Throughout human history, displacement and the loss of one’s home have been witnessed in different parts of the world. As a citizen becomes a refugee, they are forced to carry their world to a new alien location and start afresh. Usually, in this new location, new hybrid cultures and traditions are formed, as it happened in the USA with the end of slavery, and in India after the partition. But there have been very few times in human history that an entire population has lost every inch of its cultural fabric after centuries of socio-economic progress. That is the state of Afghanistan as portrayed in The Breadwinner.
The Breadwinner is set in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, in the year 2001. Right at the beginning of the film, protagonist Parvana’s father, Nurullah, illustrates the historical significance of Afghanistan. He calls it the land between kingdoms, a place where several kingdoms fought and brought years of devastation. From Alexander the Great to The Mauryan Empire, Afghanistan survived every war and every conquest. But as we are brought back to the present, we realise that occupation by the Taliban is the one calamity that Afghanistan is struggling to be rid of. Under this regime, the people of Kabul have lost their old way of life, when women were free and the arts were celebrated.
Nurullah, a former teacher, is now unemployed. The few possessions that Parvana’s family owns have been put up for sale. But Nurullah knows that these possessions aren’t worth anything. “Stories remain in our hearts even when all else is gone,” he says, and neatly encapsulates the theme of the film. After Nurullah is arrested for standing up to a man harassing his daughter, Parvana finds herself in a strange position. Her elder sister, mother, and baby brother become her dependents. Parvana is the only one in the house who can step out without a male guardian as she is still a child. But she finds herself in a soup because vendors in the market aren’t allowed to serve females, and to add to that, she can’t get a job as a girl anyway. Parvana then chops off her hair and puts on the clothes of her dead older brother. She resolves to go out and do all the things she needs to do.
As the story progressed, I noticed that every character’s name had a story behind it. Parvana is a moth that is attracted to the flame, but when she dresses as a boy, she names herself Aatish, the flame itself. Parvana is motivated by her friend Shauzia, meaning rare. She was the first to dress up as a boy named Deliwar, which Shauzia proudly declares means brave. Parvana finds a second ally in a man named Razaq, who sits by her as she sells wares and shares his apples with her. Razaq means provider. When Razaq first meets Parvana in disguise (or Aatish, as he thinks her name is), he needs her to read a letter to him. The letter contains the sad news of the demise of someone named Hala Begum. Razaq explains to Parvana that Hala is the bright outline that is sometimes visible around the moon.
Even though Nurullah is no longer around to tell Parvana stories that connect her to her culture, she has Razaq who takes her through the nostalgia of his love for Hala, and Shauzia, who gives her hopes for a brighter future. As an Indian, The Goa Plan was only too familiar to me. It is the national joke among privileged young Indians that our plans to have a vacation in Goa with our friends never work out. But the Goa plan seems to have completely different implications for Shauzia, who wants to get to a beach in Goa where the water is blue and the moon pulls the water. Shauzia sees the banks of the blue sea as an opportunity for a new life away from her abusive father, a chance at endless happiness.
Though she is surrounded by the optimist and the nostalgist, Parvana begins her journey as a pessimist. She is unable to understand the nostalgia of her father because her own childhood has been lost. In spite of her young age, she has no happiness to look forward to and wants to grow up as soon as possible. It is Shauzia who brings back the childlike need for adventure in Parvana’s life.
While her friends give her stories, Parvana spends her nights telling her toddler brother, Zaki, the story of a boy on an adventure to fight a powerful monster. When she tells Shauzia the same story, Shauzia says, “You can’t have a story about a boy without a name.” And so Parvana names the boy Sulayman. Sulayman, which literally means man of peace, was the name of Parvana’s brother who died while he was still a little boy. Parvana’s story of the Elephant King corresponds to her real life. Every time Parvana finds herself in the middle of adversity during her quest to find her father, she continues telling herself the story of Sulayman.
Throughout the film, the audience is pushed to believe that the story of Sulayman is just Parvana’s way of preserving the culture of storytelling, passing it on to her brother, and being hopeful against all odds. The audience is all set up for a massive showdown between Sulayman and the Elephant King. But the true surprise comes at the very end of the movie, and I’ll leave it to you to find out. Sulayman reminds us that no monster can be as cruel as the monstrosity of man.
When walking into the film knowing only the title, the audience is led to believe that this is simply the tale of a girl feeding her family against all odds. The fight for survival becomes the audience’s only concern for a large part of the film. But it is only at the very end that the film conveys that just surviving is not living. The first time I watched this film, I was so shaken by the end of the Elephant King’s story that I sunk into the melancholy of it all, and came out of the film feeling my heart break. The second time I watched it, I realised that I had missed the final words of the film the first time around.
“Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder.”
The film only ends after instilling hope in the audience that these stories will one day melt the hearts of the oppressors, that guns will one day be defeated by peace. The Breadwinner asks the Afghan people to not be defeated by what they have become, but to celebrate the richness of their land and their culture. It is asking the world to remember that it is not just Afghan society that is oppressed, but also Afghan culture and knowledge. It recognises the only way culture can be passed down. It is not through heirlooms, architecture, or any kind of material objects. Culture is passed down through memory in the form of stories.
About the author
Paroma is a media professional currently based in Mumbai, India. She runs a YouTube channel called Cinemawali, where she analyses Indian and world cinema. You can find her on Twitter as well.