Reviews TV + Movies

Aadat: A Portrayal of Sexual Awakening In A Conservative, Religious State

Aadat, in the makers’ own words, follows the story of ‘a teenager who dares to hire a male sex worker to explore his sexual orientation in an Islamic state’. However, rather than being just a story about sexual awakening, it also navigates through the convoluted politics of identity, class and their relationships to the state. Writer-director Iqran Rasheed presents a world to us that is grim and secretive but familiar and relatable. The description of the short film mentions ‘daring’ and ‘Islamic state’ – apart from the general sexual awakening arc of the story – and these two points become important takeaways for the audience after they have seen the film.

Kashif, played by Ibrahim Ali Alavi, is a teenager eager to explore and realize his sexuality. He calls a male sex worker, played by Rahil Siddiqui, that he meets at a park and fixes a meeting with him. While on his way to meet the man, we see Kashif changing clothes, as if attempting to embody a different persona for the purpose of this meeting. We are given the context of what is to take place from the beginning as they rent a room at a hotel for a few hours. Kashif is there to have sex with the man and, in process, understand his sexuality better. But what happens during their time together is where desire and vulnerability really reveal themselves. The 13-minute short film is available on YouTube, and is a must-watch for the sheer braveness with which it tells a very intimate story.

Rasheed deserves applause for making such a bold film, considering the social and political implications in Pakistan. It is still illegal to be queer in Pakistan, and to have made such a film about queer sexual awakening deserves appreciation. Legally, the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 holds severe punishment for ‘unnatural acts’ – similar to Sec 377 in India, which was repealed in 2018. To make things worse, the Hudood Ordinances enacted in 1977 enables the state to either punish same-sex relationships in a legal way or in an Islamic way which involves (but is not restricted to) 100 lashes or death by stoning. The fact that the film’s description mentions ‘Islamic State’ is important, because other than being outright courageous, the circumstances and realities are very particular in a religious state, and the film addresses that as such.  It is a matter of strength and determination towards realising and determining one’s sexuality, taking into cognisance all the risks involved. Exploring one’s sexuality in a nation-state like the one mentioned would take a lot of guts and daring – let alone making a film about it. The film makes an important political and social statement even through its chosen medium.

The title ‘Aadat’ also requires some attention. ‘Aadat’ or ‘habit’ is how all the characters define their sexual preference throughout the film – not only the two lead characters, but also the policemen who harp on the fact that it is a “habit”, and a bad one at that. It reflects the reality of how sexuality is presumed as is and as ‘choice’ in mainstream society, and how ‘sexual preference’ is always tagged as something one acquires rather than is born with. The relevance of the title is powerfully portrayed throughout the film and makes for a thoughtful motif.

The film also deftly reveals the hypocrisy of society. The hotel receptionist doesn’t bat an eyelid despite being entirely aware of why two men might want to get a room together. The receptionist goes so far as to say that he won’t make an entry into the official directory and asks them to leave promptly after. He knows what is going to happen, and takes advantage of the opportunity to earn money for his discretion. It is a very direct reference to how society frowns upon these ‘acts’ and calls them ‘unnatural’, while capitalizing off of its illicitness. The sheer irony of how a society conducts itself is a bag of worms no one is willing to deal with.

Another important aspect is the depiction of state violence, and much like Onir’s I Am and Zoya Akhtar-Reema Kagti’s Made In Heaven, it is through the portrayal of the police machinery. The film is kept open ended, but we are well aware of what happens in such situations when the police discover two men presumably acting upon their ‘bad habits’. Here, at this particular face-off between the state and queerness, we see how class comes into play, as most of the violence is directed upon the sex worker. The fact that queerness is not the only marker for violence is clearly presented through the climactic sequence of the film.

The film is not so grim that it leaves no room for tenderness in its portrayal of same-sex desires. When Kashif arrives to do the ‘act’, rather than actually going about it, he hugs the sex worker and tries to find comfort in him, betraying the true anxiety and nervousness one faces when coming to terms with one’s sexuality. Alavi as the student Kashif portrays this innocence beautifully, with a certain sense of vulnerability throughout. Siddiqui as the sex worker exudes confidence, and offers a transactionary stoicism to the act. His portrayal is raw and unabashed. In one of the scenes, he comes right out and explains that condoms can’t protect one from diseases and if one just washes their private area well with soap then no disease can affect them. His character also presents to Kashif why someone would resort to sex work (especially male-to-male sex work) in a country like Pakistan. He explains that he has been doing the work

Rasheed has masterfully directed the short film, incorporating different elements of society’s apparent but obviously strained relationship with queerness while telling a story of sexual awakening. He has skillfully presented the ground reality of society and has presented scenarios that make us feel present in the physical space in which the story unfolds. From the locations to the people, everything feels real and accessible. His writing – especially of dialogue – is not laden with metaphors or symbolism, but is powerful in its simplicity and its ability to lay threadbare what the individual and society truly are. ‘Aadat’ is a film that portrays reality without censoring or sugar-coating it, and presents to us a world that we live in without realizing our part in it.

You can watch the film here:

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I am a research scholar of English Literature who tends to spend most of his time following his passion for photography and writing. I aim to bring a change in the way male sexuality is perceived by the mainstream. Also, love over hate, anyday.

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