New Delhi: Film: 'Land Gold Women'; Cast: Narinder Samra, Neelam Parmar, Chris Villiers and Hassani Shapi; Writer-Director: Avantika Hari; Rating: *** 1/2
There is a nip in the British air. The verdant tranquility of Birmingham is torn apart by the kind of domestic violence that we read about and talk only in hushed whispers.
But honour killing in 'civilized' England? Nah! This one has got to be just one of those exaggerated dramas of the damned that come along to shock us in the movies.
It's astonishing how quickly and expertly writer-director Avantika Hari does away with our cynical reading of the volatile subject. The script approaches its gentle characters, a cultured Muslim family keeping its head high in a cosmopolitan society that constantly threatens to blow the lid off the conservative core of the family nucleus.
Nazir Khan (Narinder Samra, astonishingly gentle and sensitive) is the patriarch of the family. He listens to old film songs - 'Aaja sanam madhur chandni mein' and 'Jalte hain jiske liye'. He takes interest in his daughter and son's growth and chooses to get flirty with his shy conservative wife (Renu Brindle) when alone.
Then love happens to the daughter of the family, played by Neelam Parmar. It strikes her when the family is not looking. She falls in love and the family falls from grace.
'Land Gold Women' weaves with absorbing dexterity and disarming simplicity a tale of a father who must kill his own daughter to save the family's 'honour'.
The izzat (respect) that he strives and struggles to preserve with disconcerting self-clarity is remarkably reified by the principal actor, and full marks to Narinder Samra for making a character so complex in its cultural contradictions, look so at ease with its angst and turmoil.
But there is more at work here than just a convincing central performance. There's warmth, brevity and a disarming absence of any kind of a value-judgement from the film's authors. Indeed, Avantika leaves all the questioning on the 'honour' killing to a couple of public prosecutors, one of whom ironically happens to be a half-Pakistani woman struggling to answer the questions on purdah and honour that the legal case poses.
For a work so austere and straightforward, 'Land Gold Women' is remarkably rich in tonal resonances. Much is said about patriarchal high-handedness towards the emotional sexual need of women. The silences are frequently allowed to speak in unmistakable voices of coded dissent. And here's where Amar Mohile's lucid background music works its potent magic.
The film does suffer from conveying stereotypical images of bullying machismo taken from traditional renderings of Muslim families. The uncle (Hassani Shapi), you feel, is blamed squarely by the script for the nauseating subversion of family-honour that happens in the idyllic Khan family. But surely the rot goes deeper.
What we finally carry away from the film is a message against intolerance in societies built on impatient prejudices. The father-daughter relationship, which lies at the heart of the bleeding narration, is beautifully done. The sequence in which Nazir steps gently into his daughter's room in the night and recites a poem he wrote for her during her childhood, just chokes the breath out of the viewer.
Yes, the actor's Hindi diction is questionable. But then he lives in a land far away from home.
Without resorting to manipulative sentimentality or shock value, the film makes the viewer acutely conscious of the fissures and aberrations that continue to corrode conservative families even when placed in apparently-liberal countries.
Films on honour killing have ranged from the brutal 'Love Sex Aur Dhokha' to the banal 'Aakrosh'. 'Land Gold Women' opts for the tool of gentle persuasion. It mediates our senses from a point of detachment to involvement without making the characters beg and scream for our attention.
There is indeed no honour in honour killing. But there is certainly an intrinsic honour in cinema that depicts the damned and the doomed with restrained grace and dispassion. A must-see film for all those who believe cinema can still have its heart at the right place.