Mo’ Reviews: ‘Purdah’

Directed by: Jeremy Guy

Executive produced by: Tracy Guy

Producers: Jeremy Guy, Sushrut Jain

Editors: Anisha Acharya, Salman Syed

Sound designer: Sung Rok Choi

Composer: Marcello De Francisci

Synopsis: The independent-minded young women of the Mirza family have ambitious dreams for their lives and careers. Despite their earnestness, they face an uphill battle coming from a conservative Muslim family in Mumbai, India.

Kaikasha Mirza became enamored with cricket as a young woman, yet she was forbidden to play and forced to be a spectator in her burka. After months of persistence, Kaikasha eventually persuaded her father to allow her to remove her burka for the first time to become one of only a few Muslim women cricketers in all of Mumbai. Now Kaikasha is chasing her dream of playing for the prestigious Mumbai Senior Women’s Cricket Team. In the days leading up to the tryouts, Kaikasha’s parents give her the ultimatum that she will have two years to become a professional cricketer or they will arrange her marriage. Once married, her husband would likely not allow her to play, thus pinning all of Kaikasha’s hopes on the upcoming tryouts for the Mumbai team.

Kaikasha’s eldest sister, Saba, also has her own dreams for her career and yearns to become a model, yet she endures harsh criticism for wearing a niqab to interviews. Heena, the youngest sister, desires to become a fashion designer or a singer, but poverty may impede her pursuits. All three girls must contend with the wishes of their father who does not believe women should work, in addition to the whispered judgment of those in their community.

Purdah is a feature length documentary that follows each of the Mirza women as they battle through unexpected family crises, poverty, and intense societal pressure to pursue their dreams. (purdahfilm.com)

Accolades for Purdah: Purdah has shown at the Cinequest Film Festival and was an official selection at Sheffield Doc/Fest Doc/Player, Dances With Films at the Chinese Theaters in Hollywood, Germany’s Fünf Seen Filmfestival, the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne, and seven other festivals around the world. NPR called the film a “real-life Bend It Like Beckham.”

My review: On its surface, you might just assume that Purdah is a film simply about a young woman trying her luck in sports. 

But the film is much more than a sports documentary.

Instead, Purdah gives the viewer a deeper insight into how women’s lives in India are compounded by stresses on multiple sides. It also delves into how women still find ways to succeed regardless of what life throws at them.

The film follows Kaikasha Mizra, a young Muslim woman who comes from a family that’s fractured by personal philosophy. On the one hand, her mother comes from a seemingly more liberal Muslim family in which she didn’t grow up wearing a burqa or niqab. Her mother wants her sons and daughters to strive for their dreams regardless of what their Muslim community might say about them. Kaikasha’s father, on the other hand, is conservative, however, we do see that his wife and mother’s influence has allowed him to grow beyond his own conservatism enough to let his daughters, particularly Kaikasha, strive for more. However, marriage still looms for all of his daughters–regardless of what they want to do, it will depend on their future husbands’ permission.

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So what is it that Kaikasha has her heart set on? She wants to play professional cricket. Women’s professional cricket still seems like an underground sport, even though more and more women are playing on cricket teams every year. Much like how the WNBA still faces sexism and discrimination compared to the NBA, which receives a lot more money and star power, women’s cricket is still fighting the perception of being a diversion before marriage. Meanwhile India’s male professional cricket team are world-renown and supported by families who have sons who are interested in the sport. Women, however, are expected to grow up to take on traditional roles–marriage and motherhood.

Kaikasha is facing a ton of opposition, whether that’s from within her family and her father’s waffling between conservative values and newfangled ideas, her Muslim community’s judgement, and India’s overall focus on the patriarchy. Will she make the professional women’s cricket team and achieve her wildest dreams? You’ll have to watch to see.

I found the film very enlightening and I quickly became engrossed in Kaikasha’s journey. I also thought about how India’s patriarchal system is often portrayed in Western media. The documentary showcases just a snippet of how India’s society still places patriarchal power over women’s dreams, even though the society often places motherhood at its center, such as when Kaikasha’s father seeks out his mother’s advice on how to deal with Kaikasha’s cricket aspirations. I feel like Purdah is a film that does showcase India without any preconceived notions or agenda; instead, it showcases what’s happening to this family and how they deal with everything, ranging from the highs to the absolute lows.

So why am I bringing Western media into this? Because I have a bigger point to make. I don’t usually include explicit instructions on how to take a film, because a review actually isn’t a tool for viewer manipulation, regardless of what people like to say on Twitter. But there’s one thing I want viewers to think hard about while they’re viewing Purdah–I want them to not place Western stereotypes about India onto the film.

What do I mean by this? Well, in America, we typically think of India and other countries in Asia and the Middle East as being rigid against women. Indeed, there are serious issues regarding women’s rights in various parts of the world, and India has definitely had its own share of problems to deal with. However, where I think we in the West go wrong is coupling knowledge about discrimination and/or violence against women with the statement, “Surely, that doesn’t happen here!” That’s where the West’s argument falls apart, since aren’t we dealing with violence against women regarding reproductive rights right now? Speaking from an American perspective, America is, in my view, just as violent against women as anywhere else. We might not have “church and state” particularly, but a lot of negativity towards women in America does stem from a patriarchal viewpoint of religion and society, leading to some serious issues regarding a woman’s independence and right to personal freedom. So if you’re viewing Purdah, don’t view it from the perspective of America being a utopia for women, because it isn’t. The only thing that’s different is that we’re used to our patriarchy, so seeing the same system from an outside perspective can make us feel like it’s foreign to us. But in reality, it’s all the same.

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However, what I think we should take from Purdah is how male pride gets masked as “tradition” or “honor.” There are a lot of mentions in the film of being “honorable,” and indeed, I think one of the reasons behind one of the major turning points in this film is because of male pride that’s out of control. That includes the inability to apologize, a penchant towards cowardliness, and the inability to take responsibility for one’s actions for fear of how that will make a person look to their community and to their family. In other words, male pride breeds a lot of shame as well as a heightened fear of shame. Shame doesn’t just express itself in feeling sorry for oneself; it also expresses itself in anger and violence. The patriarchy might be seen as “tradition,” but it actually helps no one. Whereas the women suffer outwardly, the men suffer internally, being unable to face themselves and their internalized issues. Everyone ends up drowning in their own ways.

Thankfully, though, Kaikasha and her sisters showcase how women in any kind of oppressive life can break through and create paths of success from tragedy. That same brand of chutzpah can be found in women around the world, including the U.S., where women continue to trailblaze despite what men (and even other women) believe a woman can accomplish. The story of Purdah starts with cricket, but it encompasses so much more.

I recommend you give Purdah a watch. You’ll come from it feeling closer to a family who has defied the odds after life throws them every possible curveball. It’s a film about perseverance, and I feel like that’s one of the most inspirational emotions a film can instill in its viewer. It’s this perseverance, the sheer will from regular women choosing to live in their truth instead of adhering to society’s standards, that will change a nation and, indeed, the world, for the better.

Purdah is available on Amazon Prime. You can also learn more about Purdah at https://www.purdahfilm.com.