Meenakshi Shedde: Investigating Paradise
I'm currently at the Berlin Film Festival, and struggling to be Indian. By which I mean that when I’m moderating post-film question-answers with directors and stars of world cinema, including Indian cinema, for the Berlin International Film Festival, I like to wear a sari. Now, I love wearing saris, especially handloom ones. But, when you're in Berlin and it is minus five degrees, wearing a sari becomes a project.
It’s bl**dy cold and windy, and the occasional bouts of sunshine and blue skies can be very deceptive temperature-wise. I figured the trick is to wear layers. So, first it’s inner thingummies. Then leggings and a long, warm slip that covers your midriff, otherwise exposed when you wear a sari-blouse. Then jeans. Then a sari petticoat. Then the sari. And finally, a woollen overcoat; a woollen cap and gloves are optional. Then, I can be somewhat comfortable being Indian. This whole chukker can easily shave 20 minutes off your schedule. I was discussing the challenges of being Indian in bitter cold with filmmaker Leena Manimekalai, who suggested I make a DIY video on how to wear a sari in the cold. Hmm.
We are past the half-way mark at Berlin at the time of writing, and my favourite films here include Ildiko Enyedi’s On Body and Soul (Hungary), Agnieszka Holland’s Spoor (Poland), Sebastian Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman (Chile), Oren Moverman’s The Dinner (USA, with Richard Gere, Laura Linney), Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House (UK-India), and Merzak Allouache’s (in pic) Tahqiq fel djenna (Investigating Paradise, France/Algeria).
The last, in particular, was fascinating. Directed by Allouache, the Algerian-born French director, Investigating Paradise is a fantastic, funny and terrifying feature-length documentary on the impact of globalised Islam today. Attractive Algerian woman journalist Nedjma interviews a number of people while investigating Islamic notions of paradise, including Salafi and Wahhabi preachers who recruit jihadis.
As she meets youngsters, women, preachers, artists and political activists, it becomes clear that paradise is a marketable product, and that Wahhabis are spending big bucks to market their version of Islam worldwide through preachers, televangelism, books and online videos. Man after man describes the 72 houris waiting for him in paradise — their black hair, white skin, its softness. Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud calls it “porno Islamism”, a fantasy and “a cross between day-care and socialism.” When asked what’s in paradise for women, most people haven’t bothered to think about it. Daoud speculates, deadpan, “Bigger kitchens? Bigger washing machines?” A woman reflects, “When their husbands are busy with the 72 houris, the women here will finally get freedom.”
Moderate preachers and political activists underline how this notion of paradise has nothing to do with true Islam, that compassion and doing good deeds will get you to paradise; that the repression, frustrations and denial in this life, that are to be rewarded with sexual favours after death, only show how urgently contemporary Islam is in need of reform. But at the Q/A, the director pointed out that while the journalist was actually played by an actress, all the interviewees were real, pushing this docu-fiction into an even more debatable space.
I can’t wait to see a similar documentary investigating Hindu notions of its glorious past, history and identity. Nisha Pahuja had already done a great job with her documentary The World Before Her; somebody urgently needs to take it forward. I bet it will be as funny and terrifying a mirror to ourselves, as we have ever seen.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.