As our regular and highly anticipated film festivals are postponing and cancelling their 2020 schedules due to COVID-19, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, aka IFFLA, chose to re-visit some of their best films in a new virtual festival called “IFFLA Over the Years.” This article zig-zags through the thematic exploration of identity politics in three such short films that returned to the “IFFLA Over the Years” spotlight, between June 19th and July 5th.
“Counterfeit Kunkoo” (2018)
“Counterfeit Kunkoo” is a feminist critique on exclusionary housing practices taking place in Bombay. In this 15-minute film, director Reema Sengupta complicates the protagonist Smita’s victimhood by illustrating her agency as she searches for a home after leaving her abusive husband. Specifically, Smita searches for apartments across the metropolis and consistently finds herself being denied by landlords because she is a “bachelor” (single woman).
Smita learns how to play the system by placing tikka on her hair parting and locating her mangal sutra. She fakes being (happily) married to find a place closer to freedom. When she enters her new home, she immediately washes the tikka off of her parting and proceeds to physically pleasure herself. But she is then interrupted by someone who just arrived at the door. She is given news that indicates to the audience that Smita’s path to freedom doesn’t end there.
“Counterfeit Kunkoo” has a timeless message. In fact, lead actress Kani Kusruti’s life as an activist and a blossoming artist has indeed been shaped and impeded by the problematic patriarchy.
“Kush” is an incredibly touching story stemming from the 1984 Sikh Genocide. The story is about a schoolteacher who shows the entirety of her class compassion as they try to make their way home from a field trip but are repeatedly harassed by Hindu fundamentalists who are trying to identify and attack Sikhs.
In this 25-minute film, director Shubhashish Bhutiani shows the fear the Sikh community were pushed to experience during that part of Indian history. This film fits nicely with the disappointing times we find ourselves in where fear-of-the-other manifests as a divisive political topic.
As a former teacher myself, it reminded me how different students rely on varying needs of protection, love and guidance depending on the weight that society places on each child’s identity.
The pace of the film is heavily controlled by the dialogue between the teacher and the bus driver. The bus driver mocks the teacher’s honorable actions and she accurately accuses him of being a coward. There is tension due to their ideological difference and different calls to act.
Whether it’s white supremacy in the U.S. or the Hindutva ideology in India, these intersecting injustices show us the universal need for reparations and accountability. Kush shows us that happiness is not the destination; that type of narrative is oversimplified, essentialized and conflating. This film thus leads us to wonder: how can we view happiness and joy, however ephemeral, as a transnational process of radical love?
“The Manliest Man” (2016)
“The Manliest Man” returns us to discussion about womanhood and gender equality. This episodic drama is based in an archetypically traditional village in India, yet has a completely fictional premise. Whether fact or critical fiction, female infanticide continues to be an issue in many countries, including India, and this film possibly brings attention to this need.
The film makes attempt to problematize ways that casteist leaders may try to “help” Dalits and people of the “untouchable cast.” In the case of this film, the village chief publicly announces his belief that a first daughter is a gift, but a second daughter is a blunder for the family. The chief openly recruits men to insert themselves into a potter’s existing marriage to gift them chances at having a son.
While this film may aim to bring voice to concerns regarding women and their rights, women’s agency is completely lacking from the film. All the main characters are men and the women play secondary and tertiary roles yet their objectified bodies are never given voice. Although the film clearly mocks the intersections between toxic masculinity and politics, it is important to remember there is power in filmmaking.
Filmmaking is inherently political. Voices are included, voices are excluded. Images have the potential to dispel or reify assumptions in our minds. There is intention, and then there’s interpretation. This film fails to consider what women think, say and do in response to their experiences within a culture that only conditionally accepts them. This film already bleeds into existing stereotypes about the culture of the Other.
Had Anuj Gulati’s “The Manliest Man” given voice to the women who were heavily involved in the plot, then it would have ranked highly alongside other “IFFLA Over the Years” standouts, Reema Sengupta’ s “Counterfit Kunkoo” and Shubhashish Bhutiani’s “Kush.”
