A man can justify an act of murder if he is protecting any of three things, the saying goes: land, gold, and women (zan, zar, zameen in Urdu). Last week in Bombay I went to a preview screening of this movie, and despite its grim subject I am glad I did. Honor killing is a practice that continues today—crossing borders, culture and religion—and this is a compelling watch if you get the chance to see it (more on that later). Most people’s views (including mine) of honor killing have been skewed by misconceptions which the film takes pains to clear.
The concept of honor killing has its roots in the tribal code above which predates religions and cultures, but has been adopted by societies where the idea of woman as man’s property is embraced. This conceit is of course nothing new, not even in American society (where women are often part of an equation alongside fast cars and big houses as a sign of a man’s success). The belief that honor killing stems from Islamic tenets is simply not true; in fact honor killings take place in Latin America and other places where male-dominated culture also prevails. It is chilling to me sometimes what a very thin line separates “us” from “them.”
Warning: spoilers are here throughout although I’ve kept the synopsis short!
The Indian Muslim family at the center of this story live in Birmingham, England, where 17-year-old daughter Saira (Neelam Parmar) has been brought up. Her father Nazir (Narindra Samra) is a highly educated university professor and on the surface anyway, somewhat liberal; as a result, Saira has grown up with more freedom than some of her Asian peers.
She is an intelligent girl planning to go to college, and she has an English boyfriend named David (Richard Kelly) whom she has kept secret from her family although they are serious about each other. Her father has encouraged her studies, and they share a close bond, but she knows that he will disapprove of her relationship with a white boy.
The situation is brought to a head—and a tragic conclusion—when Nazir’s more conservative elder brother Riyaaz (Hassani Shapi) arrives from India with a marriage proposal for Saira. He insists that Saira cover her head with a scarf in his presence, and chides Nazir for indulging her. He sees no reason for her to study any further and he convinces Nazir eventually that she will be better off married and living in India.
The film presents this narrative as a series of flashbacks intercut with meetings between Nazir and the lawyers appointed to defend him in court, one of whom is a Pakistani woman. When her male English colleague suggests they defend him on the grounds of cultural differences, she digs into the history and practice of honor killing because she doesn’t want her religion and culture to stand as a validation of it.
The excellent performances by everyone in the cast contribute to the many nuances in the story and characters which surface throughout. Narindra Samra, particularly, gives the conflicted Nazir a fine edge to walk on, and sensitively portrays the pull that his homeland and culture still hold for him—a potentially difficult thing to do, since his compliance in Saira’s killing despite his love for her has to be believable for the film to work. And Neelam Parmar perfectly plays out Saira’s bewilderment as her world changes completely, and her inability to grasp that her lifelong hero and beloved father has become her enemy. Kudos also to writer/director Avantika Hari for making this important film so competently!
After the screening I spoke briefly with the producer Vivek Agrawal. He is looking for ways to distribute the film and get it out to a wider audience, so if any of you have ideas let me know! You can visit the film’s website and there is also a blog. I would really encourage anyone who has a chance to get out there and see this!
The whole woman as man’s property conceit, and its insidious and pervasive presence, is one of my very biggest pet peeves, and this movie perfectly illustrates why. In the future when someone tells me to “get a sense of humor” on the subject, I hope I have a Land Gold Women DVD to first throw at his (or her) head, and then make him (or her) sit down and watch. (Yes, Vivek, that is a broad hint.)