Rating: *** *
In 20 minutes Bebaak says more about religious radicalism and its power to control the destiny of the economically weak, than 20 feature films on the same theme. Not that I’ve seen 20 films on this sensitive and volatile subject. For obvious reasons Bollywood is scared to touch the topic of religious fundamentalism.
In Bebaak Sarah Hashmni (who looks like a deglamorized version of Urmila Matondkar) plays the spirited young Fatin, the eldest daughter of an economically challenged but liberal Muslim family. Her parents played convincingly and sincerely by Sheeba Chadha and Vipin Sharma (both Hindus, by the way), are open to letting their children dress the way they want to and be themselves without radical reprobation breathing down their necks.
But now Fatin needs the scholarship to tide her through her education and for that, she must go through an interview at a lowbrow Islamic institution that funds the education of needy Muslim girls.
The interview, a humiliating farce to disempower educated women, becomes a terrible show of misogynistic muscle force as the seemingly moderate cleric (he wears normal working-class clothes and has no beard or religious cap) let’s loose a volley of softspoken sexism. Nawazuddin as the cleric is bone-chilling as he casually and blatantly humiliates and verbally molests Fatin in front of her father for not wearing a hijab.
The deal is simple: wear the hijab, praise its virtues and collect the god damned scholarship. For Fatin, it is like choosing between her future and her freedom. It’s a remarkably profound battle between religious despotism and individual freedom and how the former violates the latter space.
Shot in real locations, Bebaak had me thinking long after I finished watching it. At a time when a radical Islamic group has shamed the whole Muslim community in India by blatantly violating the lockdown rules, Bebaak comes as a jolting though not unwelcome reminder of how an entire community is held at ransom by the radical leaders who control the purse strings and thought process and gag liberal elements.
It’s a brilliant idea thoughtfully and gently executed. One of the most moving and provocative short films in recent times.