“After so Long” is a poetry film created for Simha’s EP, which is streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. The poem was collaboratively written by Simha, a U.S. native, and Jae, who is based in India, during the 2020 lockdown. “After so Long” was recited by Simha and their parents. In 2022, I directed and produced the film through my studio, Star Hopper. “After so Long” premiered on Nowness Asia in March 2022.
This film is a worldwide collaboration among trans and queer south-Asian artists from the United States, India and Canada. It was recorded, shot and filmed during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.
Awake at 10 am but out of bed at noon,
I want to be here where I lose myself in these sheets
Glancing through half-shut eyes
At the gold pressing past my window
The glimmer remarks on the ledge of my bed
But the voices are so loud
Like dust collecting in the corner of my room
I am unaware to why I’m still here
With the chilling doubt of the breeze…
I’m swept into lucidity After so long
Mil rahi hoon mein aaj iske saang barso baad,
(Today, I’ll be meeting them after so long)
Koi paata nahi diya tune
(But with no destination sight,)
(What should I do?)
(Where should I go?)
Shayad agar mein chalne lagoon,
(Perhaps, if I keep walking)
Inn yaadon ki safar mein
(Down this road of memories)
Mujhe samajh mein ayega,
(I will find out)
Yeh rasta kahaan jayega,
(Where this road leads)
Inn aari tedhi pakadandiyon pe baarte hi jaana hai,
(Through the twists and turns of this winding roads, I must keep going on)
Mujhe mil na hain aaj uske saath,
(I wish to meet them today)
(After so long)
I feel like I’m retracing my footsteps
From these concrete stretches
To broken cement walls
Chips and cracks forge their way for new designs
I see the old abandoned buildings
That once held the warmth of bodies
Now just hold memories
Supporting the nature’s resilience
In vines and moss
After so long
Dhoondli shishe mein jaaga leli hai
(These isty mirrors have offered refuge)
Bikhri hui laatao ne,
(To these scattered vines)
Zameen pe uchi ghaas pe
(Amidst the tall grass stretching from the ground)
Lehrati kamsan kaliyaa
(The swaying little buds)
Bheeni bheeni khushboo bikhereti
(Spreading honeysuckle scent through the air)
Phir wahi mausam,
(I lose myself in reminiscing, the same season)
(The same heart)
(After so long)
Phir bhi mein chal rahi hoon aaj
(Still, I keep carrying on today)
Khudko khudse milane ke liye
(In the pursuit of my higher self)
Inn galiyo se guzarna hain aaj
(I must pass through these streets today)
Chaalte chaale jaana hai aaj
(I must keep going on today)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor paar
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor pe
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
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Haider wades his way through Karachi’s expansive beach, climbing and tumbling over rocks, in Mumtaz’s memory. The vast landscape is perfectly encapsulated in the 4:3 aspect ratio — an unconventional yet welcoming choice. He vanishes into the sea, leaving his storyline open-ended. The screen fades to black. The film comes to a close. The gentle humming and lapping of the waves disappear. However, I stay put. Stumped, and unable to comprehend the masterpiece that Saim Sadiq, director of “Joyland”, has blessed Pakistanis with.
“It’s so important to narrate these stories in today’s world, where we’re often divided and seldom united,” says producer Apoorva Charan during an exclusive chat with Brown Girl Magazine.
It’s her feature film debut as a producer, and she’s justifiably beaming with pride.
Joyland is such a win for South Asia, but particularly, Pakistani storytelling. Every person I met, I felt like there was some characteristic or quirk about them that mirrored our characters in the film.
Set in the depths of androon Lahore, “Joyland” primarily revolves around Haider (Ali Junejo) — a meek, unemployed house husband in a borderline, passionless marriage. He’s happily helping Saleem bhai (Sohail Sameer) and Nucci bhabi (Sarwat Gilani) raise three kids, while the fourth one breaks Nucci’s water in the opening scene. Another girl is born, despite the ultrasound’s previous declaration of a baby boy.
“If I were to receive an award based on my character in “Joyland”, it’d definitely be for “best at single-handedly increasing the population of Pakistan,” says Gillani, as we howl with laughter during our spoiler-riddled chat with the cast of the film. “I think that, combined with the ‘coolest bhabi’ — those two will have my name on them.”
