“I survived because the fire inside me burned brighter than the fire around me.”

This beautiful quote by Joshua Graham floated in my mind as I watched, and re-watched, Shazia Iqbal’s Bebaak. Starring the feisty Sarah Hashmi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, I realized that the 20-minute short film is all about its name. It’s fearless. It’s bold. It’s beautiful. It’s Bebaak.

The film is not a commentary on the world we live in today. It’s rather a conversation, and a much-needed one at that, between what one believes in, as an individual, and what “society” wants them to believe in. What happens when these two collide? What happens when you have to choose between one of the two?

Our protagonist Fatin (Sarah) is in the middle of a similar conflict.

Raised in Mumbai in a fairly progressive six-member family, Fatin is the eldest daughter, now in college, and a meritorious student of architecture. Her father, Zaheer (Vipin Sharma), is a manager at a recording studio, and due to financial constraints and the fact that he has to look after four children with a limited income, ends up applying for a scholarship at an Islamic institution for Fatin’s further studies. The institution, based in Bhendi Bazar, right above an Urdu-medium school, aims to aide talented Muslim students.

The tension then starts building. A relatively normal, happy, siblings-bickering-with-each-other goes into an anti-climactic mode as the premise sets in and Fatin’s mother asks her to drape her dupatta properly before she leaves, as Bhendi Bazar is a Muslim-dominated area, and she wouldn’t want anyone to look at her daughter like an outsider. A comment like that doesn’t go well with Fatin, as she decides to not heed to her mother’s wishes when it came to her choice of clothing. She’s not very keen to go there in the first place, but once she does, she sees the stark difference between her, and the children there.

Wearing hijabs and skull caps, the children there look like they belong to a different world. As she waits for her scholarship interview, she meets two girls – Shireen and Rafiya – one who wants to become like her when she grows up, dressing in the clothes of her choice, and one who can’t think of a world without hijabs, but not out of choice, but out of notions taught to her by her elders. As simple as the scene is, it proves to be very substantial going further.

She then moves on to her interview as the severely patriarchal cleric Niyaz Sheikh (Siddiqui), after looking at her academic qualifications, starts questioning her understanding of religion because of the way she dresses. A series of misogynistic comments follows – right from “What use would it be for a girl to become an architect?” to “A girl without a hijab is like a girl without clothes” – while Fatin, even though completely taken aback, holds her stance. By the end of the interview, she is given a choice – if she wants the scholarship, she has to understand her religion the way the cleric wants her to.

Does she bend? Or does she not? This forms the rest of her story.

The film screened at two film festivals so far, has been receiving accolades for the story and execution. Talking about it in an exclusive chat, writer-director, Shazia Iqbal tells us, “Two festivals. And two Best film awards till now. The real deal is people coming in big numbers for a short film, and the amazing QnAs where I have been told that their perspective on hijab has changed. That’s a winner for me.”

And a winner it is, as the script is so powerful. Shazia Iqbal delivers the premise, the background, the dialogues with such simplicity and relatability that after a point, it stings. Not because it’s hurtful, but because it’s so true. Being a woman in today’s India is not easy, especially when you are judged on the basis of what you wear and not how you are or how you’ve fared. The film, therefore, delves upon the idea of actual freedom. Freedom, as Fatin puts, would only come if you set the women free. Free to choose their own reality, without any aversions, without any notions, without any societal obstructions – without the compulsion of a hijab defining them. For them, the choice isn’t about wearing or not wearing a hijab – it’s about the larger decision of choosing between true freedom or pre-set boundaries that seem like a choice. The quote used right in the beginning of the film probably sums it up the best – “Birds born in a cage think flying is illness”.

The attention to detail too, is brilliantly formulated, as you try and notice the little nuances – the one where in the middle of a discussion about Fatin’s interview with her parents, you see her younger brother and father chopping vegetables as the mother irons the clothes while one of her sisters reads a book and the other is invested in her mobile phone. It’s heartening to see the distribution of household chores and the way it’s presented.

Several scenes leave a mark, but two particular sequences that do, revolve around the interview and the stunning climax – both of which are sure to run chills down your spine, but for completely different reasons. Little Shireen’s eyes in the end rip apart not just Fatin’s but the viewers’ hearts too. On the other hand, one can’t help but cringe at the thought of what Fatin might have gone through during her interview with the cleric. But several of her answer-backs are applaud-worthy, as Sarah Hashmi delivers a striking performance which deserves a round of applause. What a natural she is in front of the camera. Siddiqui, as a cleric, is so believable that you really want to go stand up for Fatin as he relentlessly continues questioning the ‘modesty’ of a woman. The rest of the cast, including Vipin Sharma and Sheeba Chaddha as Fatin’s parents, perform with extreme ease, making the short film spread its wings.

This one is a must-watch, pretty much a film lover’s delight, and we, at The Red Sparrow, give the literally bebaak film 4 chirps.


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