REVISION: ‘Lihaaf: The Quilt’ alternates between two parallel tracks; one depicting the court proceedings of Ismat Chugtai (Tannishtha Chatterjee) in Lahore after being charged with obscenity for being the author of ‘Lihaaf’, and the other is a dramatization of the tale itself.
In the opening scenes, Ismat receives a subpoena from Lahore, and we quickly dive into his everyday struggles and literary ambitions. During court sessions, she is accompanied by her husband Shahid (Rahat Kazmi) and writer and friend Manto (Shoib Nikash Shah). Together with the audience, he narrates the real-life incidents, most of which are narrated by the young Ismat (Anushka Sen), especially during his interim stay with the enigma, Begum Jaan (Sonal Sehgal). What follows is the girl’s account of her time there, including her perplexity at the friendship of Begum Jaan and her masseur Rabbo (Namita Lal), her horror at seeing the quilt (worn by Begum) take puzzling shapes at night. , mostly resembling the ‘elephant in the room’ and her dread when Begum asks her, “How many ribs does one have?” and then goes on to discover.
Director Rahat Kazmi co-wrote the script with Sonal Sehgal, adapting the story to its deepest essence and featuring a very stubborn and fierce female figure who will go out of her way to be heard. While ‘Lihaaf’ stays true to the source material, adding beautifully crafted metaphors and (poetry) in Urdu shayari to the story, it falls short of filling the void left by a half-done script. Despite its flaws, the triangular universe of Begum Jaan, Rabbo, and a young Ismat is far more compelling than Chatterjee’s adult Ismat, who lives in a conflict-free courtroom.
Tannistha’s capable shoulders bear the burden of recounting past events, and she even goes to great lengths to convey the character’s fiery spirit, but inconsistently written dialogue interrupts the flow, making it impossible to empathize with the character. Even the courtroom drama moves at a painfully slow pace, almost drowning out the intensity of Chugtai’s story, which is told on a parallel track.
Sonal Sehgal’s portrait of a heartbroken queen who is a true receptacle for affection and the human touch is compelling. Both actresses, Sonal as Begum and Namita as her masseur Rabboo, seem to be at ease in the enigmatic haveli. It’s only when they have to interact that their discomfort becomes apparent, highlighting the lack of chemistry between the main characters. For example, in a scene in which Begum reads the chapter of an eroticism to Rabbo, their gestures also seem awkward and out of sync, making it difficult for them to act and for the audience to witness what is shown. In general, he belittles the love that grew out of dying desire.
Anushka Sen is impressive as a young Ismat. She evokes a variety of emotions, from the playful exploration of the Begum’s palace to discomfort at the Begum’s proximity to her. Despite playing a vital role in the plot that accelerates the formation of the same-sex relationship, Mir Sarwar’s Nawab Sahib hardly makes an impression.
Simply put, ‘Lihaaf: The Quilt’ would have been better without the court drama, which only adds to the extra-long running time of the film. Still, the adaptation has its moments, making it an average watch.