Since 2019, Biriyaani has earned multiple awards for director Sajin Baabu and actor Kani Kusruti in India and abroad, the most recent one being a Special Mention at the National Awards.
Sajin Baabu has the demeanour of a diffident man, but in a conversation on films, his words flow. The passion that shines through his filmography is also evident when he discusses the socio-political commentary in his works. The 34-year-old Kerala-born writer-director has been winning awards and critical acclaim since his feature debut with Asthamayam Vare (Unto The Dusk) in 2014. His third film, Biriyaani: Flavors of Flesh, is about a poor woman in Kerala simultaneously battling prejudice against Muslims and patriarchy within the Muslim community.
Since it began its journey on the festival circuit in 2019, Biriyaani has earned multiple awards for Sajin and actor Kani Kusruti in India and abroad, including the Kerala State Award for Best Actress 2020. The latest accolade is a Special Mention in the Best Malayalam Film category at the recently announced National Awards.
Here, Sajin Baabu speaks to Firstpost about a range of subjects including his own childhood experiences referenced in Biriyaani. Excerpts from an English translation of an interview conducted in Malayalam:
What has the National Award Special Mention done for Biriyaani considering that it has already won so many awards?
It has increased Biriyaani’s visibility. A small number of people who have not liked it or are conservative Muslims are also using it as an excuse to say Biriyaani is Islamophobic and that it got the Special Mention because it is a Sanghi film. That makes no sense because this Mention is coming after Biriyaani and Kani have won so many awards both in India and across the world.
Anyway, awards indicate the inclinations of a particular jury so they should be valued for the visibility they bring to a film and as inspiration for the filmmaker, but they should not be seen as a final measure of a film’s quality.
What was your experience with the Censor Board?
Biriyaani got its Censor clearance with only small cuts – one close shot of the sunnat (circumcision) had to go along with some close shots of the goat being slaughtered. Apart from that, there are some blurs.
But I had to argue in favour of the film. Fortunately, a Censor Board member called Shahjahan, a Muslim gentleman, supported me. I don’t know him, I met him there for the first time, but he helped me a lot. The others had doubts.
Doubts that it’s a film on a particular religious community, doubts about the film’s politics. I am apolitical, I only know the politics of filmmaking.
I mean I’m not taking sides. Of course, I have my politics in every sense of the word, but I have not taken up cinema with that purpose or to make someone look bad. I make cinema about what I am used to seeing and what I know.
I was born in the Muslim community and I have had personal experiences that are related to Khadeeja in Biriyaani. When I was in Class 11, my sister was married off. She was just 16 and in Class 10. She knew nothing. I objected in whatever way I could, but I could not do much. A month after being married, that child – my sister – attempted suicide. She somehow got saved and recovered. Since then my outlook towards religion has changed. I am not saying this without addressing what Muslims are being subjected to in the present circumstances, but that experience and my helplessness haunted me deeply. These things have been on my mind since then. I’ve seen what my mother and others experienced.
(He breaks down here, so we take a brief break.)
So I decided I don’t want any religious identity. I even changed my name. I don’t practise any religion. I left everything then itself. I wanted to live as a human being without a religious identity and I want my films to be seen through that lens.
Biriyaani is both a condemnation of Islamophobia and a critique of patriarchy among Muslims. Isn’t it important that you are a Muslim, even if not a practising Muslim, who has made this film?
It’s important, but I have that confusion. Should I say it? Should I not? I took this decision ages back to live as myself, to make films without revealing my religious identity, but in one way or the other people inquire when they see a film like Biriyaani, which means people must be discussing it.
Do you fear the labelling that happens only to members of marginalised and minority groups? “Gay filmmaker, Muslim filmmaker.”
Basically, I have no interest in religions, a religious identity or practice. My first two films were about the Christian community, so many people thought I am Christian. Because my name (does not reveal a religious identity), some people who assumed I am Christian have abused Muslims in my presence, they have changed when they assumed I am Hindu, and I have heard Muslims say this the most, “kaafir aanu”. Some of these people are significant in the cultural sphere and put up wonderful Facebook posts, they are in big positions, people I respect, but I have seen them first-hand coming out with their innermost thoughts on religion and caste.
