Lihaaf is about alternate sexuality, says Rahat Kazmi


Rahat Kazmi, who has translated Ismat Chughtai’s story on screen, says that it was cathartic for him to make the film

Kashmiri filmmaker Rahat Kazmi is best known for his film Mantostaan
Kashmiri filmmaker Rahat Kazmi is best known for his film Mantostaan

When Rahat Kazmi first shared the idea of making a film on Lihaaf with Tannishtha Chatterjee and Sonal Sehgal, they asked him if he would really dare to do such a thing. After all, Lihaaf has been fodder for controversy ever since Ismat Chughtai wrote it. It has been an uphill road for this Kashmiri filmmaker, who is best known for his film Mantostaan, that was based on four short stories by Saadat Hassan Manto. Kazmi’s Lihaaf, that recently unveiled its first look at the Cannes Film Festival, has the world’s attention now, especially, since Marc Baschet, Academy Award-winning producer came on board. Things are looking much more grand than Kazmi had imagined a year ago.

“I read Lihaaf for the first time as a teenager. I have always been drawn towards Urdu literature, having grown up in Kashmir. Stories of Chughtai and Manto are always fascinating. When you read them at a young age, they seem obscene, but as you grow older, you know better. My friends and I experienced something similar too. And I would keep going back to Lihaaf,” says the 36-year-old. Having read it in English, Kazmi hunted down the Urdu version too, which was not easy given the controversy surrounding it. After it was published in 1942 in Urdu literary journal Adab-i-Latif, Chughtai had to defend herself in Lahore Court having being charged with obscenity. Kazmi’s film, in fact, starts at the point where the police comes to Chughtai’s house in [then] Bombay to summon her.

A still from the film
A still from the film

“The film has two parallel tracks — that of Lihaaf, the story, and that of the trial which is the outcome of the story. It’s interesting that the story itself is a true account. Ismat’s family confirmed to me that she indeed knew a begum on whom the story was based. And later, a grown up Ismat met her when she had remarried, and had children too,” Kazmi says. It was not easy for him to convince Chughtai’s family to grant him permission to make the film. “It’s difficult for them to trust anyone. I met her daughter Sabrina and her grandson, Ashish Sawhny. When they got to know about Mantostaan, and the recognition it got internationally, they saw in me someone they could trust,” he says.

In the film, Chatterjee plays Chughtai while Sehgal, Begum Jaan. Interestlingly, Baschet wanted to associate with the film after he saw the first cut. Until then, it was an independent production shot in three months. Lihaaf, Kazmi stresses, is not as much about homosexuality as it is about alternate sexuality. “This is a common misconception. Begum Jaan falls for her masseuse Rabbo only after she fails to find love in her husband. It’s more about love and the need for physical affection.” The visuals are a mix of risqué and suggestive. “The best thing about Chughtai and Manto is that they don’t judge their characters. I have tried to do the same,” he says. Now, as the film prepares for a world premiere — the choice is between Toronto and Venice — we ask Kazmi if he’s concerned about reactions on home ground. “For me, it was cathartic to make it. As far as controversies are concerned, let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,” he says.

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