Bebaak review: Shazia Iqbal’s short is a tale of quiet resistance to religious and patriarchal oppression

Bebaak, Shazia Iqbal's short film now streaming on MUBI INDIA, is about a woman's identity crisis as a Muslim woman in India, trying to make her own in a prejudice-ridden world.

Pratishruti Ganguly September 01, 2020 16:03:43 IST
Bebaak review: Shazia Iqbal’s short is a tale of quiet resistance to religious and patriarchal oppression

“Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness”

Bebaak, writer-director Shazia Iqbal’s short opens with the quote from Chilean-French Alejandro Jodorowsky, a poignant rumination on what freedom truly means.

At the centre of the story is Fatin Khalidi (Sarah Hashmi), a cash-strapped student of architecture who hasn’t been able to pay her tuition fee for two months, and now has to interview for a scholarship to a cleric (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) of a Madrasa.

Bebaak is also about the crisis of identity. Early on in the film, Fatin tells her mother she feels “odd”, “alienated” in a place like Bhendi Bazaar in response to her mother asking her to cover her head lest she stand out in the orthodox neighbourhood. “They look at us differently,” she scoffs.

Later, when a Hindu friend asks her where her interview is, she replaces Bhendi Bazaar with “Town.” As someone doubly marginalised –  a Muslim woman – she feels almost a sense of overwhelming shame over her identity. Her desire to fit in is acute; the fear of religious discrimination, even severe.

Bebaak review Shazia Iqbals short is a tale of quiet resistance to religious and patriarchal oppression

A still from Bebaak.

Fatin is not the only one with a conflict of identity. Her middle-class mother (Sheeba Chadda) wears a hijab when she prays, but discourages her daughter to wear one just to placate the traditionalists. Her father, (Vipin Sharma), a manager at a recording studio, has deliberately stationed his family in a ‘non-Muslim’ locality, approves of his daughters wearing jeans, but is unable to rear his head in defiance to power over his financial constraints. Unlike their social media-savvy children, bred in English-medium schools, their rebellion is measured. They negotiate multiple identities so that their children can have less cloistered lives.

Their nauseatingly claustrophobic lives are not just metaphoric – Shazia Iqbal conjures a space almost too queasy to breathe. Fatin’s six-member family live inside a tiny apartment where availability of adequate space is a distant dream. Hence, for Fatin, a degree and an eventual job is not only a segue to a metaphoric freedom, but also from the confines of financial distress.

At Niyaz Sheikh, the cleric's office, Fatin is chastised on the basis of her lack of hijab and “religious education.” When she says she wants to be an architect, he dismisses her, questioning a “woman’s contribution” to such a profession. He swiftly adds the scholarship is only for students of medicine, a profession he deems fit for women. He then bargains with Fatin, telling her she can only get a scholarship if she wears a hijab.

Bebaak review Shazia Iqbals short is a tale of quiet resistance to religious and patriarchal oppression

Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Bebaak

There is nothing cinematically villainous in Siddiqui’s portrayal of the narrow-minded, sexist Niyaz. In fact, it is his spectacular ordinariness which makes the character not an alien, but the everyman that women are expected to deal with every waking hour of their existence. When he places the blame on women for being groped on the streets, you know it’s not his religion that is dictating his actions, it’s his sexism.

Not education or her parents, even her rebellious instincts – Fatin’s climactic defiance comes from the fear of dousing the flicker of hope she had unwittingly ignited in the little girl she had met during her visit at the Madrasa. Unlike Fatin, she does not have the privilege to choose to embrace or to shun the hijab, but she hopes, one day, she’ll wield enough power to tell off her oppressors, her family. Thus, Fatin’s rebellion no longer remains her own, but for all women who do not have the luxury to rebel.

Bebaak is now streaming on MUBI INDIA. 

Watch the trailer here

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