And in mosques, till about 5 years ago after Friday prayers, I have heard them say, “Please save only all the Muslims in this world.” That changed after the CAA-NRC issue came up. I feel there has been a positive change in the community since then, and I felt during this period there can be maximum reform in many matters in the Muslim religion.
Now, is this cinema necessary at a time when Muslims are facing issues across the country? But Muslims are not facing the same issues in Kerala. In fact, Kerala’s Muslims are better off than Muslims anywhere in India. It is only in Kerala that Muslims are financially and in every way on an equal footing or better off than people of other religions. And what I am saying in this film is in the context of Kerala.
It is not that I am not addressing circumstances in the rest of India – I am very conscious of how it is. But shouldn’t this film be viewed as a film? I made a film living in Kerala from circumstances in Kerala, but this could be applicable anywhere.
Women face prejudice in any community. As minorities, there is prejudice from outside also. So though Biriyaani is literally set in the Muslim community, to me it felt like it could be about a woman from any minority community who is facing prejudice outside and inside. Would you like people to see it as that?
Exactly. Khadeeja is not just Muslim, she is a woman from Kerala. And the feminism of this woman who lives in a village, has no education, has not heard of feminism, but seeks freedom, is different from the feminism of a city woman who is privileged, has been educated, and espouses feminism after gaining understanding. In that sense, instead of Khadeeja it could be Vasanthi, she could be Hindu, Christian or from any other religion – I have tried to bring that woman’s point of view into this cinema.
She is a feminist, but those are different kinds of feminism. I have tried to bring in this nuance based on what I have seen of my sister, my mother and the women around me, and not my teacher or women filmmakers I have met in the city.
Not everyone may connect with that nuance apart from ordinary people. I had an amazing experience when we showed this film to a small group about 9-10 months back in Thiruvananthapuram. Shortly after, I got a call from an elderly woman who said she was at the screening because she happened to be visiting a person who was coming to see the film. She had never before seen a film. She got my number from the person she was with and she asked me, “How did you get my story?” It is extremely important to me that the film should connect in this fashion to ordinary people.
Biriyaani shows the Muslim community boycotting Khadeeja and her family when news comes that the brother had joined ISIS. This is a side that is not talked about in the real world where usually, the whole community is maligned.
In reality, this is what happens here. The community is scared because they too think these people must be having some connection. There are some organisations that support (such families) but they do it for political reasons – they are the Muslim equivalent of RSS.
I have been to some of these when I was a kid. I know their attitude. I am not watching all this standing outside the glass, I have watched it all from inside the glass. I know a lot. I am not criticising just like that. There are many things that require reform in Islam, things that are making many people depressed – the problems faced by women, for one. Yes there is Islamophobia, and newspapers don’t find out what happened to the families of men who we were told joined ISIS, they don’t report how these families are boycotted by the Muslim community, but the need for reform within the community exists too.
The biggest change I can see happening, as I said earlier, is in what used to be announced from mosques. Now there is a realisation that others too are our friends, we should be inclusive, we should mingle. The next 5-10 years are important.
Could the reason for this change you speak of be that although the leadership of the CAA-NRC movement were Muslims, it was widely supported by Hindus, Christians and all of India? And CAA-NRC does not harm Hindus directly so it was clear that their support was for Muslims.
That is the reason. Because they (non-Muslims) said people of other religions are our brothers, they were born with us and grew up with us, they have a right to live in this land. So now Malayalis (Malayali Muslims) who I know have understood that these are our brothers, people from other religions are supporting us the most, we must embrace them. In many matters their viewpoint has changed. There are other things that I don’t know when they will change, such as people who speak of an Islamic Rajyam – with shariat law – in the way RSS speaks of a Hindu Rajyam. As far as I am concerned, they are both the same.
Basically, my view is that all religions should go. All these in some way keep human beings down. I don’t know if we will ever see such a world. I am thinking of a new film about a world with no religion.
So, Muslim aside, this is the story of a woman.
This is the story of women I know. Khadeeja is not a representation of all women or all Muslim women. And I am a man, so this is what I have seen through my gaze.
And you can be accused of a male gaze on woman.
Certainly. I speak on religion as an insider. In the matter of women’s experiences, I have shown what I have been able to see through my male gaze. I have spoken to my sister, my mother, the women around me with sincerity, I have been part of their experiences, only then did I make this film, but I cannot say that with my sincerity I managed to convey their point of view 100 per cent. Biriyaani is a film made by a man from his point of view, I’d never call it a stree-paksha cinema (feminist cinema).
