Director: Sajin Baabu
Cast: Kani Kusruti, Shailaja Jala, Mini IG, Thonakkal Jayachandran
Sajin Baabu has made something strange and wondrous with Biriyaani. It’s filled with the contradictions of life. The title may refer to communities where women are basically treated like tasty bits of meat. Indeed, the first scene has a man (a Muslim) mounting his wife with scant regard for her satisfaction. What she does a little later proves the kind of woman she is. And yet, this act of assertion (or woman-power) doesn’t always define her. Or take the “genre”. On the surface, you might call Biriyaani a revenge drama. Yet, it also questions the very nature of revenge: “Should wrong acts be corrected with further wrongs?” This is a film that demolishes conventional “narrative arcs” and “character arcs”. People do things (and I mean this in a good way) randomly, so we get fragments of events and fragments of behavioural traits that all add up to why Khadeeja (Kani Kusruti) is the way she is.
She is the protagonist. Her father, a fisherman, is dead. Her mother has lost her mind. And her brother has been branded an ISIS sympathiser. Kerala’s labour migration from the 1960s may have sustained the economy of the Middle East, but this has also meant that – back home, of late – the Keralite Muslim has become suspect in the eyes of the majoritarian communities. But like most happenings in Khadeeja’s life, this too shall pass… until the next batch of bad luck falls from the sky. Kani Kusruti is excellent. She transforms her character’s numbness into a kind of dull force. Sometimes, she pushes forward, pushes against. But most times, she allows herself to be pushed around. Again, it’s those contradictions of life.
Khadeeja knows the place her religion has given her. She knows it can be more oppressive than a majoritarian religion. She knows her husband can triple-Talaq her from his mobile phone at any point. She knows a man can have four wives (while alive) and countless heavenly virgins (when dead), and she knows she can have none of these things, dead or alive. Occasionally, she sheds a tear or two. Otherwise, she carries on with that numbness, and with resolve. It’s not the typical Movie-Style resolve that will result in pages of “You have wronged me and now I will show you what I am capable of” screenwriting. It’s the resolve of a person who is at once strong and weak, resourceful and helpless, vengeful and forgiving, aware of the unfairness against her and yet accepting. It’s the resolve of a person who keeps going because she knows that shit will keep happening and maybe, once in a while, maybe, something nice may happen too.
On television debates, people from dominant classes and communities keep debating the Islamic situation. About how Muslims keep their women illiterate. About how it’s become “fashionable” to talk about Muslims and yet how no one talks about their deeply entrenched caste system. (We’re told that many Dalits emigrated to the Middle East because there was nothing available for them in Kerala.) All of this impacts Khadeeja, and yet, we never find her (or someone like her) asked to be a panelist on one of these shows. She is, at best, a newspaper story about a “suffering Muslim”. She actually becomes one, thanks to an enterprising journalist.
It’s hard to talk about Biriyaani with more specifics because most of them would be spoilery. But when you hear of a nun being raped or when you see sex workers bearing names from all major religions, you realise that it’s not just Muslim women that end up being treated like pieces of meat. Even a cow is seen only as a vehicle for artificial insemination. It’s easier to talk about the filmmaking, though. If you’ve seen Sajin Baabu’s first film, Unto the Dusk (also shot by Karthik Muthukumar), you will see a genuine style. The screenplay is based on a “story” and yet appears (deliberately) unstructured. It’s like life. His work exists in a twilight zone between fiction and fact, dream—images and reality. His visuals are delicate. (He loves faces.) He likes controversy, and yet, when — as in Biriyaani — you see an explicit scene of circumcision, all you see is more meat. It all comes around.