Of feet, burqas, and boundaries

Featured in the November 2018 issue of The World of Apu film magazine.

The story of how the title of Osama (2003) came about is a remarkable tale of serendipity and the organic evolution of a film. Osama is the story of a pre-teen girl who is forced to masquerade as a boy in a Taliban-occupied Afghanistan. She must do so in order to find work, to support her mother and grandmother. During the discussion following the screening at the Singapore South Asian International Film Festival, the film’s director Siddiq Barmak revealed that he originally intended to name the film Rainbow.

The night before the girl’s hair is cut off, her grandmother tells her a story of a girl who walked under a rainbow and became a boy. The director mentioned that he wanted to have the girl and a few other women walking under a rainbow and vanishing as the film’s final moment. But later he felt that such an ending would be a “big lie.” He chose an alternative ending that he felt was more grounded in reality.

Once he decided against the rainbow ending, he rewatched the film to find a new title. That was when he noticed anew the scene, which I found to be beautiful and moving. Osama is forced into a religious school for boys, and a group of boys develop suspicions about her gender. They begin to tease Osama that ‘he’ is a girl and push her to the brink of an emotional outbreak. She seeks the help of a friend Espandi, who tries to reason with the tormentors that Osama is indeed a boy, especially because ‘he’ can climb trees. In a moment of frustration, when the boys refuse to stop teasing her, Espandi declares that ‘his’ name is Osama, in an attempt to scare the boys away, and to prove beyond doubt that Osama is a boy simply because of the name.

Upon rewatching the film Siddiq felt that this was a poignant moment, and that Osama sounded like the perfect title to the film. The film is inspired from multiple real-life incidents, one of which is about a girl who dressed up as a boy to attend school. The director read of this in Saaha, an Afghan newspaper. The girl and the principal were arrested when her true gender was discovered. This story shocked Siddiq, who at that time was looking to make a short film. He had made three short films previously and hadn’t directed a feature yet. As he began writing the script, the story grew into a feature film.

He couldn’t shoot the film in Peshawar because it was the epicentre of Taliban’s activities at that time. He had a chat with his friend and filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf in Kabul. Makhmalbaf listened to the film’s story and liked it so much, he gave Siddiq 100,000 dollars to make the film. Makhmalbaf got him all the equipment he needed from Iran. The film was shot from November 2002 to March 2003, right after the fall of Taliban. The locals supported the shoot because they were frustrated with the Taliban. In fact, the film opens with a demonstration by a large group of burqa-clad women. Siddiq was expecting about 200 women to show up but 985 women did! (In an interview with The World of Apu, Siddiq revealed how the opening shot of a “river of blue burqas” was inspired by a Persian poem.)

Although the film was made back in 2003, Siddiq and several members of the audience felt it continues to remain relevant. Siddiq mentioned that as recently as 2015, a woman was killed in public, in the centre of Kabul. The echoes of Osama‘s gut-wrenching climax can still be felt in such incidents. While films like Osama are very well-made and reflect the reality of a region, they also make it very easy for us to think, “Oh what a backward country. I pity the people who have to suffer like this at the hands of religion.” It is too easy to think of this as a problem of a society that is not ours, of people who are different from us. Siddiq admitted to being shocked when he came to know that his film was used in the US to encourage the war in Afghanistan, by showing the Americans how backward the Afghan people were, and that they needed the US to reform them.

Osama is filled with so much poetry, it made me suspect if Siddiq, who is also the scriptwriter, reads poetry. There was a small moment after the girl’s plaits are cut off—she plants it in a flower pot with the erect plait jutting out like a newly grown plant. The next morning we see her sleeping in the background with the flower pot in the foreground. They have a hospital drip bottle at home (her mother is a nurse who’s out of work) and a drop of water trickles from it into the pot and then she wakes up with a start.

