The existence of a childish drawl and drawn out cutesy speech in a film makes me wary. It is rarely used, like in Toofaan, where the daughter questions why her father boxes, performing a violent act for validation, or like in Nayakan where the grandson has to ask if his grandfather, a don, is a good man or a bad man. It can be used to make an adult question their greyness from the cutting black-and-white perspective of children. But more often, it’s just an excuse to inject an ill-deserved aww.
Ek Duaa comes precipitously close to that. Abeda (Esha Deol) is introduced — devoted mother of two, Faiz and Duaa, docile wife to Suleman driving a kaali-peeli taxi in the age of Uber as an ode to his father who bought the cab, and irreverent daughter-in-law to a mumbling, complaining, creaking mother-in-law. The opening shots capture a moment in the bazaar — the namaz spilling from the minarets, the meat, the pakodas, the barber, the clocks. Out of the smoke emerges Abeda with her daughter in tow.
It is established that she buys provisions on debt, and there isn’t enough money to go around the family. Abeda is shown taking the hood of her burqa before speaking to the men in the market, and this is the last we see of this burqa, an inconsistent wardrobe choice. The daughter, Duaa, isn’t allowed to go to school while a “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” poster creases on the wall in the background. Duaa is often forgotten in the family conversations, as if she doesn’t exist. For Eid, her father doesn’t buy her anything.
The first stretch of the 45-minute film is observational, immersive, bringing you into their lives, as Abeda cuts capsicum and washes the floors, while Suleman gets jilted by pant-suit office-goers and ferries vegetable sellers instead — old world patronizing old world. There is a languorous melancholic quality here that is suddenly made filmic with an injection of an Eid song. A full-song sequence in a short film? It’s an interesting idea but the song itself, cookie-cutter with all the Muslim aesthetics of dervishes and qawwali has a very familiar quality that has neither an aesthetic nor an emotional pull. Slowly, this anesthetic peek into their lives begins to tire.
It is here that the film morphs into a melodrama — where Suleman’s mother asks for another son, tapping into the baby vending machine that is Abeda, juxtaposed with a violent history that is suddenly made clear. There is the unexpected twist under whose influence we rethink every scene we have watched for clues we could not decipher.
Written by Avinash Mukherjee, and directed by Raj Kamal Mukherjee, there is, however, an unpolished quality to this film. The dubs are inconsistent, with background noise coming in everytime Abeda speaks in between. The cuts are a little sharp, and Esha Deol’s pronouncing of “Alhamdullillah”, stressing every syllable as if it were the only one has a strained quality that makes apparent the make-believe nature of this world. The life of Muslim marginalia as they are struggling to survive, layered with the frequent, excessive misogyny of the world creates characters who don’t know better. Even their villainy is helpless. Ek Duaa, which can mean one prayer, or a reference to the daughter, at its best, holds these contradictions together. At its worst, it lets them become excuses for clippings of newspaper reports on female foeticide that close the film.
The Voot Select Film Festival runs from July 24th. It is streaming over 15 movies for 8 days, including Neena Gupta’s anthology feature Shuruaat Ka Twist, Hina Khan’s Lines, Kaneez Surka’s The Shaila(s), Tannishtha Chatterjee’s Lihaaf, Esha Deol’s Ek Duaa and anthology Love in the Times of Carona.