Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers for the “Raat Rani” episode of Amazon Prime Video’s “Modern Love: Mumbai.”
Adapted from the New York Times column of the same title, Modern Love: Mumbai centres around six tales of love and longing set against the backdrop of Maximum City – soon to be followed by stories set in the cities of Chennai and Hyderabad.
The first episode in Modern Love: Mumbai is adapted from the NYT Modern Love essay “The Bike That Saved My Life.”
The protagonist Lalzari (Fatima Sana Shaikh), a hijab-clad woman, is a picture of grace. She is content with her little home by the sea, held together with tarpaulin sheets and stopgap fixes. Her ideal night out involves sharing a single scoop of ice cream with her seemingly disinterested husband by a roadside stall. She always smiles, even when her husband tells her that their marriage is “boring” him. It’s almost as if nothing can faze her and everything can and will be fixed, including their fading marriage. Isn’t that what we’ve been taught about love – fighting for the ones we love?
Lalzari is in for a rude surprise when her husband, Lutfi, disappears the next morning with just a piece of paper pinned to a bicycle that informs her of his decision to part ways for an indefinite period.
Lutfi is just one step short of “triple talaq” – a form of marriage dissolution in Muslim Law, whereby a husband can give the divorce to his wife by stating “Talaq” three times in a row. No reasons need to be cited and the wife need not be present at the time of pronouncing talaq either. In many cases, Muslim men have simply pronounced triple talaq over WhatsApp. Recently, India outlawed this form of divorce through The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019. The law came on the heels of a Supreme Court order, which held that triple talaq violated the constitutional right to equality before the law. Men found in breach of the law can be jailed for up to three years.
Many Islamic nations have barred the practice too, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iran.
But Lalzari cannot comprehend her husband chickening out with no clarity on their future. We see her painfully coming to terms with reality, cycling across the city, calling him, seeking help.
For the average Indian Muslim woman like Lalzari, any possibility of truly coming into their own is usually stymied by early marriage. According to the 2011 census data, 49 percent of Muslim women were married between 14 and 19 years of age. Early marriage automatically stifles any possibility of acquiring an education or financial stability.
The same goes for Lalzari too. With triple talaq, a woman does not receive alimony or financial aid from the husband. A survey by the rights-based organisation Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan revealed that 95 percent of divorced women received no financial support from their husbands. Lalzari’s husband has not even divorced her;he just left her hanging with the hope that he might return.
In Lalzari’s world of smiles and ice creams, her husband held great, if unstated, power. As a Muslim man, I’ve been witness to the fact that the sword of triple talaq is always anxiously hanging over a Muslim woman’s head. After all, triple talaq has been pronounced by men for the flimsiest of reasons. Earlier this year, a man pronounced triple talaq because his wife served milk to her children before him. In 2019, a case of triple talaq and assault followed a delay in the serving of food.
But Lalzari’s story is not concerned with highlighting the grim realities of triple talaq. Instead, it focuses on the breach of trust, the constant anxiety, the lack of support and the frustrating patriarchy at the heart of it all. It manages to convey all of this and more when we see the otherwise smiling Lalzari breaking down, grappling with the unfortunate deck of cards life has dealt her.
But she is not the demure wife. She will only take so much shit from her husband. After her calls go unanswered and her attempts to find him fail, she accepts her reality. Director Shonali Bose and writers Nilesh Maniyar and John Belenager beautifully use the metaphor of flyovers (overpasses) to parallel Lalzari’s journey of finding her own meaning in life. It is no coincidence that the same bicycle on which she finds his note becomes her vehicle to independence.
Accustomed to sitting behind her husband on his scooter as they zoomed across the flyover after their late night ice cream outings, Lalzari summons all of her courage to cross the flyover on her own, riding her bicycle. There is nothing more powerful than witnessing a woman who was written off winning in life. You can’t help but cheer for her.
In the real world, a huge percentage of Muslim women wronged by triple talaq are unable to bring to court the men who abandoned them, for the simple reason that they lack the resources to do so. The ones who do have the means are often too jaded to trust a world that will only judge them for attacking the sole breadwinner of a family.
Eventually, Lalzari does manage to track down her husband, not to persuade him to come back – far from it – but to inform him with a million-dollar smile that she has truly “crossed the flyover.” There is no going back now.
Her husband tells Lalzari that he can come back anytime he wants. It is at this point that Lalzari upends the triple talaq dynamic and casually pronounces “talaq, talaq, talaq.” It is she who wants out for good.
“That won’t make you a man,” the husband protests, anguished.
Director Shonali Bose told VICE that “when you play this [narrative] in comedy” the effect becomes manifold. “It doesn’t matter if it’s actually possible but I love the irony that she has the confidence to say it, and we can showcase the law without being too in-your-face.”
Writer Nilesh Maniyar also briefed the lyricist, Ginny Diwan, to use the word “curfew” in the title song, symbolic of the fact that Lalzari comes from Kashmir – the most militarised zone in the world. “There is no curfew on my heart and no restraints on my dreams,” sings Nikita Gandhi in the song “Raat Raani.”
Writer Maniyar does not claim to be a lawyer or an expert on the nuances of the triple talaq law. “My job is to tell you a story and remind you through symbolism where we stand as a society,” he told VICE. “Just the idea of dropping those three words casually represents so much of the patriarchy.”
He added that the patriarchy is so ingrained in the husband that he is even unaware of “what he has become.”
Gradually, Lalzari sets up a makeshift stall attached to the same bicycle selling kahwa at night, a special tea from her home state Kashmir. Interestingly, she decorates the bicycle with jasmine, or the Raat Rani flower, also the episode's title.
“People believe that the fragrance of the jasmine attracts snakes, so they plant a day-blooming flower next to it,” Lalzari explains to a passerby in the anthology. “But why will the jasmine ever dim itself for anyone else?”