Following a three-year long moratorium, an impeccable curation by Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2023 is catalysing the renascence of South Asian cinema with a larger focus on oppression of marginalised communities. Women's fundamental rights concerning reproductive justice and gender quota in the parliament have been drawing immense scrutiny recently and so the jury's selection of socially relevant offerings from Jayant Digambar Somalkar's Marathi feature Sthal (A Match) to Aparna Sen's hard-hitting feature film The Rapist seem pre-destined to shake up the complacent patriarchy we are still reeling under. Homegrown has scoured for hidden gems among the mind-numbing panoply of over 250 films being showcased this season and what caught our eye was the chimerical adaptation of a feminist short story from pre-Independence Bengal.
Transcending the borders of time and space, this hand-painted animation feature titled Sultana's Dream by Spanish director Isabel Herguera is premiering in the Focus South Asia section for the cross-cultural significance it imbues upon the eponymous science fiction narrative penned by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain all the way back in 1905. Begum was born into a landed Muslim family who denied her the right to education and circumscribed her behind a purdah for the longest time until she staged a quiet rebellion of individualism that changed the course of history. A voracious autodidact, Begum Rokeya not only picked up Bangla and English with the help of her brothers but also went on to open India's first school for Muslim girls and espouse a more inclusive worldview through her literary endeavours in local progressive magazines.
The Indian Ladies' Magazine, an English language periodical in colonial Madras, took a chance on Begum's utopian vision of a parallel universe, publishing what was then an experiment in speculative gender-bending that predated Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s influential page turner Herland by almost a decade. Like a prophetic antecedent to Greta Gerwig's Barbie movie, Begum's 'Ladyland' was a sanctuary for female scientists and leaders, a matrilineal oasis where the menfolk were kept off the streets and out of the government — a reversal of the contemporary malaise.
Leapfrogging across visual techniques like shadow puppetry, 2D ink and water colour animation, Herguera's philosophical response to the transgressive parable meanders like an impressionist waking dream. Sultana's Dream is a mixed media triptych following the protagonist Inés from Spain to India on a mission to break up with her lover until she picks up Begum's prescient fairytale at a bookshop, whereupon the film reinterprets Ladyland with striking cutouts and stippled mehendi backgrounds. A multilingual palimpsest of more than five languages, the film examines cultural nuances of gender roles in connexion with non-Western feminist ideologies. Sultana's Dream resurrects the legacy of Begum Rokeya struggling against the shackles of discrimination and blazing the trail for her spiritual sisters to follow through the vestibule of sociological evolution. You wouldn't want to miss this one for the world.
Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2023
Dates: October 27 – November 5, 2023
Details: For Venues and Schedule, click here.
You can book your tickets for Sultana's Dream here.