But Nucci’s wasn’t just a bhabi who pumped out a new baby every year. Sarwat’s character was given some level of agency — a woman who reminisced about a career in interior design before marriage and kids while smoking a cigarette in secrecy.
I think my philanthropic work plays a part in how I started saying no to bechari roles. How can I be a role model to these women I’m trying to help, while playing the same characters? The change came about with “Churails” and I vehemently stuck to it. My characters need to have a voice; a backbone.
On the other hand, Haider’s wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), works as a beautician at the local salon, busy dolling up brides in Lahore’s unpredictable load-shedding.
Both Haider and Mumtaz seem to have a relatively stable marriage based equally on societal expectations and gender-flipped roles. While Haider stays home, helps in the kitchen, and attempts at searching for a traditional job, Mumtaz carves autonomy and independence for herself. This is in spite of an oppressive family life characterised and dictated by Haider’s overly conservative, traditionalist father and patriarch, Rana (Salmaan Peerzada), who wishes for the couple to procreate a cricket team of just boys.
But Rana, known as Abba Jee, is also layered with his own 50 shades of grey, struggling with loneliness and a lack of intimacy, mirrored in his relationship with next-door neighbour Fayyaz (Sania Saeed). His emotional desires are symbolised by his physical impediments — the former handicapped with “what will people say”, and the latter with a wheelchair. The rules that he has for his children are the same that his children have for him, bound by tradition, norms, and society. They are not allowed to stray from what is considered “normal”.
The film’s women are strong which is pretty much a reflection of the women in Sadiq’s life. While Abba Jee shuns the love and companionship that Fayyaz offers, she stands her ground until firmly asked to leave. The complexity of each person’s emotions versus expectations is what makes “Joyland” relatable on a human level.
Alternatively, Mumtaz’s relationship with Haider is based on convenience and habit, where two people share the same bed but sleep facing away (partially because one of Saleem and Nucci’s young daughters crashes with them every night, illustrating the confined space both Haider and Mumtaz are allowed to be themselves in). The dynamics of their marriage drastically evolve once Haider’s eye catches Biba (Alina Khan), covered in blood as she walks numbingly into the hospital where Nucci gave birth. The introductory scene mirrored the brutal reality of violence inflicted upon Pakistan’s trans community; one of “Joyland’s” most haunting moments.
Mumtaz is asked to quit her job once Haider lands a gig as a “theatre manager” — a cover-up for his job as a background dancer at the nightclub Biba coincidentally performs at. The film portrays the traditional Pakistani marital social dynamic; men must work, and women must housekeep. Even when some level of independence is allowed to a married woman, she must forego her right to a career later in life. Understandably, it leaves Mumtaz devastated.
“It’s so strange how that’s just an acceptable act in our society,” Farooq chimes in, voicing Mumtaz’s thoughts. “Even if a woman is good at a 100 things, ultimately, she’s expected to quit her job to be a homemaker because that’s ‘her job’.”
With time, Haider falls into a routine and rhythm of working at the theatre and spending more time with Biba, allowing him an insight into the widespread transphobia she’s regularly faced with. Biba confides her innermost desire to be what she termed as “a complete woman” in order to land the same dancing opportunities as her counterparts.
Haider’s daring closeness to Biba leaves Mumtaz — who at this point is reliant on him as a best friend more than the physical intimacy he fitfully provides her — alone, isolated, and depressed. For Haider, it is liberating to leave problems at home and escape into a secret world centred around his deepest desires. He doesn’t want to be a bad person. He doesn’t wish to hurt or leave his wife. But his happiness now seemingly lies in dancing and exchanging stolen kisses with Biba. Farooq agrees:
I think Mumtaz and Haider were best friends at this point. They had an unspoken love for each other, which stemmed from the sanctity of their relationship. They might not be in love but they did love each other. In the eyes of our society and otherwise, they were married, but they’d drifted so far apart. There was love but it wasn’t possible to return from how distant they were.
This point of no return brings Haider to a crossroads — one where he is torn between his loyalty to Mumtaz and his love for Biba. Ultimately and ironically, in a particularly passionate moment, it is his curiosity pertaining to Biba’s sexuality that drives her to throw him out of her life. Defeated and guilt-ridden, he comes face-to-face with a pregnant and non-confrontational Mumtaz, who, by now, is aware of what Haider has been up to but doesn’t have the mental capacity to verbally digest his infidelity alongside a child she doesn’t want.
