It was in 2013 that I first watched "Wadjda" on UTV World Movies. Finding it on the Netflix search engine was a happy moment for I wanted to revisit the film again. When we talk about Saudi Arabian cinema, we need to keep in mind that it's in an infant stage. Before the 1980s, there were a few movie halls in Saudi Arabia that screened Indian, Turkish and Egyptian films. The government banned all movie halls in 1983 as they were considered un-Islamic. The ban was reversed in 2018 and the first cinema opened in Riyadh in April 2018. There have only been some 20-30 Saudi Arabian films so far.
"Wadjda", a Saudi Arabian neorealist film by Haifaa al-Mansour, the first movie shot fully in Saudi Arabia and also the first by a woman director, was premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2012 at a time when there were no movie halls in her country. It was the government's entry for the Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, and was also nominated in the Foreign Film category at the British Academy Film Awards, but did not win. It won awards/recognition at a few other film festivals.
"Wadjda" takes us through the subtle nuances of benign female defiance in the conservative and patriarchal Saudi Arabian society, a rare cinematic insight into the walled lives of women through the tale of the schoolgirl Wadjda’s ambition to own a bicycle in a country which does not allow women to ride bicycles. While the bicycle in “The Bicycle Thieves” is a symbol of despair, the green bicycle in “Wadjda” is a harbinger of hope and change, a sort of wings, or rather wheels, to break barriers and explore the outside world. Haifaa deals with the need for change by challenging it from within. She has to tell her story in a way that will not antagonize the establishment (otherwise the film wouldn’t be allowed to be made), at the same time getting her message across.
The opening shot of ten-year-old schoolgirls chanting a prayer in burkha-like full gowns, when Wadjda, one of them, wearing not the prescribed black leather shoes but canvas sneakers, which in their speed and mobility serve as an appropriate symbol of her defiance and rebellious attitude, is punished for not having memorized the prayer, sets the tone brilliantly for the film's skillful negotiation through tradition and progress.
The lady principal of the girls' school later tells a couple of chatting girls, "A woman's voice should not be heard by men. Her voice is her nakedness."
The bicycle, forbidden for women in Saudi Arabia, is introduced in the second scene as an allegory of male entitlement or freedom denied to women, when Wadjda's schoolboy neighbor Abdullah riding a cycle teases her, while she's walking to school, "Did you really think you could catch up with me?" and she, looking wistfully at the boys riding cycles to school, retorts, "If I had a bike, you would see what I can do." The celebration of speed, whether in breaking into a run or racing on a bicycle, is an enduring theme in the narration, thereby transforming Wadjda into a metaphor for speed and change. In Wadjda, the connotation of “speed” is very different from that of the famous Hollywood franchise, "The Fast and the Furious". It is a symbol of equal opportunities as opposed to adrenalin rush.
Wadjda's is a story of hope. The women, best exemplified by the adorable Wadjda and the honest sparkle of defiance in her eyes, are not passive victims. She’s not subverting morality but irrational gender controls in the guise of morality abetted by oppressive interpretation of religious texts. She grows up seeing her teachers paint menstruation as a sign of impurity, and seeing her mother and other women cook and shoulder the responsibility of raising children, while men would be served and waited upon. When Wadjda’s mother is shattered by her husband’s decision to have a second wife because she could not give him a son, she buys Wadjda a bicycle in an act of impulsive defiance as a signal of change. She tells her, “I want you to be the happiest person in this world. You’re all I have left in this world”, in a touching show of the bonding between mother and daughter, between two women in a world of unjustifiable male privileges.
In April 2013, Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women cycling.
In an interview Haifaa talks about her growing-up years in Saudi Arabia: My father gave us a lot of space to grow as individuals. I never felt I couldn't do anything because I was a girl. He encouraged his daughters to study. He brought home films for us to watch. I had a green bicycle. But he was under a lot of pressure. People would write letters saying, "You are a good and honest man. How could you let your daughter appear on TV and make films? That is very corrupt and wrong." But he wanted me to do what made me happy. Because we grew up in a very small, conservative town and my family is not conservative, we didn't mix a lot. We were the family nobody wanted to play with. We always felt like outsiders because my sisters and I didn't cover our hair.
Though Haifaa does not explicitly say so, perhaps because you cannot say so in Saudi Arabia, films like Wadjda reinforce the view that women in every country must openly show their defiance against exploitative interpretation of religion because religion hurts women more than men, denying them their right to humanity, basic dignity and their freedom of choice and expression.
Thematic preoccupation apart, "Wadjda" is a tender tale of mother-daughter bond, hope and resilience.
Kerala Varma, is a former Deputy General Manager of State Bank of IndiaHe lives in Chennai with his wife