Land Gold Women, the first English film on honour killing, bring out the cold reality of the crime.
The sound is small but stays with you long after the film is over. When the knife is pulled out of Saira — she is being put to death by her uncle to save the honour of the family while her father stands guard outside — it goes pluk as if the knife is being pulled out of a football. There is really nothing to tell if that’s how it ought to sound, but you know at that moment that the life breath is out of the girl. Avantika Hari, the writer and director of Land Gold Women, the first English film on honour killing, is not sure the sound struck her as odd, though her sound designers tried to make the murder as believable as possible. When the shot was being done, three women, who were part of the crew, fainted — such was the intensity.
The story of Land Gold Women is actually pretty straightforward. Nazir Ali Khan, 45, lives in Birmingham with his wife, Rizwana, and their two children: Saira, 17, and Asif, 14. He indulges their interests in all things English but now finds himself increasingly nostalgic for his roots in India. He thus dresses the Indian way at home and listens to songs from old Hindi films. Saira, with a year to complete her graduation, has a white boyfriend, David. Asif has learnt to live with the insults and physical abuse of the bullies. Things take a turn for the worse when Nazir’s older brother, Riyaaz, arrives from India with a marriage proposal for Saira. One thing leads to the other, as things must in such a plot, and it all ends in Saira’s murder and Nazir’s conviction.
Hari says she was attracted to the subject when she was a student of the London Film School during 2004 to 2006. There were several newspaper reports on honour killings amongst South Asians, especially Muslims. Wasn’t she tempted to make Nazir and his family Pakistanis, given that the Western needle of suspicion for all things evil currently points towards Pakistan? “Honour killing happens everywhere,” Hari says over the phone from her residence in Mumbai. “As an Indian I thought it should be about my people.” Hari’s research brought her to two conclusions on honour killing: one, it is common to all communities and socio-economic groups, and two, Islam does not condone it. Nazir’s trial, and the popular perception that honour killing is embedded in Islam, sends his Muslim lawyer, Farah Siddiqui, a Pakistani, on a journey of self-discovery, and she realises that nowhere in the holy books of Islam can one find sanction for honour killing. Zar (gold), zoru (women) and zameen (land) have for long been the reason why men murder and go to war. Such deep root has the code taken over centuries that it is now an integral part of culture — nothing less than religion.
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Though Avantika had met lawyers, policemen, families of victims and social workers to flesh out the film, her sounding board was Nazir Afzal who is at the forefront of the movement against honour killing in Britain. The pattern in every honour killing is more or less the same: the perpetrator believes that he is the victim of a larger social structure, and trapped in such a situation he has no escape but to kill the woman — daughter or sister — who is ready to sully the family’s name; the instigator flees the scene in a jiffy; and the crime is done by a minor who gets away with a short stay at a correctional home (and the elders also get a lesser sentence). This legal loophole is understood well by Asians. That’s exactly how it happens in Land Gold Women. Asif is forced to stab his sister. Riyaaz returns to India the day after the killing and there is no remorse in Nazir, Nazir is ambivalent about his life in Birmingham. Twenty-five years after leaving India against his father’s wishes, and after a successful career, he hits midlife crisis and doesn’t know what he is doing in a strange, and often hostile, land. The guilt of hurting his father quarter of a century ago haunts him, and when his brother comes from India he sees it as an opportunity to connect to his old world once again. Nazir struggles with himself for a while but accedes to his brother because (1) he respects him and (2) he thinks that’s the right thing to do. The film is a study of how tradition — good as well as bad — plays out in an alien world.
Hari chose to shoot with local British actors than transport a few from India. Maybe, she didn’t want the stars to hijack the limelight from the story. She says Indian actors in Indo-English films are always the same faces — Saeed Jafri in the past and Om Puri now. “All characters are from England because the story comes from there,” says Hari. Made for Rs 3.5 crore, it’s not sure how many stars from Bollywood Hari could have afforded. The trick works quite well and the local actors do add to the film’s authenticity. The thickly-accented Hindi and Urdu (the dialogues were written by Hari, the ones in Urdu were translated by Tejpal Singh Rawat) spoken by Nazir and his family is straight out of Birmingham and Indian viewers may find it hard to connect with it. Even the undergarments of the actors were specified to fit the character. The initial plot may look straight out of Khuda Kay Liye, a 2007 Pakistani film, where a middle-aged Pakistani in England cannot stomach his daughter’s relationship with a white boy after he is instigated by friends and relatives. Hari says that she saw Khuda Kay Liye only in 2009, full one year after she had shot her film.
Land Gold Women has been received well in film festivals. It got the Foreign Correspondent Association’s (Singapore) Purple Orchid best film award, and premiered at the International Film Festival of India in the Indian Panorama section. It has been officially selected in the Mumbai Film Festival, the Peace on Earth Film Festival in Chicago and the Women’s International Film and Arts Festival in Miami, Florida. It has fetched Hari India’s National Film Award for director of best film in English, Canada International Film Festival’s Royal Reel Award for excellence in filmmaking and Singapore’s Asian Festival of First Films best script/screenplay award. Hari is hopeful that she will be able to release the film in India sometime in November. Next off for her could be some more films on social issues, though the treatment “could be lighter than Land Gold Women.”