Bebaak opens with a quote by Alejandro Jodorowsky: “Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness". I braced myself for the hallucinatory mumbo-jumbo that usually comes from fans of the Chilean director, but Shazia Iqbal’s short film is focused and sharp. It was to premiere at the 2018 Mumbai Film Festival but was dropped, along with a handful of other Indian films, at the last minute (Iqbal protested the decision in an open letter). The film is now streaming on MUBI.
Fatin (Sarah Hashmi) is an architecture student who lives in a small apartment with her parents, two younger sisters and brother in Mumbai. She's running late on the latest instalment of her course fees, and won’t be able to continue much longer if she can't come up with them. Her father simply doesn't have the money, so they decide to approach a religious trust for funds.
In its opening minutes, Bebaak (fearless) sketches a deft portrait of a lower middle-class Muslim household. It’s the kind that is usually termed "progressive"—Fatin and her sisters don’t cover their heads, they wear knee-length skirts and jeans, their neighbours aren’t Muslim. As Fatin is leaving, her mother (Sheeba Chaddha) tells her to wear a dupatta on her head because “woh log Bhendi Bazaar ke hain". The English subtitle—“The people in Bhendi Bazaar are conservative"— makes clear what the line in Hindi leaves unsaid. Fatin’s immediate complaint (“Am I going to a dargah?") and victory (she doesn’t cover her head), speaks to the openness of her household and explains why the events that follow affect her so deeply.
Fatin and her father (Vipin Sharma), who backed her up when she didn’t want to cover her head, take the bus to the trust’s headquarters. On the way, Fatin almost texts a (Hindu) boy in her class that the interview is in Bhendi Bazaar, but instead writes that it’s in upwardly mobile, faith-neutral Town—a telling little detail that suggests the kind of image she'd like people to have of her. When they arrive, the first thing they see are a roomful of children in caps and scarves, reciting the Quran. Fatin is approached by two young girls. They ask her if she’s from an English medium school—those are the only Muslim girls they know who don’t wear a hijab—and talk about djinns possessing women who don’t cover themselves.
The interview is almost immediately unpleasant. The trust secretary, Niyaz Sheikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), says with barely masked disapproval to Fatin’s father, who works in a recording studio: “So the house runs on money made from music?" He sets aside the file with Fatin’s grades and starts to quiz her about her religious education. He then comments on her “small and tight" suit, short sleeves, uncovered head. As Fatin looks on, shocked, her father mumbles to her to adjust her stole. Sheikh ends with a proposal: he will give them the money if she comes back the following day in a hijab.
Bebaak lasts just 21 minutes; a longer running time might have allowed a less pointed contrast of home and world. Some of the metaphors are on the nose, like Fatin staring at burqa-wearing mannequins in a store window, or her yelling at her father that he shouldn’t have had so many kids if he couldn’t afford them as an azaan plays in the background. But Fatin’s anger and humiliation burn through, and her father’s sympathetic helplessness and mother’s pent-up frustration are evident as well. There’s a moment, beautifully played by Chaddha and Hashmi, with Fatin’s mother praying as her daughter morosely ties a hijab, probably the first in a while. She finishes, looks over as Fatin and says, “Don’t overthink it. Do what feels right."
Bebaak isn’t an ostentatious film but Iqbal knows how to shoot Mumbai; Fatin walking on a railway platform as a train hurtles just behind her in the opposite direction is a beautifully melancholic shot. Though the focus is ostensibly on orthodoxy within Islam, Sheikh’s mention of Islamophobia while parroting his nonsense is pertinent: religious extremism used as an excuse for conservatism, begetting othering and further extremism. Another comment by Sheikh is even more telling, when he says that all religions require women to dress modestly. “Modernity doesn’t mean we let our women run loose," he says. Later, Fatin’s mother argues with her husband that the real issue is men trying to control women's movements and bodies. In the final analysis, Bebaak reveals itself as an explicitly feminist text, albeit one that’s tied, as most everything tends to be in India, to religion.
This piece appeared in Mint Lounge on 8 September 2020.