Producers: Zena Sajid, Rahat Kazmi, Namita Lal,Zeba Sajid, Tariq Khan,Utpal Acharya, Ashish Wagh and Umesh Shukla
Director: Rahat Kazmi
Cast: Tannishta Chatterjee, Rahat Kazmi, Mir Sarwar, Anushka Sen, Namita Lal, Sonal Sehgal, Shoib Nikash Shah, Virendra Saxena
Streaming on: Voot Select
By Jyothi Venkatesh
Voot Select as a part of its unique film festival, Lihaaf is a splendid saga which is certainly a must-watch! Based on the popular yet controversial story ‘Lihaaf’ written by the Padam Shri awardee and Urdu literature writer Ismat Chughtai, the film portrays each & every character minutely in the same manner as the writer had described in her book, published way back eight decades ago in 1942.
The film begins with a court summon for Ismat Chughtai (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and gradually moves on with court trials and the flashback story of ‘Lihaaf’ as witnessed by young Ismat (Anushka Sen). The story is set in 1922 when young Ismat is left by her mother at Begum Jaan’s palace. Young Ismat is captivated by the beauty of Begum Jaan (Sonal Sehgal) but little does she know that the latter is like any other beautiful showpiece brought by Nawab Saheb (Mir Sarwar) and kept at a corner unaffected, like a prop.
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Nawab Saheb is attracted towards young boys and pays no attention to Begum Jaan, who eventually is forced to spend time alone, reading the sad shayaris of Mirza Ghalib. Time passes by and she becomes depressed until her masseuse – Rabbo (Namita Lal) arrives. Rabbo comes like a ray of hope in Begum Jaan’s loveless and desolate life. She is initially brought to massage Begum Jaan but is touched by the latter’s sad life, which gradually leads to their emotional & physical bond. Young Ismat is unaware of their bond and gets terrified by the shadows formed on the walls, which is the reflection of Begum Jaan’s quilt, which means quilt (Lihaaf).
Almost two decades later, Ismat Chughtai penned down a short story recounting her childhood memories of Begum Jaan’s palace including the shadows of the quilt (Lihaaf), which is called obscene and for which, she is summoned by the court of law. The film also shows a character (the friend of Ismat’s brother) Mohd. Aslam (Virendra Saxena) who says that ‘writing on sexuality is not a problem; the problem is that it has been written by a woman’ while Ismat defends saying, ‘I feel my eyes are like lenses; my pen writes what eye witnesses’. The movie is full of such bold statements! And accompanying the dialogues, are the beautiful shayaris mentioned in between, which set the perfect tone of the moment.
During the court trials, Ismat Chugtai is seen accompanied by Manto (Shoib Nikash Shah), who is known for writing hard truths of the society which everyone considers to be taboo and no one prefers to talk about and is himself tried for obscenity six times. Both Ismat and Manto are prolific writers of that time and also, very good friends.
Ismat receives many threatening letters for writing a story like ‘Lihaaf’. The character of her husband Shahid is played by director Rahat Kazmi and in one of the letters, her husband’s father states that ‘educated women of good Muslim families shouldn’t write on such topics, as it’s not good for the image and family’s reputation’.
While Tannishta Chatterjee is excellent as Ismat Chugtai, it is Sonal Sehgal who walks away with all the accolades in her brilliant and uninhibited portrayal as Jaan. Virendra Saxena is good as usual in the character of Mohd Aslam, a friend of Ismat. The emotional and intimate scenes between Begum Jaan and Rabbo , played by Sonal Sehgal and Namita Lal ,have been tackled delicately with a rare aesthetic touch as well as a connoisseur’s delight. Though this obviously is now safeguarded under ‘freedom of speech & expression’ one must not forget that the story was written in the pre-independence era (1942). Nevertheless, writing on feminine sexuality is still a topic of debate; debate of morality as we have become independent only on paper!
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It is very sad indeed tat for a woman to freely express her innate sexuality or choose a partner of same-sex is still not considered good or moral enough. The viewer is totally in awe of the dresses worn by Begum Jaan. who can be seen in more than ten beautiful sets, each one being more beautiful than the other. Kudos to the seasoned costume designer Zeba Sajid. Be it hand embroidery on the beautiful chunni or those pair of ghararas worn by Begum Jaan. Also marvellous is the collection showcased by the central characters including Nawab Saheb’s sherwani or neck piece or even simple dresses worn by Rabbo and young Ismat. Anushka Sen endears to you with her natural performance. So does Rahat Kazmi as Shahid, the husband of Ismat, whose direction is deft!
If you’re a literature lover and admire the works of Ismat Chughtai or Manto, this film is indeed a gem and a must-watch! And even if you’re not, I’m sure you can’t afford to miss the beautiful dress & jewellery collection of Begum Jaan or Nawab Saheb. To sum up,I’d say that you’ll be touched by the solitary life of the protagonist. All said and done, Lihaaf is one rare masterpiece film, which in any case you can’t afford to miss at all! Watch it immediately on Voot Select at your home!