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An Urdu poet, her activist niece, and two faces of rebellion at Lucknow’s Farangi Mahal

Uma Chakravarti’s ‘Ek Inquilab Aur Aaya’, which is showing at the Public Service Broadcasting Trust documentary festival, is a chronicle of lives less ordinary.

Mild-mannered Urdu poet Sughra Fatima and her niece, student activist Khadija Ansari, are products of the same cultural environment. Born and raised in Lucknow’s Farangi Mahal, a historically important centre of Islamic education, they shared a marked propensity for sharp subversion. But their rebelliousness manifested in vastly divergent ways.

Through the prism of the eventful life stories of Fatima and Ansari, Uma Chakravarti’s documentary Ek Inquilab Aur Aaya examines the life of women inside Farangi Mahal and the influence of its environment on them. The Public Service Broadcasting Trust production also chronicles the impact of the changing political and cultural ethos of Lucknow, from the Khilafat Movement in 1920 to the partition of India in 1947, on Farangi Mahal and its women. Ek Inquilab Aur Aaya is a part of PSBT’s annual documentary film festival Open Frame, and will be screened at Delhi’s India International centre on September 19.

In order to establish the environment that the women grew up in, the documentary dwells briefly on the history of Farangi Mahal, which dates back to the 17th century. Once regarded as the bastion of Islamic scholarship, the erosion of the cultural legacy of Farangi Mahal has now become evident. Yet, Ek Inquilab Aur Aaya does not document its decline. Instead, it hopes to represent the unheard narratives of women who were once influenced by the rationalist ideas propounded by its scholars, but were not given systematic access to education.

Ek Aur Inquilaab Aaya. Image credit: Public Service Broadcasting Trust.
Ek Aur Inquilaab Aaya. Image credit: Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

In its runtime of 66 minutes, Ek Aur Inquilaab Aaya not only sketches contrasting portraits of female rebellion, but also dwells on the various consequences of defiance. While Fatima rebelled by penning seemingly innocuous verses, Ansari openly defied the restrictions placed on her by joining the Communist Party of India. Forbidden to write when the doctors suggested that Fatima’s fondness for poetry had led to a mental breakdown, she succumbed to mental illness in Farangi Mahal. But Ansari, who is convinced that her aunt was driven to madness because she was never allowed to exit her home, became one of the first women to leave Farangi Mahal, and went on to acquire a PhD in Sociology.

The softness of Fatima’s rebellion is documented with wistful black and white photographs and fond recollections by her family. On the other hand, Ansari’s sharp defiance is established through a fiery background score, and admiring testimonies from colleagues.

With visuals of the garments and jewelry that Fatima designed, Ek Inquilab Aur Aaya elucidates how fragments of personal history insinuate themselves into objects that are treasured for posterity. The narrative is punctuated by mostly evocative sequences that dramatise events in the two women’s lives.

Ek Inquilab Aur Aaya also demonstrates the range of emotions that poetry has the potential to convey. Fatima’s playful rebelliousness makes its way into some of her poetry, and her lonely wistfulness is conveyed by the thumris she wrote. On the other hand, her naat, which is traditionally a poem written in praise of prophet Muhammed, is a reflection of her religiousness and piety.

Ek Aur Inquilaab Aaya. Image credit: Public Service Broadcasting Trust.
Ek Aur Inquilaab Aaya. Image credit: Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

Since the women in Ek Inquilab Aur Aaya are vocal about their naivete as children, their personal journeys seem even more drastic. While Fatima’s autobiography documents her regret at the mistakes in her early work, Ansari smiles at her hotheaded teenage years. The most instructive moment in the documentary features Fatima’s relative reflecting laughingly on her initial assumption that communism was another religion of its own.

With voice-overs of Fatima’s meticulous autobiography, poetry recitations by her niece, visuals of a group of women singing, and Ansari’s powerful and teary reminiscences, women’s voices, in their many incarnations, dominate the soundscape of the documentary. This stylistic choice is particularly appropriate since Ek Inquilab Aur Aaya is a study of the strategies used by women to find their personal voices in an environment that afforded them limited personal freedom.

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