Sunday, March 22, 2009

Reflections on Firaaq

Yesterday, a friend and I watched Nandita Das’s directorial debut Firaaq, at PVR, Goregaon. I had my apprehensions before watching the movie, mainly fuelled by my impression of intellectual artists. But my fears were clearly unfounded – the movie is a compelling peek into the lives of ordinary people, primarily Muslims, in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots. Firaaq which means ‘separation’ as well as 'quest' is at once understated and hard-hitting in a way that it seriously makes one think how difficult it could potentially be for a Muslim to live in ‘secular’ India.

The movie puts in a few characters into the communal cauldron and stirrs it slowly, very slowly and makes us feel the heat of the situation. The hatred simmers on the surface and threatens occasionally to spill over but Nandita never allows it to burst open. The movie worked for me primarily for a couple of reasons.

It does not resort to finger wagging the way over zealous media persons do as they scream allegations at the possible perpetrators of the crime, but at the same time, it is very clear where Nandita’s sympathies lie. The Rajdeeps and Arnabs always go for an over-kill, repulsing sympathizing members of the majority community. There is, thankfully, no violence shown but the threat always looms largely over the characters. She deftly keeps violence at minimum and uses the fear, frustration and anger of the characters to drive home the point.

Secondly, in many ways, it is mainstream cinema’s (I like to believe that this is actually mainstream) probably first candid admission of the role of the majority community in the riots. It does not flinch in pointing the blame at the recklessness and partisan role played by the government machinery in perpetuating the riots. It does not attempt to sound politically right (unlike Mani Ratnam’s syrupy Bombay), delivers no sermons or half-baked solutions but simply observes the people involved in it.

When Sanjay, a Hindu character, played by Paresh Rawal, feels outraged that had a similar pogrom been unleashed against the Hindu majority, no one would speak up for them, he probably echoes the feelings of many in the country who, either through their actions/words or silence have contributed to the communal cleansing carried out in many parts of the country.

Every time, somebody tries to speak for the minority community, he is branded a pseudo-secularist and reminded of the thousands of Kashmiri Hindus driven out of their homes and living as refugees in parts of the country. There is an underlying assumption that the Hindu community is peace loving and inherently secular and is only reacting to the minorities who are threatening the tranquility of this place.

How many times have we been told that India remains secular largely due to the Hindu majority’s attitude and that Muslims should be happy that they are safer here and not in any of our neighbouring nations? Maybe there is an implicit suggestion that you need to be grateful to the majority community for still tolerating and even nurturing you when the rest of the world considers you as agents of terror.

Every time a Gujarat like pogrom is carried out, it is supposedly due to a set of misguided people and miscreants who have nothing to do with our religion but anytime a bomb explodes anywhere in the world, the Indian Muslim has to hang his head in shame, as if he is responsible in some way for the incident.

We need to distinguish an individual from a community and not indulge in stereotyping but this distinction has been blurred not only by the apathy of the State and the politics involved in playing to the vote bank but also by the role played by the minority leadership, which thrives on playing the oppressed – it is easy to cry foul every time there is an issue but difficult to actually play any constructive role in development.

There is a need for the majority community to constantly reassure the minority community on their well-being. Do not look at this as a vehicle for appeasement but a responsibility to ensure that all is well in the family. In times of communal disharmony (which is quite frequent nowadays), it is this bonding that helps in maintaining sanity among human beings. Everytime a big tree falls, we do not need the ground to shake...

When Raghuvir Yadav, who plays the caretaker to an ailing musician Naseeruddin Shah says “Aapko dukh nahin hota shaher main kitne saare Musalmaanon ki hathya ho rahi hai”, Shah replies – “Dukh is baat ka hai ki ek insaan dossre ko maar raha hai”. This in many ways is the essence of the movie – the thread sustaining humanity is so slender that it merely requires someone to pull ever so slightly at the strings of religion/caste/class and the entire thing collapses, leaving behind a trail of destruction and no true victor.