Her apprehensions about bearing and raising children are indicated throughout the early days of her pregnancy. The clutching of her stomach, the tightening of the rollercoaster belt during a visit to Joyland park, and her unease during the ultrasound are just a few examples of Mumtaz’s angst.
Abba Jee’s 70th birthday was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Mumtaz, surrounded by family and friends and feeling emptier than ever, takes her own life. A tragic full circle where one life ends as the other begins. Her suicide is harbingered by Rana’s birthday speech as he recalls a palmist once saying his bloodline would end with Haider.
“Joyland” is replete with polarity. There is a seamless hand-in-hand flow of happiness and devastation, longing and antipathy, birth and death. Pakistani society’s struggles with misogynistic gender roles are depicted in the most gentle, sensitive, and nuanced ways. The struggle is also ironic, considering Pakistan has one of the most progressive transgender legislations in the world. Trans people have the right to self-identify their gender in Pakistan – a right still denied to the trans community in many progressive countries, such as the UK.
A deeply reflective film with memorable and emotional characters doing justice to their performances. It’s currently running in cinemas here in the UK, and we highly recommend watching this poignant piece of art.
For any of us who have siblings, the relationship with them can be one of the most fulfilling ones. And also one of the most bloody frustrating. No one can quite stroke the fire like someone who knows you extremely well, or sometimes not, but have a familial bond with that neither one of you chose. In “Polite Society,“directed by Nida Manzoor, sisters Ria Khan and Lena Khan’s loving, sweet, and sometimes tumultuous relationship takes center stage.
Played delightfully by Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, respectively, the evolution of their relationship is one of the film’s greatest and simultaneously weakest points. It’s also pretty cool to see two South Asian actresses in an action-comedy movie — how refreshing it is to mention the art of choreography and praise it in regards to fight sequences vs. dance sequences for a film centered on two South Asian women — that itself shows progress.
Set in London, Ria is an aspiring stunt woman who already shows massive talent in martial arts. She looks up to her older sister Lena, who is enrolled in art school and, also holds remarkable potential in a somewhat less traditionally acceptable field. Their relationship starts off as supportive and sweet with no inclinations of jealousy or resentment that sometimes plagues sisterly bonds. But this also means that they are quite protective of one another, almost to the detriment of their well wishes for each other.
This all happens when Lena gets engaged after dropping out of art school. Ria feels betrayed. They were supposed to be on this journey together in fighting for their dreams. Ria decides that she knows what’s best for her sister and enlists the help of her friends to rescue the damsel in distress from her own wedding. Her deep animosity towards the prospect of Lena getting married is also fueled by Lena’s fiancé and his mother acting extremely suspiciously. The twist that ultimately brings the two sisters back together is both shocking and weirdly somewhat progressive in the motive behind the villain’s origin story. But the twist, unfortunately, is too ambitious for the movie as it tacks on another genre and theme earnestly, but still clunkily.
“Polite Society” tackles not only what it means to fight for one’s dreams but also what it means to have just one ardent supporter. As Lady Gaga famously said, “There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you but all it takes is one and it just changes your whole life.” Well, Ria’s Bradley Cooper was her very own sister who seemed to abandon her, and her faith in her, when she chose a different path. For Lena, the film opened up the question of marriage and the weight it bears in the life of a South Asian woman. Ria’s lack of understanding of the pressure it places on Lena is the start of the change in their relationship — the start of Ria’s coming of age and the start of Lena settling firmly into her adulthood.
Standouts from the cast include Ria’s best friends, played by Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, who commit to the story and characters with such hilarity and conviction. They add the lightheartedness and playfulness the film needs, and it is refreshing that never once do they use Ria’s cultural background as a way to make fun of her or dismiss her.
It is also heartening to see Lena and Ria’s parents being some of the most supportive South Asian parents seen on screen. At the end of the day, it is not the external family pressure that impacts the decisions made by the sisters but rather their own satisfaction, or lack thereof, with their own lives that become the driving force of their actions.
“Polite Society” is written and directed by a South Asian woman for South Asian women, and is definitely worth a watch when it releases in theaters this April.