domestic abuse

The story of my mother, the actress who was almost cast as Anarkali in ‘Mughal-e-Azam’

There were movie premieres with film stars like Dilip Kumar, but the glamorous mirage masked a terrible reality.

In the early 1950s, not long after she had arrived in Bombay as a newly-married bride, my mother portrayed Anarkali in a theatrical production. The director, K Asif, happened to see the play and was so taken with her performance that he wanted to cast her as Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam. Over 200 photos of her were taken on the movie set, including ones with the iconic feather grazing her face.

Ultimately, she had to decline the role owing to family pressure, as in those days women from respectable families did not act in “pictures”. The photos remained in an album which she sometimes opened whenever she felt like reminiscing about her life before migrating to Pakistan.

She had vivid memories, but my mother did not view the past through rose-tinted glasses. Though she never spoke of it publicly, she carried an immense pain throughout her life. Once she felt I was old enough, she began to share her secret history with me, speaking with the utmost frankness, mother to daughter.

Her public life in Bombay was filled with the trappings of glamour. There were movie premieres with film stars like Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Kamini Kaushal, photos at official functions with heads of state like Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and history-making individuals like Tenzing Norgay.

The glamorous mirage masked a terrible reality.

On the set of Mughal-e-Azam.
On the set of Mughal-e-Azam.

My mother was being violently abused, physically assaulted by her husband at the time. For the duration of the daily abuse, a period of seven years, she kept up appearances, accompanied her politician husband on campaign rallies, hosted elegant soirées with the pallu of her sari draped just so that the bruises would not be visible.

She begged her family to intervene, only to be ignored time and time again.

After one particularly brutal beating, my uncles came and took her back home to Bhopal. However, her husband persuaded them to hand her back with a written apology and an undertaking that he would never hurt her again.

Needless to say, the abuse continued, until one day her gynaecologist, the eminent Dr VN Shirodkar, told her plainly that she would be dead within six months if she did not divorce her husband.

My mother took his advice, but the price she paid for going against that devious and influential monster was enormous. He was a barrister and a politician and she a woman with minimal education and no defences against his cunning. He took custody of both her young children, my step-siblings.

She spent the next 20 years desperately searching for them. When she was finally able to track them down and met them in their adult years, they had already been brainwashed against her by their father.

The final manipulation came in the form of the threat that if they ever reconciled with their mother, he would disinherit them. It worked.

After the briefest of reunions, her long-lost children cut off all ties with my mother, breaking her all over again.

My mother cried herself to sleep every night of her life. No joy could fully overcome the pain of the separation from her children.

It was remarkable that she had the courage to keep on going in spite of her agony. Constantly harassed by the police in Bombay, she decided to take a break and visit Karachi for a family wedding, where she met and married my father, a love marriage across Shia/Sunni sectarian lines.

With Dilip Kumar
With Dilip Kumar

Bia carried herself with great poise in her new life in Pakistan, but never failed to journey to India every year for the next two decades in search of her children. Each time she would return newly heartbroken and dejected.

Bia loved music as well as singing. Music for her was a kind of opiate. She had a gorgeous voice, had studied a little with an ustad in Bombay and was a great aficionado of the ghazal form.

Time and time again my memory goes back to dwell on the early years of my childhood, between the ages of six and nine, that were spent in Karachi with my mother as head of our household, while my father was a prisoner of war. She never let us feel the lack of a father.

Our rooms in the Services Club had no kitchen, so come evening it would be time to discover a new restaurant or revisit a favourite eatery. We would pile into the bright red Dodge, which she drove at race car speed with the top down and her hair flying in the wind. There were weekends on the beach at Hawke’s Bay and Sandspit and endless trips to bookstores.

I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood.

With Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
With Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Recently, I have been drawn to reconstruct some of that time in a novel set in the Karachi of my girlhood in the 1970s. In the course of my research, I stumbled upon a video of Bia in the audience of a Zia Mohyeddin show. It was a surreal moment: there she was in her trademark chiffon sari, all smiles, and swaying in rapture at Mehdi Hasan singing Ranjish Hi Sahi.

I remember being seven or eight years old and being taken to mehfils where Iqbal Bano or Farida Khanum or Mehdi Hasan or Habib Wali Mohammad were performing. As a little girl, I found all that boring, but the music must have penetrated my subconscious in a kind of osmosis, as it is now an indelible part of my being.

I recall Bia singing each night before going to bed; when she was putting me to sleep, it was a lullaby, but when she thought I was asleep, I would tiptoe out of my bedroom and hear her sing. Sometimes it would be a Noor Jehan ghazal, sometimes an old film classic like Mujh Ko Is Raat Ki Tanhai Mei Avaaz Na Dou. It is only now that I realise what was haunting her.

I myself have never spoken of this publicly before. But I feel it’s time. My mother passed away in 2012; before #Metoo and #Timesup, she and countless other women of her generation were vilified and deliberately estranged from their children as an act of revenge for asserting their independence.

I suspect my mother, who gave a full page interview in an Urdu paper under the headline “Begum Ali has Grave Grievances Against Men”, would have loved that so many powerful figures in the West have been knocked off their pedestal by this newly-empowered social media savvy generation of women.

Unfortunately in South Asia, although there are cracks and tremors the past and present pillars of patriarchy remain firmly entrenched. Case in point: my mother’s first husband, though long dead, remains firmly on his pedestal. He is revered in India as an author and Islamic scholar. His two oldest children, my step-brother and sister, worship his memory and resolutely deny my mother’s assertions of physical assault and emotional torture.

If I had only denied my mother’s reality and accepted the version of events that their father fed them, that my mother was a woman of questionable morals who abandoned them at the tender ages of four and six, I would have been accepted by my step-siblings, but I refuse to accept the erasure of my mother’s being so easily.

Bia used to write Urdu poetry on little slips of paper that she kept in her ghazal collections. I’d be perusing Faiz or Nasir Kazmi and a nazm would come floating down like a feather.

After her death, I went through all her books and her poems were missing. All except for one. It reads:

Shani
tou pani hai
Chahé jis bar
tun mei bhar lo

Shani was her nickname. The double entendre of bartan (vessel) with bar (bridegroom) and tun (body) is so subtle and stunning. This tiny little poem contains the constrictions of a woman’s life so succinctly.

Given the opportunity, I am sure my mother would have been as renowned for her creativity as she was for her looks and her grace.

Writing is a means by which we counteract erasure. After my mother’s death, I gave up both paternal and married surnames and adopted my middle name, Naz, as my surname, as well as takhallus.

Naz was given to me by her symbolically breaking off a piece of her own name, Shehnaz. Own in the larger sense that she had chosen it for herself at the ripe old age of five, after rejecting the family’s given name.

Now and until death, I will proudly wear the mantle of this matronymic, forever my mother’s daughter, Sophia Naz.

All photos by the author.

This article first appeared on Dawn.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.