A city with no crime, no death and no suffering. A street with no men. They are relegated to ‘mardanas’, a feminist equivalent of a ‘zenana’. Women are the rulers of Ladyland, this alternate world, where they move about freely, without a purdah.
These are some of the scenes from Sultana’s Dream, a feminist utopia by Bengali writer-activist Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, which was first published in 1905 in the English periodical, The Indian Ladies’ Magazine. Nearly a century later, these scenes have come alive in a Spanish animation El Sueño de la Sultana (Spanish for Sultana’s Dream), directed by Isabel Herguera, a Spanish animator and filmmaker. The film premiered at the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival in Spain this week.
“I’m excited and honoured. We started this project more than 10 years ago,” says an elated Herguera. Since 2005, Herguera has been visiting India to conduct workshops and co-produce animation films with Indian filmmakers. It was a chance encounter on a rainy day in Delhi that made her aware of Sultana’s Dream and Rokeya.
“It was 2012. I was going to meet a friend when it started raining. So I took shelter in an art gallery, which had a show on Gond art. There, a book cover caught my attention. It was published by Tara Books, a red cover depicting a woman piloting a spaceship.” She had to pick it up. In the book, Sultana’s dreamland has men who are no longer a threat and women use science to rule the country. When she flipped the book, the writer’s bio surprised her.
Born in 1880, in undivided Bengal, Rokeya Khatun had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. When her entire household would go to sleep, she would sneak into her elder brother Ibrahim Shaab’s room to learn from him. After her marriage to Sakhawat Hossain at the age of 16, Rokeya finally started studying. She then started a school for Muslim girls, and began writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Despite multiple socio-economic hurdles, she became a staunch advocate of women’s rights. Rokeya advocated for their economic independence, questioned the idea that a woman is only born to be an ideal wife, mother, daughter, and even raised concerns over the emotional support a woman provides for her family.
“A woman from a conservative Muslim family, who did not get any formal education, she was still able to envision and have such a radical posture in 1905. She lived in seclusion, but at the same time, she was aware,” says Herguera.
The movie is divided into three parts. It portrays Sultana’s Dream, features Rokeya’s life, and a journey of a Spanish girl who discovers the book. It has seen artists from all over India collaborating to bring Herguera’s visions to fruition. The three stories use three different types of art – mehendi technique, shadow puppet, and 2D animation for which Herguera sought help from the renowned Indian animator Upamanyu Bhattacharya. The film’s soundtrack brought together musicians like Tajdar Junaid and Moushumi Bhowmik.
Herguera’s film comes amidst a wave of renewed interest in Rokeya’s works among Indian artists. Hina Saiyada, a Mumbai-based film editor and producer is working on developing a video game based on this utopia. “Her text is so futuristic, scientific, multilayered and compassionate. The kind of science she wrote about, didn’t exist in her time. She was not blinkered by the reality that surrounded her. A linear approach towards it would have been a disservice,” says Saiyada. Her work “Kai’s Dream” takes a player to Ladyland through an immersive experience. “This says a lot about her work and her visions. She was one of the first sci-fi writers. She wrote as a woman. Not as a Muslim woman,” says Saiyada.
However, Miratun Nahar, an academic and activist from West Bengal who has extensively worked on Rokeya, says that calling ‘Sultana’s Dream’ a science fiction is a disservice. “I think she wrote about reality. What she wrote about technology and solar power in 1905, is still relevant. Her observations about the skewed gender relations still resonate,” says Nahar.
Maleka Begum, a professor at the Central Women’s University, Bangladesh, and a feminist author, echoes similar sentiments. “In reality, women are still kept away from power corridors. We are all still dreaming just like Rokeya did all those years ago. And this dream is always just a little bit out of our grasp,” she says.
Herguera’s film explores this element of the longing and the search for such an utopia, a mere fantasy nurtured by women in their dreams. The Spanish girl in the movie embodies this yearning. “She is unable to dream. She’s a bit lost. She discovers the book and starts on a journey through India, looking for the traces of Rokeya and Ladyland,” she says.
For Herhuera, it has been a journey inwards too. “I have grown more conscious about being a woman. Yes, we have progressed, but somehow we are still not there. It’s the same, be it India or Spain. Women may be educated to be equal, but then all of a sudden it’s gone.”
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