, her desire to fit in. ‘Town’ is in fact a term frowned upon by the average Mumbaikar. A frustrated Fatin would go on to embrace a coming-of-age journey that enables her to appreciate her roots and type down Bhendi Bazaar in a heartbeat. But Bebaak is, literally, defiant: It does not shy away from showing an idealist as the bigger person. Age is no guarantee of wisdom here. You sense that Fatin, even way after the end credits, will continue to rephrase her sentences to justify her own perception of independence. After all, she grasps the world as more of a (boundless) town than a (territorial) bazaar.
Another difference between Fatin and other middle-class city-slicking characters is the fact that she is presented as a product of her education (an English-medium school) rather than her generation. The reason her family – though fairly forward-thinking in their own way – is not as defiant as her is because they didn’t have the privilege of their formative years being defined by the internet and open-ended social media platforms. Fatin feels oppressed more than the others in her household because she is inherently more informed, and not just because she’s the hero of her film. She has the aggression of an activist because it’s the tone of the voices she consumes. When Fatin yells “Why do you all have so many children when you can’t provide for them?” at her father, he remains silent in a way that suggests the filmmaker might be remodelling her own experiences – as a young Muslim woman pursuing a passion unkind to her kind – into the version she had perhaps hoped it to be.
But the most gratifying aspect of current filmmakers questioning the status quo these days is a pragmatic perspective that refuses to view ‘old’ and ‘new’ as mutually exclusive ways. Fatin’s parents, for example, are a mix of both – the “middle ground” between the extremes of their daughter and the cleric. The mother (Sheeba Chadda) practices Islam, offers her five prayers but advises her girls to humour elders without compromising on their own principles. The father (Vipin Sharma) has made a conscious decision to raise them in a ‘non-Muslim’ locality, approves of jeans and fast mouths, but his gentle subservience to power arises only out of their financial limitations. They are slaves to the hypocrisies of faith, but refuse to force their fates upon the children. They bicker about things with Fatin, but do not dismiss her, even if she is brutal in her reading of them, because maybe they know she is right.
There’s also a bit of God in the film’s details: A mother waits till she finishes her prayers and sheds her headscarf before telling her daughter to ‘follow your instincts’. A classroom discussion of architecture as a medium of religious oppression is underway while Fatin is distracted by her own problem. The shot of a hijaab-wearing mannequin finds circularity in the shot of a hijaab-wearing Fatin robotically listing the rules of the attire to her interviewer. The cleric mentions that the scholarships only support women pursuing medical science and not a field like architecture (which, for him, is the same as engineering). Architects design buildings – perhaps the most physical symbols of modernism and evolution. Which is why it isn’t suited to working women, who are expected to inject even the progression of ambition with the regression of gender dynamics. Doctors are, by definition, professional caregivers – a job that is interpreted, by men like the smug cleric, as more or less the extension of a lady’s domestic purpose. The thinking: Why support an architect of her own dreams rather than the nurturer of others’? Little does the cleric know that there is also a third type beyond creating and caring. Some of the ones that get away do a job that is far more defiant: They tell stories. And they spread the holy word.