Shazia Javed’s documentary 3 Seconds Divorce was made before the historic Supreme Court ruling that struck down the practice of triple talaq and the controversial Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017, which proposes to criminalise instant divorce. The experiences of the women featured in the film are a reminder of why protests against the practice have raged over the decades. 3 Seconds Divorce will have its Indian premiere in the international competition section at the Mumbai International Film Festival that will run between January 28 and February 3.

Javed, who lives in Mississauga in Canada, said she had wanted to make a film on the topic for years. “Triple talaq is a subject that I have wanted to explore ever since I was a school-going girl growing up in Delhi,” said Javed, who has previously directed the short films Namrata and Can you hear me? “As a Muslim, this has been one of the practices I struggled to come to terms with. I then came across the works of scholars and academics who dismissed the whole idea of this being a part of Islam. I remember reading an article in a mainstream Indian newspaper on this subject by Asghar Ali Engineer and it made so much sense to me as a female, as a Muslim, as an Indian and as a human being.”

Javed focuses on women who have both been cast aside by instant divorce and have been subjected to the practice of halala, in which a man can remarry his ex-wife after she has married another man, consummated the union, and has been divorced. The filmmaker also explores the efforts of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, which is among the groups that petitioned the Supreme Court for a ban on triple talaq.

The 54-minute documentary was shot between 2014 and 2017, and includes interviews with BMMA members. “They were doing the surveys, they were drafting alternate laws, they were counselling women at the grassroots level,” Javed said. “And there were other organsations too doing this work. The subject did pick up a lot more steam over the years and we were able to capture that. So the film is not just about this practice; it became the story of the women who were speaking up against this.”

One case study speaks for many other women: Mumbai resident Lubna, who overcomes her shock at being summarily divorced by enrolling in college and becoming an activist while raising her son. Lubna’s story is highly representative, Javed feels. “She is trying to juggle work, motherhood and activism all at the same time. Sometimes her spirits are high and sometimes circumstances take a toll on her. But she doesn’t give up. Her story relates the emotional labour that goes into a movement like this and the personal losses that activists incur.”

Shazia Javed (centre) during the shoot of 3 Seconds Divorce.
Shazia Javed (centre) during the shoot of 3 Seconds Divorce.

The decision to focus on a single character emerged from Javed’s desire to “delve deeper and not just wider”, but there are testimonials from other women too, who have been dismissed in a matter of seconds, some of them for trivial reasons. These include women who have been thrown out soon after their in-laws have run through the money spent on the wedding ceremonies.

The film emphasises that the effects of triple talaq are especially harsh on poor and working-class women. Javed came away with immense admiration for their courage in the face of impossible circumstances. “I interviewed women in the slums of Mumbai who questioned why the men has so much control on their lives and why women has no home to call their own but only a maika or a sasural,” the filmmaker said. “They wanted me to make this film – they willingly came in front of the camera. I was honestly amazed at their resilience. They are living in particularly hard situations in communities that do not allow women to get an education; where they do not have access to employment opportunities of their calibre, where their married lives resemble walking on egg shells.”

Javed’s comprehension of the practices of triple talaq and halala have expanded after making 3 Seconds Divorce – for one thing, she has understood better the price paid by the rejected women and their families. “I began to understand the dynamics of control, patriarchy and dowry behind this practice,” she said. “I knew that there are imams and muftis who defend this but actually interviewing them and listening to their justifications was another thing altogether. Most of them are totally clued out of the experiences and needs of the women. Nor do they seem to care to learn.”