Biriyaani movie review: Kani Kusruti’s eyes are giant pools of desolation in a portrait of a woman under siege
Kani Kusruti’s performance in Biriyaani is as potent as the story Sajin Baabu tells
castKani Kusruti, J. Shylaja, Surjith Gopinath, Jayachandran, I.g. Mini, Pirappankod Shantha, Bob Felix, Master Pranav Santhosh, Anil Nedumangad, S. Devendranath
Her eyes are giant pools of desolation, embedded in the face of a woman who has, it seems, been drained of all feeling. Or has she? Her empty expression makes it all the more noticeable when emotion occasionally travels across that otherwise vacant, benumbed countenance — a hint of a fake smile, a flash of genuine warmth, a glimpse of love and longing, terror and, on just one occasion, a storm of grief.
There is so much to say about Sajin Baabu’s Biriyaani, but above all else there are those eyes belonging to actor Kani Kusruti who plays the protagonist, Khadeeja.
Just as The Great Indian Kitchen’s adukkala (kitchen) is a metaphor for patriarchy, in Biriyaani the titular dish becomes a representation of humans reductively treating fellow humans as lumps of flesh to be used, abused and discarded, as mere items in a news clipping, as persons of interest in a police investigation, rather than living creatures with sentiments and desires of their own.
The graphic opening scene of a sexual encounter between Khadeeja and her husband (Jayachandran) — more explicit than Indian cinema is used to — sets the tone for the unfeeling treatment that other characters mete out to her through the rest of the narrative. Nazeer is not making love to his wife, he is a beast who has mounted the nearest available homo sapien female, and once he is satiated, is disgusted with her for wanting more. Her act of defiance in that moment captures the core of this woman who is beleaguered but still not entirely dispirited.
Khadeeja’s circumstances worsen when news breaks that her brother has joined ISIS. On the one hand, she is renounced by her people, and on the other, hounded by the police. Left with no money and a mentally challenged mother (J. Shylaja) to care for, she sets off on a journey that ultimately leads to self-discovery and assertion.
The heroine of The Great Indian Kitchen battles patriarchy within her family and among Hindus at large, but in comparison with Khadeeja, she has privilege: she is educated, a trained dancer, the daughter of a well-off home who had a relatively liberal upbringing and, most important, she does not face prejudice against her religious community from Indian society as a whole. Khadeeja in Biriyaani, however, is symbolic of poor women of a social group simultaneously battling injustice against and within the fold. She was born into poverty, she was pulled out of school after Class 10 for marriage to an older man not of her choice, her mother-in-law is contemptuous of her because her father was a fisherman, and she is Muslim. Her religious identity is significant in the context of the Islamophobia currently pervading India, but she could well be a member of any community under siege. Sajin Baabu is brave and wise not to deify the marginalised but to hold a mirror up to everyone involved and underline the inconvenient truth that as a woman Khadeeja is targeted by those on both sides of the religious divide.
In Jayaraj’s Hasyam, which had its world premiere at the ongoing International Film Festival of Kerala, every human being is a potential cadaver in the eyes of the central figure who is a supplier of bodies to a private medical college; in Biriyaani, in a vastly different context, Khadeeja too is just a body to many of those she encounters.
And whether she is Nimisha Sajayan’s character in The Great Indian Kitchen or Khadeeja in Biriyaani, across communities, the woman — as meat, as housemaid, cook and care giver — is easily replaceable and seen as interchangeable with other women.
(Minor possible spoiler in this paragraph) The othering and consequent exoticisation of Muslims is arguably epitomised in this film by a scene in which a man is shown excited at the prospect of having sex with a hijabi woman for the first time. She may belong to a community that is currently reviled across the country and perhaps by him too, but at the end of the day, for him, she is meat. (Spoiler alert ends)
The all-pervasive Indian condescension towards Muslims and women in general, but Muslim women in particular, is illustrated here by news TV debates, with the media roping in commentators — some biased, some well-intentioned — to speak of both groups instead of soliciting views of the likes of Khadeeja who are being discussed.
(Minor spoilers in this paragraph) A lone journalist (I.G. Mini) seeks out Khadeeja’s side of her story. She is an example of the rare flashes of decency the heroine encounters along her path. There are others. Sajin Baabu’s script does not damn everyone with the same brush. The muezzin played by Surjith Gopinath, for one, comes as a reminder that desires of the flesh do not reduce every human to inhumanity. And even the cold-hearted, predatory ‘system’ includes two law-enforcement officials (Anil Nedumangad and S. Devendranath) who momentarily soften up on hearing of Khadeeja’s mother’s mental condition. (Spoiler alert ends)
The sex scenes in Biriyaani are not designed to titillate — they are functional, feelingless and animalistic. They are not difficult to watch though, unlike certain other parts of Biriyaani in which flesh and blood are displayed in the most unexpected fashion, shot with no apologies yet not gratuitously by DoP Karthik Muthukumar. Despite the challenge of seeing those portions, it is impossible to look away.
Sajin Baabu, who earlier made Asthamayam Vare and Ayaal Sassi, is credited with Biriyaani’s sound design, in addition to the writing and direction. (Alert: I’m trying to analyse a scene without giving away spoilers, but you may want to skip this sentence) Indeed, the sound in the film is crucial, compelling and intricate, especially in a transition that takes place in the finale when we realise that a fantasy role reversal from being the exploited to the exploiter may yield physical pleasure but remains emotionally unrewarding. Those eyes, they are still empty. (Alert ends)
In an interview in 2019, Sajin Baabu described Biriyaani as a “revenge drama”. This description bothers me because the film does not come across as such. Revenge dramas like 22 Female Kottayam and Puthiya Niyamam represent a socio-cultural idealisation of women victims/survivors of violence and a widespread disinterest in regular women (read: women who do not metamorphose into avenging angels on being raped, or for that matter women who get on with the business of everyday living despite their trauma). This cinematic ideal mirrors a real world in which an Indian woman who died following a gangrape in 2012 was nicknamed Nirbhaya by the media, as if building an image of her as “The Fearless One” was necessary to generate empathy for her and as if to suggest that a woman who felt bhay (fear), in the way any normal woman would in her situation, was unworthy of the national attention she received. A single act of vendetta that Khadeeja indulges in does veer in that direction and deviate from the natural progression of her character in the rest of the film, but since the tone of Biriyaani neither romanticises and glorifies this particular deed nor is this element the focal point of the script, for me at least the film does not fall in the same category as 22FK, Puthiya Niyamam and other Indian language films that revolve entirely around the rape-revenge theme.
My debate with the filmmaker’s own choice of words notwithstanding, Biriyaani is too convincing, observant and powerful to be reduced to this one deed by Khadeeja, and the aftermath of that episode is too nuanced to be viewed one-dimensionally.
Besides, there is Kani Kusruti. Her performance as Khadeeja has rightfully earned multiple awards in India and abroad, including the prestigious Kerala State Film Award for Best Actress 2020. Kani’s speaking eyes are as potent as the story Sajin Baabu tells, making Biriyaani one of the most thought-provoking Indian films lined up for a theatrical release.
Biriyaani is being screened at the ongoing 25th International Film Festival of Kerala. For further screenings at the remaining phases of the festival being held in Kochi, Thalassery and Palakkad, track the schedule: https://iffk.in/schedule-2021/
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