In an interview, you reductively described Biriyaani as a revenge drama. Why?
I may have said it unintentionally.
For me, Khadeeja’s revenge is a very small part of the film. And it deviates from the tone of the rest of Biriyaani. Every woman has faced sexual violence, the regular woman does not take revenge, yet revenge attracts Indian filmmakers. It is as if the regular woman’s story is not worth telling. Was the revenge element in the film necessary?
That was a mental state. At 16, I felt like doing these things to family members but I could not. In that helpless situation, what if I hit them? If it was commercial cinema, I could do that. But these were real people. Khadeeja has gone through my mental state. Like, when a person behaves badly with me, I don’t do anything directly but I imagine, “What if I hit him? What if I chopped off his hands or legs?” These are just things I imagine, and that is the thought I have brought into the film.
Your thoughts, your anger, you wanted to take revenge but how often do women take revenge for the violence they face? Isn’t this the male gaze at work?
If I am being honest, then yes. This film is channelling both Khadeeja and me. I have based it on my knowledge and my thoughts, that is why I am not saying it is a feminist film.
How did you zero in on Kani Kusruti?
I saw Kani in a Tamil short film called Maa on Youtube and in a play. And I felt she could accurately convey Khadeeja’s internal conflicts on her face. I greatly connected to her when I saw her expressions in close-ups in Maa. Initially, she said no to Biriyaani for various reasons including certain personal issues. So I approached others, but when they heard of the sex scenes, which I told them about right at the start, some said they could not do those scenes while others agreed but I felt that for them this entire film would end up being about just these scenes and they would not give me the level of performance I wanted.
So I went back to Kani. She is a wonderful actress who gave more to the role than even I had intended. Biriyaani without Kani would have been a different Biriyaani.
Were you disappointed that she did not win the Best Actress National Award?
I felt Kani deserved the National Award. However, I have not seen Panga so I cannot comment on Kangana’s performance.
In the opening scene you show Khadeeja masturbating after the husband is done with her. To me it was an act of rebellion. By not waiting for him to leave the room, she was telling him she is not satisfied. Did you see it as that?
Yes. After one stage that is all she can do, is it not? But he is not intelligent enough to understand. As per society’s stand, he believes what men believe, that in a family a woman must ensure his pleasure. Who speaks of a woman’s needs in a regular family? I don’t mean more enlightened places, but in a place like Khadeeja’s, a woman who has not completed school, living in a village, such a woman won’t even know how kids were born. What sexual satisfaction does she get? In my knowledge, 60 per cent of women are not sexually satisfied. Most of them don’t even know that there is something beyond what they have experienced. They just go along with what happens. I have heard this being said by many people.
There is the problem of a lack of sex education. This applies to me too. I studied in a simple Malayalam medium government school. It was a mixed school but I was in Class 11 when I first spoke to a girl studying with me. This is the case with everyone. So how do you view women? As sexual objects. Many men develop this mentality. It’s only when I was getting my degree, started attending festivals and interacting with society that I began to change. Even now, I am learning. These things should be taught in schools. Even now in village schools the situation is the same.
In terms of the flesh you show, the thing that has bothered people is not the sex, it’s the circumcision and the cutting of the goat. One person told me they thought it was perverse. What would you say to that? Why were these scenes essential?
There was a lot going on in my mind. I was circumcised as a child and I was terrified when it happened. I wasn’t even given anaesthesia. It wasn’t doctors who used to do it, it was done by an ossaan.
Could you explain ossaan?
In every Muslim jamaat, there is an ossaan and an ossaathi. The ossaan does male circumcision. Women’s sunnat (circumcision) is also done. In Thiruvananthapuram it happens even in my jamaat even now.
Really? In Kerala?
Yes. In Kerala. If anyone denies it I will not believe them – I have shot people discussing it.
You mean female genital mutilation?
Yes. The ossaathi does it.
People don’t know this.
I wouldn’t know it if it happens in my house. If it is done to my sister or my children, the men of the house would not know. On the 16th day after a girl’s birth – in some places, the 40th day – there is a ceremony called mudikalachil, hair removal. Everyone thinks it involves shaving the child’s head.