The film’s highlight is a scene in which the girl and her mother have just finished giving medical treatment to an ailing old man. The old man’s son gives them a lift on his cycle so that they can safely cross a Taliban check post. The girl is seated in front, the man is pedaling and the girl’s mother is seated in the back. When they arrive at the check post, the guards taunt the man for taking his ‘wife’ on the cycle. They point at the mother’s feet and ask her to cover it, so that she doesn’t arouse men. Then they let the ‘family’ go through. Throughout this entire scene, the film shows us only the mother’s feet. We never see the guards, we never see the man’s reaction to the taunts, we only see a shot of the mother’s crossed feet.

Later a baton enters the frame pointing at her feet, and then we see her clothes slide downwards. There is a pause, the cycle leaves the frame, and the pause continues for a beat further, in the empty space.

There is a close-up shot of feet in Nandita Das’s Manto too, which is a biopic of the writer Saadat Hasan Manto[1]. It is set in the India of 1940s, during the period of the Partition. The opening shot is that of a girl’s feet—she is playing hopscotch, leaping to and fro between empty squares drawn on sand.

I loved the way Manto’s stories were weaved into the film, and how the film seamlessly shifted from reality into the world of his stories. I remember a scene in Richard Attenborough’s biopic of Chaplin, which was staged like one of Chaplin’s slapstick comedies. Likewise, this zooming in and out of Manto’s stories, the characters, and environment around him in his real life worked brilliantly for this biopic. Especially the story Khol do [Open it] was memorably brought to life on screen. A doctor who is about to examine an injured woman says, “Khol do!” He wants a window to be opened, and the dazed woman begins to untie the string of pyjama, misunderstanding the phrase she just heard.

A few moments stood out for me.

The conversation between Manto and his wife in a park: they watch another couple having an intimate conversation, and guess what this couple might be discussing. It was a lovely way to depict the romance between a writer and his wife, if we think for a moment that the job of a writer is to get into the minds of other people. But Manto’s wife doesn’t just listen to him speaking, she adds to his story, and has fun with it. It is a moment that indirectly tells us the role Manto’s wife played in his writing, it brings to our attention their character traits.

As someone who has had long drawn-out conversations with friends interested in writing, I could relate to a scene that is staged in a restaurant, in which we see Manto and his writer friends chatting. The news coming from the radio, the restaurant—all of it belongs to another era, but this group of writers could have been anyone, anywhere. Nandita Das gives Manto’s friend Ismat Chughtai[2] a presence in the film, exploring their interactions, rather than only focusing on Manto, the protagonist.

One striking aspect of Manto is the absence of violence and sex, despite having the space to do so, given that Manto lived during the subcontinent’s turbulent times. He wrote hard-hitting truths and nothing was taboo to him. During the post-screening interaction session, Nandita revealed that this was an intentional choice. She didn’t want to portray violence as something heroic and celebratory, and then condone it. In Manto, you get scenes that begin right after a violent incident or end just before the gore begins.

When asked by an audience member about the biggest challenge as a woman in making the biopic of a man, Nandita responded that it didn’t matter. She could connect easily with the women in Manto’s family. Manto was a husband and a father, who wrote many of his stories with children running around the house. He wasn’t the typical artist who sought solitude, and he didn’t have relationship issues. Nandita added that she could relate to Manto because her father was an artist too, and many of Manto’s personality traits reminded her of him.

Nandita also mentioned that festivals like Sg.SAIFF give us the opportunity to celebrate the South Asian identity. Speaking about Manto being Sg.SAIFF’s opening film, she said, “Who could be better than Manto to kick off the festival? He was truly a South Asian writer, who went beyond national and religious identities.”

When I sit back and reflect on these two films that I’ve watched at Sg.SAIFF, I can’t shake off the feeling that Osama could very well be a story written by Manto, had he lived in Afghanistan. The hair that the girl in Osamahad to cut off and the pyjama string that the woman in Manto loosens—both threads seem to originate from the same tangled spool, which we must inspect closer through whatever lenses we have at our disposal, if we are to take a step forward in unraveling it.

Further Reading

[1] Saadat Hasan Manto, the family man. Mohammad Farooq, published in Livemint on January 20, 2018.

[2] Ismat Chughtai: Who was the iconic feminist author? Emily Shugerman, published in Independent on August 

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