‘Biriyaani’ review: Kani brilliantly portrays a suspected ISIS joinee’s sister

The film, touching upon religion and extremism in its background, tells the story of Khadeeja, whose strength lies in her silences as she accepts new blows in life.
Biriyaani film still
Biriyaani film still
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The face, nonchalant for so long, breaks into a slow smile when Khadeeja sees her mother on the beach. She has come to visit with her husband when a kind neighbour of Khadeeja’s mother called to say that she is not doing too well these days. Her mental health has been deteriorating since Khadeeja’s father's death and now her brother has gone off somewhere too. Khadeeja does not say much, neither does she break down at the sudden termination of her marriage but loses her composure in the moments she thinks she's alone. Kani Kusruti as Khadeeja wonderfully transforms in these moments from a woman who's gone numb by circumstances to one embracing the emotions that life continues to bring. Biriyaani, a movie that has won several awards including the state award for Best Female Actor for Kani, tells the story of Khadeeja, who by no means stands apart from a number of women with similar fates. Khadeeja is a representation.

At the National Investigation Agency (NIA) office where Khadeeja and her ill mother are called for questioning for alleged connections of her brother with the terrorist organisation ISIS, she speaks of her sibling as a learned man whom their father gave a good education to. What about you, the NIA officer (Anil Nedumangad) asks. Has the father not given you an education? Only till Class 10, she says; girls in her community are married off after they reach puberty. Their father was a fisherman and the family lived in a hut by the sea. Khadeeja was married to a man with no job because she came from a poorer family. 

At the marital home that the film begins with, life is monotonous and indifference is the order of the day -- except when Khadeeja's little son is around, the only person all the grownups appear to have any feelings for at all. The mother-in-law has never hidden her dislike for the alliance with a family of fisherfolk; and Khadeeja’s husband barely speaks except to echo his mother or satisfy his sexual needs. The very first scene of an impassive Khadeeja on the bed while the husband is engaged in the act pretty much sets the premise. 

But that's only a picture which is soon to become her past. Khadeeja is not portrayed as a rebel, or as one who raises her voice against injustice. Her strength comes in the silences with which she accepts new blows in life. The only time she speaks up is at a point she decides to choose a path of her own, once she is free of her many ties. She doesn't spend long minutes trying to make sense of life or appeal to your sympathy. Religion for her has been a given, but she does not appear to seek refuge in god either. Shots by the sea beating against the shore (Karthik Muthukumar's cinematography) seem perfectly befitting to place Khadeeja in. 

Sajin Baabu, the director, throws in a few television discussions, panellists taking sides on the question of religion and terrorism. Khadeeja's life, torn by the sudden labelling of her brother as a terrorist, goes on parallelly, almost ridiculing these condescending remarks. Through the choices that she gets to make at last on her own, Khadeeja appears to find joy in liberation from the many ties, a slow smile spreading on her face the way it does when she is face to face with those she loves. Surjith, playing a Muslim leader, becomes the one man Khadeeja finds nice among all she meets.

The film, screened at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), moves on with an appreciable speed, not halting for long at any juncture, behaving like its protagonist who moves on from one life reality to another. In its rawness, it can be blithely explicit at times. But otherwise, it mostly moves like a song.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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