The director of instant Asian LGBT classic LOEV (2016), which has been available on Netflix for a few years, is back with a powerful tale of subtle female oppression once again set in his home country India. Our titular protagonist (played by rising star Radhika Madan) is a beautiful, elegant intelligent and liberated 28-year-old professional in Mumbai. She has a high-profile corporate job, and is about to move to Berlin. She has a bright future ahead, until one day an unwanted pregnancy shakes the many pillars of her existence, one by one.
A pregnancy is supposed to be a discreet and personal affair, but the news of Sanaa’s baby somehow spread like wildfire. She is promptly dismissed from her gig in Germany, her relationship to her mother gets rocky, and she becomes evicted from the little apartment where she dwells on her own. This is not a countryside village. This is Mumbai. Sanaa is not naive. She is a strong and resolute woman, and an established professional. She looks smart and dapper, immaculately dressed with the perfectly trimmed haircut. Her family is not particularly religious. In fact, her loving mother is very supportive of her daughter, revealing that she too was once the bearer of an unwanted pregnancy. She spurs Sanaa: “you can be anything you want!”.
Yet Sanaa cannot rid herself from the shackles of tradition, in a country with a very conservative attitude towards women. In this sense, Sanaa reminded me of Fatma in the eponymous 2001 movie by Khaled Ghorbal: the female professional has her life almost entirely destroyed by the disclosure that she was once raped, revealing that her country (Tunisia, in this case) is not as progressive as her lifestyle might suggest.
Differently from Fatma, Sanaa was never raped. The sexual encounter was entirely consensual. And it may come as a surprise to Westerners that abortion has been legal in India since 1971, and that a major Supreme Court established that single women have equal rights to abortion (in a major victory for women’s rights) just weeks after the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US. This doesn’t mean, however, that pregnant women are not oppressed. There are other far more subtle ways to subjugate and humiliate single women. Various people pressurise Sanaa to terminate her pregnancy. Her doctor is profoundly disappointed when Sanaa hesitates to proceed with the procedure. At one point she threatens her patient: ““I will abort you if you are not here by 07:00”. A forced abortion is in many ways tantamount to rape, a hymenoplasty or even an arranged marriage. It entails both psychological and physical violence.
Our protagonist is determined not to abide: “my body, my choice”, she exclaims, in a clear echo of the #MeToo movement. She will not allow her freedom to be infringed, it seems. Or will she succumb to the many social pressures and give up her unborn baby?
A very intimate and surprising revelation at the end of the film establishes that the onus of contraception is often on the female, at least in India, as is the burden of pregnancy and termination. There seems to be virtually no accountability, no support from the father’s side. It is the woman who have to suffer and to answer the most difficult questions. It is the woman who experiences the sentiment of guilt and despondency. On the other hand, Sanaa carries a beautiful message of solidarity and sisterhood: it is in other women that young mothers find a support network.
Overall, Sanaa is a moving and audacious drama fitting of the times. It includes a masturbation and a sex scene as graphic as it gets for an Indian film. This may seem neither revolutionary nor subversive for Westerns eyes used to deeply raw and sexually graphic movies, but it is indeed an achievement for Indian cinema. I also commend the programming team at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival for consistently including Indian films in their main competition strands – a gesture not matched by the majority of a-list festivals in Europe.
Credit must also go to the music score. Diegetic and non-diegetic songs give the movie a little touch of Bollywood (of which Mumbai is the capital) without immersing the story in sugar. A magnificent warble cries in the final sequence, as if urging our protagonist to embrace her freedom fearlessly: “Why do you curse yourself so? why do you hold yourself so?”
Sanaa has just premiered at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. It is in the event’s Official Competition.