Some women of the house themselves may not know it is happening. Only very senior women will know. The child cries a lot, they don’t even give anaesthesia.
So what was your purpose with these scenes?
There are these terrible practices within the religion and they should be avoided. As for killing, I myself have often felt sad on seeing the killing of the goat, but then one gets used to it. The killing of animals is done in the name of faith, I have never been able to agree with that. I don’t objecting to meat-eating, but do it without cruelty.
That scene could be interpreted as a stereotyping of Muslims. Because there is non-vegetarianism in every community but it is an aspect of Islamophobia to highlight the non-vegetarianism of Muslims.
That’s where I have a confusion. This is not the intention with which I made this film, I made it with the aim of making the point that these major things should change within the community – male circumcision, what is done to women, finding another way for animal slaughter. I myself cannot do without non-veg (he laughs) but another way should be found. If you recite the Bismi and eat, will everything be absolved?
Female genital mutilation is intended to ensure that the woman does not have sexual pleasure. But there are those who believe male circumcision is good for the health, so why are you saying that should stop?
My issue is not with circumcision but it is an issue when done at that age and it comes as a shock to the child. It took me long to mentally recover – even now the memory is buried deep in my mind. I was 5 when I was circumcised, I still remember how I ran and hid, people grabbed me, held my legs and hands, just as with the slaughtering of a goat I am saying this should change. It should not be done frightening the child.
Was that scene in the film an actual circumcision?
Yes. Pranav Santhosh is the son of a gentleman who is in left-wing politics. That was an actual doctor doing an actual circumcision on him in an actual hospital. The father, Santhosh Palodu, told me a doctor had suggested circumcision for his son so I asked if they are okay with me shooting the procedure and he said if the child is willing then I can. I spoke to Pranav, he was willing and interested in acting. He was anaesthetised for the procedure, so what you saw – the flailing of his arms and legs as he is being taken away, the wailing – was all acting. He followed my brief extremely well.
But other kids are not like this. I was scared. I wanted to show this at some point, that this should change, not for any other reason. This interpretation you speak of could perhaps come, but that is why I said I know only the politics of filmmaking. I have not taken a line aligned to any political party, I just tried to make my film in the way I felt this story should be told.
How did you realise that cinema is the medium through which you want to say what you want to say?
I didn’t enter filmmaking with any political intent. There was no TV in my house. Electricity came to my house only in 2005, after I finished school. So we didn’t have a TV. I used to go to a house nearby to watch TV. I don’t remember the films I saw, but from the time I was a kid I knew I wanted to become something related to films.
I even left home when I was in Class 9 and went to Chennai. I had this image that I would go to Chennai, become a big name in films, return in a car (we are both laughing here), I would get out of the car. My father was in the Gulf for a while, so I had this image of a person returning from the Gulf after every 2-3 years with a suitcase and a tape recorder. So I went chasing my dream of becoming a filmmaker based on this image. My family searched for me and found me in Chennai, Madras. But since then, cinema was on my mind.
When I went to college for my degree, I happened to attend the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in Thiruvananthapuram. I went for it thinking I would get to see some film people. But the first film I watched at IFFK, a Russian film called The Return, opened my eyes to a new kind of cinema that was completely different from what I had seen until then. I had only seen films like (he names hard-core commercial Malayalam films) Puthukkottayile Puthumanavalan, Kanjirappally Kuriachan (laughs), but I understood then that there are films like this too. IFFK pushed me towards a position where I could make this kind of cinema.
Malayalam cinema is different from the rest of India in the sense that you see introspection about all religious communities in films, this scrutiny comes from filmmakers irrespective of their religious background, and voices like the online right-wingers who said Jeo Baby being a Christian has no right to make a film about patriarchy in a Hindu family (The Great Indian Kitchen) are by and large not the public discourse. Why is that?
The reasons are IFFK, the film culture, the film society movement. People have been exposed to filmmakers from across the world who have been speaking up about religion in their films for decades. It is because of this culture that people discuss religion and caste in Malayalam films. No other state has this level of cinema literacy, at no other festival do you get the vibe of IFFK.
That said, in the present political situation here, you do have people trying to find out what religion you follow. For instance, I am not interested in speaking of my religious identity, but there are people who try to find out. Unlike in other places though, to a great extent this doesn’t work in Kerala.