Outlook, 26 March 2012
The Reel Spins Backwards
People have rejoiced that Byari, a movie made in a creole spoken by a small community of Muslims in coastal Karnataka, has shared the Swarna Kamal this year. However, what people aren’t aware of is that the producer of the film, T.H. Altaf Hussein, stole the story idea from my award-winning Kannada novel Chandragiriya Teeradalli, which was published in 1982. He has abducted my creative child, mutilated it and made a movie out of it. He had approached me for permission, but I had denied it because I was legally obligated to the NFDC, which had funded Jameela, a Tamil film based on this very novel in the year 2000. As a result, for the past year or so I have undergone enormous mental torture. I have tried to approach the courts on this matter, but some lawyers deceived me. However, I am determined to continue my legal fight.
Byari is not just the name of the movie. It is also the name of the community. This Muslim sub-sect is concentrated in and around Mangalore and they follow a regular interpretation of Islam. Altaf hails from this community and so do I. Since the movie and my novel talk about talaq (divorce) and the moral predicament of a Muslim woman, I would like to present here a few larger issues concerning Muslim women in Mangalore and the coastal region. The region is anyway familiar to outsiders in recent years as a Hindutva laboratory.
When I published the novel in 1982, Muslim women were being severely punished if they went to see a movie in the theatres. There is the case of Naazima Bhaangi, who was brutally attacked for going to the theatre. I had written about her. Thirty years on, she has still not mentally recovered from the attack. The situation has not altered very much between then and now. Muslim women can’t do anything fearlessly and on their own volition, let alone go to theatres. When such is the oppressive condition within the community, isn’t it an irony that Byari men are issuing statements extolling Altaf’s achievements. For these men, my novel makes for a sensational movie subject. It stops there. It doesn’t stir their conscience. It doesn’t drive them to reform the community. They often wear masks of moderates and progressives, but in reality they are conservative. In one of my articles, I had asked why only men are allowed to go to the cinema, when all rules in Islam apply equally to both men and women. I would even argue with my husband that he shouldn’t make use of the facility that I have been denied.
In recent years, Muslims in Mangalore are identifying themselves with fundamentalist groups. Many young men have become self-styled detectives. They have made it their duty to spy on school- and college-going Muslim girls. If they catch these girls interacting with anybody, be it friends, classmates or acquaintances, they report back to their families. Not just that, they put enormous pressure on the families to discontinue the education of these girls. It’s a dangerous situation we are witnessing. Muslim women in Mangalore have become second-grade citizens. They drape themselves from head to toe in black. They have lost and forgotten their own human form. There is no freedom of expression here. I could gain freedom from the burqa only after my mother-in-law passed away.
Some Muslim groups have made it their mission to mislead our poor and illiterate brethren. They are opposed to anything secular and democratic. They argue that religious orientation of the people should characterise a nation. They say democracy should be replaced by the rule of God and since God can’t be physically present, they advocate the reign of the priest. Those who question this are seen as enemies of God. Some Muslim writers here have accused me of distancing myself from the community. I don’t really understand this charge. In neighbouring Kerala, nobody has made this accusation against me. They have often demonstrated a broader human and secular approach to critical issues. I have often written against the fundamentalist traits and clever arguments of my fellow Muslims in Mangalore. That has not gone down well with them. Perhaps, that’s why they say I have distanced myself from them. Getting close or growing distant has no meaning until we address the issues of human indignity confronting us.
(Abubakar is an award-winning Kannada writer. Her latest novel is called Ilijaaru.)