'Lihaaf' Ismat Chugtai’s layered lesbian saga brought to flickering life

Lihaaf is a brave, audacious attempt to explore the no-holds-barred fearless sexuality inherent in the bold story by Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai

Photo Courtesy: Social Media
Photo Courtesy: Social Media

Subhash K Jha

Lihaaf is a brave, audacious attempt to explore the no-holds-barred fearless sexuality inherent in the story by Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai. In an ambitious fusion of fact and fiction, Chugtai’s commitments and priorities as an artiste and a wife-mother are yoked with scenes from Chugtai’s controversial sex-rated story Lihaaf.

It is a tricky complex and near-impossible balance between the artiste and her art. Director Rahat Kazmi just about carries it off. The 1 hour 12 minute long film (how does this qualify as a short-film?) is tastefully mounted, elegantly executed. The spoken and visual language are refined. Cinematographer Pinku Chauhan confers a rich texture to the frames without making them look over-ornate.

The sets depicting the Nawab’s haveli where the story –Lihaaf of a lonely Beghum’s tryst with carnal joy with a same-sex partner, unfolds, are aesthetically constructed, as are the narrative key-points.

One never feels the burden of periodicity overpowering the story. The redoubtable Tannishtha Chatterjee is a likable blend of rebellion and bemusement as Chugtai while the director Rahat Kazmi puts in an appealing performance as Chugtai’s husband trying to be tolerant and liberal but failing to cope with his wife’s ‘bachkana harkatein’…until that plate of biryani from his wife’s kitchen dissolves his sulk.

The real gosht (meat) of the plot is in the fiction portion of Chugtai’s story where Sonal Sehgal is an able portrait of decadent sexual craving. She is specially persuasive in her scenes with her masseur Rabbo (Namita Lal).

In spite of the staginess of the double plot, Lihaaf leaves an appealing impression drawing up a solid case for lonely neglected housewives to tumble in the lihaaf (quilt) with partners of the same sex. Not quite as seductive a take on period lesbianism as The Favorite, Lihaaf nonetheless gets by on the strength of a credible plot construction and some effective performances.

And the Begum burns while the Nawab fiddles with young boys.

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