The intrigue around Rahat Kazmi's Lihaaf has been running high ever since its poster reveal at Cannes Film Festival last year. Who wouldn't want to watch Ismat Chugtai's incendiary piece of literature come to life on the big screen? The film looks appropriately opulent, yes, but tendentious? Not so much, as is revealed at its screening in the recently concluded 25th Kolkata International Film Festival.
What Chugtai's short story had in abundance " a pressing need to reveal difficult truths through beautifully crafted metaphors " is what Kazmi's one-hour, 25 minute-long adaptation falls short of, despite staying ardently faithful to the source material. The film alternates between two parallel tracks, one of Ismat Chugtai's (played by Tannishtha Chatterjee) court hearings in Lahore on being charged with obscenity for writing Lihaaf, and the second being the dramatisation of the short story itself.
The weight of telling the former falls squarely on Chatterjee's able, but disempowered shoulders. One can literally feel Tannishtha yearning to sink her teeth into her character's fiery temperament, only to be thrust back into a feeble screenplay wrought with weak, inconsistently written dialogues. The supporting acts featuring Kazmi in the role of her husband Shahid Latif, and Shoaib Shah as Saadat Hasan Manto, are tired and insincere at worst, and lacklustre at best.
The courtroom drama unfolds at an excruciatingly unexciting pace, almost antithetically drowning the electric tension running through Chugtai's story, which is told in a parallel track with Anushka Sen starring in the role of a young Ismat, and Sonal Sehgal playing the enigma, Begum Jaan.
The story of a young Ismat discovering the 'elephant in the room' crouching under Begum's quilt is a visual carnival, dipped in honey hues of the golden hour. Sonal Sehgal looks every bit the ailing, distraught queen " a veritable receptacle for love and human touch. Anushka Sen as a young Ismat seems appropriately enamoured and terrified by Begum, with a Rabbo (played by Namita Lal) shadowing her every step through the royal corridors. Individually, the actors seem to be at ease in this strange ivory tower of whispering voices. It's only when they have to interact that the discomfort shows, almost ironically subverting the discomfort and claustrophobia that so crucially underpins the story and each of its characters.
This, perhaps, can be attributed to the glaring lack of chemistry between the main players. In a scene where Begum reads an episode from an erotica to Rabbo, " her masseuse and lover " the movements are awkward and out of sync. There's a visible stiffness in the way Rabbo's hands glide over her lover's back, as the latter bursts into giggles on reading out lines of love-making. The passion on-screen is jarringly performative, almost conscious of the camera. It fails to do justice to a love born of heartbreaking desperation that teeters dangerously on the edge of being damned, while being therapeutic and meditative.
But in spite of all its limitations, the triangular world of Begum Jaan, Rabbo, and a young Ismat is infinitely more fascinating than the vapid one inhabited by Chatterjee's grown-up Ismat, in a courtroom sans conflict. One would go so far as to conjecture that maybe Lihaaf would've fared better without this track, as it only tends to decelerate and weigh down a film that's barely an hour-and-a-half long.
Mir Sarwar's Nawab Sahib hardly makes an impression, despite being in a pivotal role that propels the birth of the same-sex relationship in the story. One is almost compelled to draw parallels with Deepa Mehta's 1996 film, Fire, " also based loosely on the same story " in which Nawab's equivalents essayed by Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Javed Jaffrey left the audience's gut wrenching with distilled horror. Nawab isn't required to play the garden-variety villain here, agreed, but at least his indifference towards his wife " whom he treats like a collectible " should not seem like boredom, which it unfortunately does.
While Lihaaf nails the visual grammar, dedicating undivided attention to every tangible detail, " from a seal on an envelope to the rainbow coloured-sun filtering in through the palace's glass windows " it does little to fill the void left behind by a half-baked screenplay.
Director Rahat Kazmi co-wrote the script with Sonal Sehgal, adapting a story so deeply and fiercely 'female', that society still fails to comprehend its myriad implications and pathos even today. The film, however, succumbs to an inadvertent male gaze, making it obviously uncomfortable in its own skin.
But despite its shortcomings, Lihaaf has its moments, simply by the virtue of being adapted from a seminal piece of feminist literature from the subcontinent. However, by the end of it, I wish I'd seen a little more of Chugtai and a little less of Kazmi in a story that promised to be so much more.
(This review was first published when Lihaaf was screened at the 25th Kolkata International Film Festival in 2019. It is being republished in the view of the release of the film on Voot Select.)