‘Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself, but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. [. . .] He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’ – Simone de Beauvoir, 1949
Calling out to this societal reality, Biriyani, screened at the 11th Indian Film Festival, Bhubaneshwar, was a stark reminder of the relative, and absolute position of a woman, within the Muslim samajam, society in Kerala today. Biriyani, third feature film by Saajin Babu, premiered at the 20th Asiatica Film Festival in Italy in 2019 and won the NETPAC award. Featuring Kani Kusruti in lead role, Biriyani is a socio-political drama on the condition of women, within the confines of religious persecution in Kerala. Kani was recently awarded the Best Actress in the 50th Kerala State Film Awards on October 13, 2020 for her reprisal of this role. Her performance in the film is clearly one of the strongest female characters portrayed in Indian cinema in recent times.
In Biriyani, Khadeeja is a Muslim married woman whose love is insatiable. She is considered to be a thorn in this family, as she is the daughter of a fisherwoman. The mother-in-law hates her because she is arrogant instead of coy, speaks her mind instead of abiding rules and laws. Her husband divorces her over a text message, while she is in the search of her lost brother, who had supposedly joins the terrorist group Daesh.
Khadeeja’s mother has a debilitating mental illness which leads to the loss of their home and shelter in the beginning of Biriyani itself. They both are shunned by their own community members for harbouring a terrorist in their home, following which they seek refuge in a mosque for abandoned women. There she meets a kind and caring muezzin who offers her a shoulder to cry upon, and becomes a symbolic guide and soul in her life, as she begins to traverse a life after losing the people she called her own.
Kani gives an impeccable performance in Biriyani as a woman coming to realise her own identity, sexuality and aspirations within and outside of the societal structures. She delivers an honest and aching portrayal of what it means to be a Muslim woman in Kerala today.
By centering this story from Khadeeja’s perspective, Saajin does a huge service in advancing the ideas about gender justice in Biriyani. Soraya Chemaly, in her book Rage Becomes Her, articulates the experiences of several such women, who, despite having lived their own narrative, were not seen as shapers of stories and hence their anger was never acknowledged. She writes thus,
“Our silence around this subject, like the silence around so many topics that specifically affect the lives of girls and women—incest, abuse, street harassment, pregnancy, menstruation, childbirth, rape—is related to the second dimension of epistemic justice: hermeneutical injustice, or the injustice of having one’s social experience denied and hidden from communal understanding. A lack of communal understanding inhibits social responses and, with them, the distribution of resources that can remedy social problems. One of the key aspects of hermeneutical injustice is that the people who experience the effects of the injustice themselves have no framework for understanding what is happening to them. When a society willfully looks away from injustice, it fails to develop language to describe it, to communicate what is happening, or to prepare individuals to adapt to it.”
In telling the story of the aftermath of being labelled a terrorist, Biriyani departs from the mainstream narrative by fixing it lens on the women in the family, Khadeeja and her mother, played by J Shailaja, in what is another iconic performance. Although the mother’s character didn’t seem layered, the power-packed performance and gritty portrayal of living with mental health concerns was believable.
For viewers, Biriyani offers multiple varieties to savour from. It is about food, as clear from the title Biriyani, and it is also about terrorism, religion and women. At the same time, this film can also be labelled as none of the above. As seen just from an individualist lens, it is a coming-of-age film about a woman shunned and abused by her family and society at every turn. It is about a woman whose husband cannot satisfy her in bed, whose mother- in-law despises her for her boldness, whose mother lives with mental health conditions, and whose brother is killed for being a terrorist.
Biriyani prepares you to the eventual climax by displaying the body at its barest, clumsiest, and violent moments. The female body as it yearns for sex, for pleasure; a young boy’s penis as it gets circumcised, as a bleeding pregnant woman who is kicked and loses the child. It emphasises on the physicality of the body, even of an old man who turns away from sex when the Azaan calls, of men who lecherously eye a woman for sex, of men who trade and purchase sex, who violate her body against her wishes.
You learn to empathise with the characters so much that you’ll feel like you have accompanied Khadeeja on the journey she takes in Biriyani towards self-discovery, finding her happiness and comfort and ultimately revenge.
Featured Image Source: SheThePeople