Biriyaani begins with a youngish woman with a face that has seen enough ravage for a lifetime, lying inert under a heaving thrusting ugly potbellied man. After he finishes she tries to ease her pain while the man makes a vulgar remark about her vagina. If the opening shocks you, wait till you see what writer-director Sajin Baabu has in store for the rest of this historic game-changer of a film. The feminist cinema will never be the same after Biriyaani. What it tells us about the plight of women in backward societies, and here it is the uneducated ground-level Muslim woman, is so depressing that you won’t ever want to go back to those fashionably feminist films that you grew up admiring.
What kind of woman’s liberation movement have we been talking about when the average woman has not moved from under the man’s heaving potbelly? This unforgettable film mocks the discursive drama of feminism and gender equality by intercutting into live television debates on Muslim women in Kerala, while the story of our heroine Khadeeja (Kani Kusruti) unfolds piece by piece. And I am not talking about the footage. I am talking about the pieces of the woman that are sold off to sundry patriarchal propensities for the sake of withholding the festering status quo.
Soon after the heaving and thrusting described above, the man in the frame writes Talaq three times on WhatsApp and divorces Khadeeja after her brother is declared radicalized. Banned and shunned by her community, Khadeeja is now left to fend for herself and her mentally unstable mother (Shailaja Jala).
We’ve grown up seeing women as victims in our cinema. Films like Mother India and Bhavna have patented and glorified Indian womanhood as the breeding ground for unstoppable sentimentality. Biriyaani doesn’t waste time in tears. Throughout the film Khadeeja, as she is tossed from one bout of atrocity to another, remains dry-eyed and clear-headed. The focus is on survival, not self-pity.
Kani Kusruti lives every breath of Khadeeja’s life bringing to the character a kind of unadorned spontaneous grace that makes room for self-flagellation as well as abuse and immoral activities. As the director brilliantly delineates Khadeeja’s degradation the narrates tightens its ‘seethe’-belt.There is a wave of reined-in anger mapped on Kani’s Khadeeja’s face.
As an actress, Kani is even more fearless than the woman she plays. And that’s saying volumes. Towards the end when Khadeeja takes to prostitution, there is no bravado, no eroticism in her job. There she lies naked, exposing not herself but the men who are heaving and thrusting on top of her.
Sajin Baabu’s film is a ceiling-shattering experience on many levels. It is stark and brutal and yet haunting and beautiful. The ending is not to everyone’s taste, I admit. And I did feel queasy about it. Perhaps that’s what Sajin wants us to feel. Biriyaani provides no comfortable solutions to the question of a woman’s place in the patriarchal hierarchy.
The performances go a long way in furnishing the goings-on with a sense of bleak immediacy. Kani, of course, is flawless. Her face is a map of savage tragedy. Her body is a relic of patriarchal devastation. Surjith as the kind but sleazy Mullah who offers Khadeeja and her mother asylum in a mosque is empathetic. Though sleazy in his own right he is the only man Khadeeja respects.
There is scarcely any background music in the proceedings. The cinematography by Karthik Muthukumar is stark austere and naked. The greenery of Kerala’s countryside has seldom seemed so sterile. There is a recurring image of black burqas fluttering on a clothesline against a louring skyline. This image means so much to what happens to Khadeeja’s life that I don’t know where to begin. Much like the film. It just leaves you wordless, numb.
Directed & Written by Sajin Baabu, Biryani: Flavours Of Flesh gets 4 stars.
Image source: Malayalamone
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