PAGE 03: The Political in the Personal

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by Suyash Kamat

All over the world, in an increasingly polarized cultural and social climate, the lack of nuanced, multifaceted probing of our complex cultural identities remains a daunting task. “In India, our stories are multilayered. Epics like the Mahabharat and Ramayan are our base. Everyday life in India is a multilayered crisis,” remarks Farah Khatun, a documentary filmmaker, whose new documentary, Holy Rights (2019) is an attempt to probe into the patriarchy that plagues the personal and political struggles of Muslim women in India. 

Farah’s documentary is centrally about Safia, a deeply religious Muslim woman & her journey, as she struggles and negotiates through hitherto uncharted territory, exploring the tensions that arise when women try to change the status quo and take control of narratives that affect their lives. “It’s about the practice of patriarchy in Indian society. It talks about how women are suffering human rights violations by society. Not just from men but the patriarchy that women have become a victim of.”

Farah originally came across the idea in 2014 when she heard about women in Mumbai who were training to become Qazis (Muslim clerics who interpret and administer the Islamic personal law), which is traditionally a male preserve. “I met Safia in 2015. Till then, I was in touch with many Qazis, who were part of the learning process. But when I met her, I felt extremely inspired by her courage to counter the narrative and to do it at an age of 60 which was a huge risk.”

Set against the political backdrop of the abolishment of the Triple Talaq Bill, the form of the documentary shows the personal implications of the political struggle. “At the grassroots level, nothing much really changed. Women are still suffering the way they suffered before.” While the documentary is set amongst the Muslim community, Farah believes that it’s the patriarchy that is common across religions. ‘Analyze almost any house in Indian society. If a girl wants to do something out of the way, wants to dance or sing or do something of her choice, the only free space she has within the family is with the women of the household. We don’t have that kind of free space with the men.’

Making documentary films in India isn’t the most viable career option, let alone films that examine the critic of popular narrative. “My mother would warn me to do anything but touch these spaces, referring to the triple talaq & other Muslim issues. She never verbalized this discomfort directly, but she meant it.” 

But despite all odds, documentary films have managed to find their own ground. “It’s extremely difficult to make documentary films without relying on favors from your technical team, who, in my case, was my friends who believed in me. I was fortunate to have the support of Priyanka More, my producer.’ Documentaries, however, are riddled with ethical and moral dilemmas given their preoccupation and intention of portraying the truth. Filmmakers and academicians have often debated about the authenticity of the lived experience of a filmmaker and of those who see the world of the story as an outsider. ‘I believe those who can make films are privileged; that those who are aware, have knowledge and sincerity, must use this privilege to make films, irrespective of their identity.” Drawing on the parallels between her film and Invoking Justice (2011) by Deepa Dhanraj, which also explores issues faced by Muslim women, Farah observed “It is a powerful film. Her sincerity showed in the film, irrespective of her identity. It is only through a sincere collective effort of society that we can bring change together. But having said that, we should also be acceptive of the wrongs we do on this journey.” 

For Farah, her journey with the film was also a personal story about negotiating her own boundaries with her family. “I hadn’t told my parents about this film. One day, my brother told my parents what my film was about. Over the course of the film, I have shared a lot of stories which I experienced myself.” The film is full of these dark stories, some of which she couldn’t keep in the final film. “One day, my mother fought with a religious cleric about a practice she believed was wrong. She called me and cried. That’s when I decided to show my parents the film. They didn’t oppose, they accepted it.” This, in Farah’s opinion, was her happiest moment. 

Holy Rights is playing in the Non-Feature Indian Panorama section at 1 pm at INOX Screen 2. 

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