Burqa Movie Review: A sincere take on repression and humanity
With a simple premise centred on a regressive practice, Sarjun’s directorial delves deeper into its ill effect on women and their state of helplessness
Hundreds and thousands of years ago, early men instituted religion to bring order and make their community conform. Tied up to the idea of faith, the institutions demanded a certain behaviour from their followers. But what if a religious norm, ritual or tradition, stands only as a deterrent for someone and yet they knowingly accept it all due to years of conditioning? In that case, who do we blame? Is it religion, or indoctrination? This question darts a crucial point of reflection in Burqa, the recent Aha release, which is powered by compelling performances by Mirnaa as Najma and Kalaiyarasan as Suriya.
Director: Sarjun KM
Cast: Kalaiyarasan, Mirnaa
The film opens with some picturesque frames of a tranquil antique courtyard house. We get a glimpse of 21-year-old Najma's rather mundane routine. The only source of "light" seeps through the doors, windows and the terrace grills from dawn to dusk. Everything remains still until an unexpected visitor knocks at the door for help, which puts Najma in a position to choose humanity over religion. Following the demise of her newly-wed husband, Najma is (unwillingly) observing Iddah, primarily intended to remove doubt as to the paternity of a child if born. And her encounter with Suriya is the first time in the last one and half months of confinement that something has happened beyond her daily routine. The rest of the story unravels as a series of conversations between them that drives Najma to confront her fear and conditioning. Najma addresses her desire to make choices and yet realises that it is not easy to break out of the shackles. Sarjun creates an impressive setting to discuss sensitive topics sincerely and also entwines a beautiful chemistry between them that oscillates between platonic and romantic spectrums.
One of the many interesting aspects of this heavily conversational film is that even though it unfolds at a single location with primarily only two characters, it does not feel suffocating. The play with light, shadow, set properties and artistic frames aesthetically enhance this slow-paced plot. Take, for instance, how in a time of doubt and confusion, a murky shadow of light falls on the character, and when the doubts clear, a bright beam of light enters their space. Such refined visual language adds intricate layers to the story.
Early in the film, Suriya asks Najma why she is in a Pardah even though she is inside her house. She says it is because no men should see her and vice versa during Iddah. Even when her face is uncovered, a curtain or a door stands as a metaphor for a Pardah as they debate the logic and rationality of such practices. While on the other hand, the Pardah itself is an allegory that is also about Najma shielding her true self and desire.
Burqa also addresses a pertinent concern of how society, over years, has not just conditioned how someone (especially women) should behave, but also how they should feel at various periods of their life. In a Pagglait-esque scenario, Najma contends with her inability to mourn when she knew her husband only for a week. When she discloses that she is unhappy with making efforts to please others, it is a poignant moment of self-awareness and realisation. These scenes are aided by R Sivatmika's background scores and songs that dribble like a serene stream flowing into a turbulent river
From saying religion has an answer for everything to bursting out against religion for making decisions for her, Najma goes through a rollercoaster of thoughts and emotions. And Suriya's argument that the problem is not with the institutions but with the people who interpreted it, and their unwillingness to evolve is the crux of the story. Meanwhile, as Najma draws similarities between her destiny and Suriya's lived-in experiences, the latter counters her through his hard-hitting questions, which paves way for introspection. Fascinatingly, it's not just one way. When she questions his ideology and asks why he took part in a communal riot-- it subtly throws light on the reality of how with cultivated differences, humans are entangled in creating unrest and are embroiled in a toxic fabric that disrupts harmony.
As such conversations delve deeper, the light that seeps into Najma's house widens and Suriya's realisation of her humanitarian deed towards him, at a life-threatening moment, draws an effective similarity to Anbe Sivam that places humanity above all. However, some moments that segue from one related topic to the other seem a bit staged and lack coherence. While the predominant storyline centres around being true to oneself and not having the necessity to prove to others, the scene where Najma and Suriya explain to their respective friends questioning their fidelity, seems contradictory to the core belief espoused in the film. Although a few dialogues and scenes felt all over the place and rushed, the intention of the film masks the flaws, albeit sparingly.
Burqa is a film that not just creates room for a discussion on progressiveness and liberation, but also reflects on the hard-hitting reality of how it is not easy to change or rather accept change. In fact, films like Burqa, The Great Indian Kitchen, and Pagglait explore the truth of how internalised regressive beliefs that oppress and subjugate women are, unfortunately, pervaded across religion, caste, creed and whatnots. In Burqa, we see how education alone is not enough for attaining liberation, but the ability to unlearn and learn is essential. It isn't that only a big revolutionary change can provide much-needed solace. Even a small gesture of opening up to someone who would listen, and embracing one's own feelings is the first step towards acceptance, healing, nurturing the thought of breaking out, and subsequently, liberation for a caged bird-like Najma. Perhaps, as Maya Angelou said, 'Now I know why a caged bird sings...'