Purdah (2018)

After a flurry of shots to establish that we are in Mumbai (in 2011, as a subtitle helpfully informs us), the opening montage of writer/director/DP Jeremy Guy’s debut documentary feature Purdah soon settles on a far more specific brand of image and activity. Through expertly edited match cuts, various games of cricket – on the street, on the training ground, and on the professional field – are presented as a continuum. The sequence ends with 20-year-old Kaikasha Mirza and her younger friend Akshaya, practising in the hope of being selected for a Mumbai team, and then maybe for the Nationals. As soon as former Indian cricketer turned match referee Anjali Pendharkar and former Mumbai captain turned coach Aparna Kambli have offered brief contextualising observations on the particular difficulties facing women who aspire to play the game competitively in India, the focus returns to Kaikasha and the other women in her family – older sister Saba, younger sister Heena and their mother Bilkees. Between them, these women and their experiences over the next few years will catch out a nation in transition. 

There are obvious tensions in the Mirza household. “One should not kill children’s dreams,” declares Bilkees – but as Muslims, the family’s female members have their freedoms substantially curtailed by pressures from both their (unnamed) patriarch and their community to observe purdah and wear hijab, niqab, even burka, and to submit to arranged marriage. Saba’s hopes to become a model or airline stewardess, or just to have any paying job, have proved an impossible dream, “because”, as she says, “Daddy doesn’t allow these things. Daddy has an archaic mindset.” Heena wants to become a fashion designer or singer, but again, her training cannot be afforded, not least because the father will not let any of the women work to contribute to the family’s meagre income. Kaikasha is the exception. Perhaps it is because the whole family loves cricket so much, gathering together around the television whenever there is a national game on. In any case, Kaikasha is allowed to train to pursue her goal of joining a Seniors team. She is even, while training, permitted to remove her niqab. The stakes, however, are high, for if she fails, she will be married off, quite possibly to a husband who will never let her play her beloved game again.

In the middle of the film, there is a leap to three years later, and everything has of necessity changed. The women still live together, but in different, smaller rented premsises, away from the father – and in his absence, there have come new difficulties, new oppressions from a younger father, but also new opportunities. Guy’s film captures this dramatic shift as a veering away from patriarchy, bringing the promise of a better future for at least two of the three siblings. Sport may seem at the heart of things here, but in fact it is used merely as the competitive arena for a match between patriarchal values and an emergent spirit of greater liberation for women in today’s India. This is a delicate, complicated issue, with many adverse conditions on the ground – but Guy wins the trust (and often disarming candour) of his subjects, and hits it for six.

Strap: Jeremy Guy’s documentary PURDAH uses a young Muslim woman’s cricketing aspirations as a means to exploring the shifting freedoms of women in India.

© Anton Bitel