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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Bol: Interrogating the Human Condition

We all have grown in a specific environment that has contributed to the mental makeup that we possess presently. Our surroundings have contributed immensely to mold ourselves to become the kind of person that we are today. Our current psychological forms are largely a result of the beliefs, values, traditions and culture that we have inherited from our society. Yet, human tendency tends to act in an inchoate and unpredictable manner that sometimes produces such results which not only shatter our long held dogmas, but also provide us a completely new understanding of the material and the emotional. When such rebellious emotions translate on the screen, the result is not upheld for its moral content or philosophical undertones, but is adored, braced, defended and endorsed by all and sundry for the raw energy that it unleashes in the comatose intellect of the social order. 

The Pakistani motion picture, Bol, is the result of such recalcitrant impulse of acumen which questions the deep rooted hypothesis of existence in our community. To sit through the film is a chilling experience, as you feel yourselves connected to one or the other characters portrayed in the story and the situations seem to spring out from your very past contact with the community. Every scene is a depiction of the miseries haunting the humanity around us, every dialogue is a biting satire on the accepted norms of survival. The film is not a moral treatise or theoretical examination of the human condition, rather it is a question mark on the set standards of normalcy and decency that we have created, or rather imposed on ourselves and others.

I am not interested in indulging in a scene by scene dissection of the film. Rather, I am interested in communicating the lessons that I drew from some of the stunning scenes that this film portrayed. An ordinary way to start would be to proceed chronologically in accordance with the timeline of the movie. Please mind that these conclusions are totally my own, and that you are more than free to differ.

What grabs your attention from the start is the farewell meeting between the convicted prisoner, Zainub (Humaima Malik), and her mother and sisters. The prisoner seems to be walking in delirium, and hardly has any sense of existence or belonging. She is escorted to her family members to bid them adieu. As if delivering her final message, she exhorts her sisters and mother to throw away the burqa, which, to her, is a sign of bondage and slavery. She urges them all to become independent and to break loose the restrictions that the society has placed on them by virtue of them being women. 

This, to me struck as a paradoxical interpretation of the niqab or the burqa. Here in our country, I have come across women who fiercely protect their right to wear burqa in public places by defending it as a sign of their independence (independence!) and as an inalienable part of their identity. Similar protests have been recorded in France, Italy, USA and other European countries, who have passed, or tried to pass legislation banning this 'symbol of slavery' from the public places. When it comes to the Pakistani society, the burqa is a symbol of slavery for some, and yet here in India, it is a part and parcel of a Muslim women's identity. Why? Was the character in the movie wrong in reading the significance of the burqa? Or did she really echo the views held by most? The answer I think, is not difficult to understand.

In the kind of fiercely religious and conservative society that Pakistan has evolved itself into today, religious dictum is being taken to be embossed in stone and is regarded to be unquestionable. Even the smallest of divergence from the religious norms is seen to be a sign of bigotry and heresy. The result, obviously, is especially punitive to the historically weaker and under represented sections of the society by virtue of their exclusion from power (in this case, they being the women and the religious minorities). Due to such stringent, rigid and remorseless interpretations of religion, religious symbols and values cease to be a denotation of reverence and morph into a cross of social existence which one must bear, no matter how unbearable the pain, in order to survive. While we, on the other side of the border, have been marginally more successful than our neighbors in enforcing a culture of mutual respect devoid of double standards, our friends across the line of control are bearing the brunt of the selfishness and a culture of contradictions which they promoted since independence. As a result, the burqa, which is a symbol of identity for Muslim women in India, turns into an emblem of subjugation across the border.

The most horrific rendition of remorselessness is echoed in the scene where the father (Manzar Sehbai), kills his own child (Amr Kashmiri), who happens to be a eunuch. The actors have acted so brilliantly, that the intensity of the hatred prevailing in the society towards that uncatalogued and unnamed gender hits you with full force. 

What compels a father to such an extent so as to suffocate the last vestiges of life out of his own child? The rough hatred towards the 'other' in most of the societies in most of the countries around the world is such that we emphatically refuse to assimilate their identity into the mainstream and furiously oppose any move to normalize their existence. The Character of Amr Kashmiri has startling resemblances to that of Ravi Jhankal's Munni in Shyam Benegal directed Welcome to Sajjanpur in that both are continuously harassed when they try to take part in the ordinary scheme of things. Such an absolute refusal to change our preconceived norms of ordinariness betrays the insecurities of our own society and the egotism of one's own conscience. And the eagerness to prove one to be normal, to be a vibrant part of the mainstream, to be an obedient member of the laws and rules of the community is the driving force behind such rough hatred, hostility and neglect.

The character of Zainub, is a classic example of what happens when the voice of reason and rationality shuns and rejects the set dogmas and superstitions of the humankind. She is rebuffed, rebuked, slapped and showered with myriad forms of abuses for arguing against the ordinary course of thought. Since she is nearly divorced (which makes her a bad company for children, taboo for the outside world and a burden for the family), her status is downgraded to that of a ghost, whose opinion has no value and whose presence is not favorable. No standards of dignity seem to apply to her. Religion fails to protect her and the grinding weight of patriarchy conspires to stifle her voice.

Yet, the overarching theme of the film, which questions the root of all the ills prevalent in the society, is the constant lust for the birth of a boy child due to which the father keeps on impregnating his wife, only to be punished with another girl child. His lust seems to be unquenchable as he goes on producing a girl after another girl even though his income dwindles day by day. This Frankenstein of his own creation lurches him to one problem after another, makes him to commit one bigotry after another, destroys his religion and shatters his reputation in the household, ultimately resulting in his murder by Zainub.

Bol isn't an ordinary Pakistani movie. Its a mirror reflection of the narrow mindedness of our public. Its a documentation of the ffanaticismseeping slowly in our surroundings. Its a tale of the oppressed and downtrodden. Its a challenge to array of accepted beliefs in the world. Its a colour full story narrated through the colour less lens of patriarchy to a colour blind audience. Its a loud resonance of our own shame and contrasting principles.

Bol speaks and silences.