NEW YORK, NY (June 20, 2017) — Shahid Nadeem’s ACQUITTAL, directed by Noele Ghoussaini, tells the story of four women confined together in a Pakistani prison. Stripped of their dignity and human rights in the aftermath of General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq’s regime of terror in the early 1980s, they have only one another to turn to for friendship and support. Their personal narratives, intimate and specific, expose the larger socio-cultural injustices that women of their time were experiencing in Pakistan – across differences in age, class, and religious fervor. As their individual stories unfold, we see their connection to one another deepen –rooted in victimhood, but emerging as empowerment, from the physical and metaphoric space of the deplorable prison cell they share.
First, we meet Zahida Zamen (Aizzah Fatima), the professor, our narrator, and the outspoken critic of these times. She has been jailed as a protestor, but her voice will not be silenced. Her direct tone of urgency, her clarity of purpose, and her curiosity about these other women, leads us into the warm, dimly lit space – a cocoon of soft, warm light and drab, overlapping color against which three very distinct women move about.
We meet Jannat Bibi (Shetal Shah), an older, religious woman serving a sentence for a crime committed not by her, but by her son. She willingly and unquestioningly accepts her circumstances, praying that her son will not be captured, even though she would be set free if he were. Shah’s portrayal, however restrained, perfectly captures the solemn dignity of Jannat Bibi’s self-sacrifice.
In sharp relief to Jannat Bibi’s mild-mannered performance, Mariam (Salma Shaw) enthralls the audience as a mysterious, dancing Sufi. She moves about strangely oblivious to her surroundings enraptured by an otherworldly, childlike joy. We learn, from her prison-mates, that she has been gang-raped by a group of military officers, and is now carrying a child. Since no man will come forward as a witness to the crime, she is punished by the authorities as the guilty party(a customary practice at that time). Despite this trauma, Mariam appears so very uncontained with hope and excitement for the child in her belly that we wonder if she is not stark raving mad after all. Shaw’s uncompromised performance balances this unhinged quality with a mystical sense of wonderment that inspires so much more than it alienates.
Lastly, we meet Jamila (Gulshan Mia), a child bride forced to marry a man decades older than herwith an “oily mustache”, who refuses to grant her a divorce, and chains her to a bed and beats her. If not for Mia’s textured performance, we might have only seen this character’s emotional scar tissue, her simmering rage and bitterness, her incessant questions to Zahida, which are demands for social justice more than they are questions.“Have you ever heard of a case in which a man was arrested for beating a woman,” she demands to know.
Instead, in her loving tenderness towards Mariam and in her remembrances of a lover she once knew, we see that her capacity to be a vessel for love has not vanquished, but merely gone into hiding. Mia holds back nothing, neither Jamila’s pain nor her stolen innocence, effortlessly unveiling her character’s complex psyche and with it, her range as a performer.
As we move through each of their stories, the present moment shifts in and out of focus – time and outside pressures move them forward, between the reality they can shape and the one they are powerless to influence, between the freedom they’ve unleashed from within and one that lies beyond their reach.
We see their bond grow stronger. They are moved to sing and dance together. They are moved to laughter – the sound of which cannot be tolerated by the guards. As long as they are heard, they are alive, even as they push against the weight of their oppression and the pull of an uncertain future. How much more can they withstand, we wonder. Who will remain in the cell and who will be set free? How infinite is Mariam’s light? How strong is Jamila’s indignation?
ACQUITTAL exists in the present, as much as the past. We relate to Zahida as a modern-day Feminist who curates our experience of this time, this place, the situation she finds herself in – and, we barely need her to guide us through the morass, as she has finally caught up with the sensibilities of her audience and echoes them back perfectly to us. While the characters are genuinely interesting and their stories unique, there is little moral ambiguity here. They are victims and heroes against the backdrop of an oppressive, misogynistic regime.
But, as she leads the charge, our charge, we are left to wonder why the script hasn’t flipped. That her protest then might be her protest now is what troubles us. We wonder not why it happened, but why it still happens. Zahida could be the activist next door, and the oppressive regime, our own. Is this history being rewritten with a distinctly modern perspective? Would the experiences of these women actually have betrayed their own expectations of those times, in that place? Or, are we stuck in a playback loop? Perhaps both.