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Malala Yousafzai’s story, now on celluloid


Malala Yousafzai’s maturity and messianic zeal have wowed the world. But she’s also just a teenager. An upcoming documentary film on the gritty Pakistani teenager who took on the Taliban in Swat valley captures this dichotomy brilliantly. 

‘He Named Me Malala’, premiering worldwide on November 6, is directed by Davis Guggenheim. He had won the Oscar for ‘An Inconvenient Truth about Al Gore’. 

At the preview for select journalists in London, Guggenheim recalled his first meeting with the Yousafzai family. “On my way to meet them, I thought to myself, ‘I’m a guy from Los Angeles. I’m half-Jewish, half-Episcopalian, what am I going to find out about a girl from Pakistan’s remote valley.’ But I found a family much like mine. I found that their Muslim faith and Pashtunwali code leads them to their strong sense of right and wrong, their willingness to forgive. I mean, people get into a rage if their Frappuccino isn’t right, and here there’s no bitterness at all.” Guggenheim’s own talent for drawing out his subjects was endorsed by Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, “This man tread lightly on our stairs, but he  excavated deep into our hearts.” 

The producers, Walter Parkes and Laurie Macdonald for Fox Searchlight, switched to the documentary format when they realized that no actor could “play” Malala. Uniquely, animation is co-opted to portray the family’s early years.

The film opens with the legend of Malalai of Maiwand. In the Second Afghan War of 1880, this teenager had stirred the demoralized soldiers to victory with her words, “Better to live like a lion for one day than to be enslaved for a hundred ye ars”. The animated sequence shifts to Ziauddin reading this story to his pregnant wife Tor Pekai. Shortly after their daughter’s birth, on seeing that the family tree has recorded only male members, the father draws down a bold line, and the Arabic letters form “Malala”.

Cut to film. A head-bandaged Malala, 16, at Birmingham’s hi-tech trauma centre, St Elizabeth’s, where she was rushed for reconstruction and rehab after being shot in 2012. The family’s lived here since. Transplanted across geography and culture, she later tells us how she struggled with “so many new words. Like ‘cat burglar’. “But two years on, she pulls out her favourite books: Paolo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’ and Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ which is “very difficult. I have to read each sentence 2-3 times.”

The global warrior for girl’s education wryly rues that she has “to do twice the homework” when she returns from her activist tours.She frets over her grades (but she aced her recent GCSE exams). She arm wrestles with her brother Atal, rolls her ey es in despair at the cheeky , younger Kushal. “She may be talking about peace to the whole world, but at home she’s the most violent sister, always slapping me,” comes the sibling complaint.

At a second level, the film projects Malala’s magnificent obsession, girls’ education. Animation shows a little girl in the same red as the legendary Malalai crawling into the classroom of the school started by Ziauddin in Mingora “with three students and the national anthem”.

The film is also a quiet riposte to Islamophobia. Here’s a devout family demonstrating respect for women, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness. We hear Malala emphasizing, “Taliban is not about faith, but politics, power. The Talib are enemies of true Islam. If I don’t speak up for girls’ education and empowerment, I will be sinful.”

There’s a moving clip of Palestinian refugees being hoisted into trucks by UN soldiers; a little boy stands looks apprehensively at the homeland he’s being plucked out of. The camera quietly zooms in on a watching Malala.You can feel the resonance in her heart.

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