Ms Representation: Why it’s important to fight numbness
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses Sajin Baabu’s Biriyaani and the importance of nurturing anger
During an interview with me, director Sudha Kongara, speaking about her Netflix short, Thangam (in the anthology, Paava Kathaigal), mentioned speaking to several transwomen for the film, and added that she was most disturbed by how they narrated their trauma in a matter-of-fact tone. Sudha’s voice dripped with anguish, as she said that they spoke about trauma, as we would, the weather. We often think of anger as a negative quality, but does it also not hold the spark of rebellion? It is when you are angry that you question... you fight. But what happens when you get too used to it? Do you get numb?
Sajin Baabu’s Biriyaani explores this ‘numbness’ with his protagonist Khadeeja (Kani Kusruti). She’s resilient but not a rebel. In the first few minutes of the film, we see Khadeeja and her husband have sex. To no surprise, he shows no regard for her pleasure, and once he is finished, the dissatisfied Khadeeja starts touching herself. Her husband slut-shames her, but her sharp retort cuts him off. But this assertiveness and fight-back rarely features in the rest of the film. Her retorts are limited and don’t question the family powerhouse, her mother-in-law. She just struggles to stay afloat in the quicksand life throws her into. Her brother is said to have joined ISIS, and later, killed. Her mother faces mental issues, her husband sends her talaq on text. Even when she isn’t allowed to see her son, she doesn’t contest, because she can’t. It isn’t pragmatic.
Khadeeja chose to live with what life gave her, though she sees the hypocrisy of it all. Take the conversation she has with the muezzin about the number of wives Islam allows men to have. “Even after you are dead, you have angels waiting for you. For us, nothing,” she says. On some level, she accepts the rules, until at least she has her ‘people’ around. It is only after her mother dies (pining for the son who deserted her) and her husband leaves her (for another woman) does Khadeeja’s exploration, sexual and otherwise, begin. “I don’t have to prove myself to anyone anymore,” she says. Even her big moment of revenge comes more as a thing that needs to be checked off before she surrenders for good.
Everyone, especially the conservatives, likes to portray the feminist as the eternally angry woman. But trust me, being angry can be so exhausting. When you slowly understand the deep roots of patriarchy, you realise you have the whole world to be angry with. And how can one change the world when they can’t even save themselves? Several women abide by patriarchal rules, especially the older women, simply because they have lost the will to fight. At the end of the day, you learn to pick your battles and take care of yourself, because no one else is going to. And Kani Kusruti portrays this temperament beautifully. There’s profound emotion in those eyes. She doesn’t need sentences; a sly smile speaks a thousand words. It is no surprise that she won the Kerala State Award for this nuanced, heart-wrenching portrayal.
Biriyaani is brave in the truest sense of the word. When we are constantly expected to look away, it is brave to unflinchingly show the reality (no wonder that some theatres refused to screen this film in Kerala). In that way, the film acts as a companion piece to another recent Malayalam great, The Great Indian Kitchen which thrives in simply making you a witness to a woman in the kitchen. Biriyaani’s cinematography takes this vibe to an extreme, in a good way. It makes the film personal, like you are with her, as you witness faces around her size her up like she were a lump of meat.
Khadeeja’s numbness reminded me a lot of my own, about the battles I have dropped just to stay afloat. It is a reminder of the importance of nurturing that anger and protecting it from exhaustion. We live in times of great duress, where numbness is a dominant emotion. An unmistakable odour of helplessness floats about. Talking about films in such times does feel like a sin. But isn’t it great when art reminds you of what you need to take the fight forward? After all, isn’t art the lie that enables us to realise the truth?