Abzee’s thoughts on Firaaq

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SPOILER ALERT!!! Read only if you’ve seen the film 

Nandita Das’s Firaaq, whether she likes it or not, whether she intended or not…whether she knows or not- is a very political film. A deeply troubling one at that! As a filmmaker, one must be very sensitive when handling subjects that deal with actual real-life incidents, especially ones that affected a multitude. The ‘sensitivity’ one expects, in other words, is an expectation of a neutral voice, of a work that highlights the ‘incident’, ruminates on it, makes you think…and leaves you with more than something to chew on. The best of narratives in fact achieve much more than this- they almost become fables and gift you with a poignant lesson in humanity. Eg. Schindler’s List, Life Is Beautfiul, etc.  

But what does one do when one makes a film on an incident such as the Holocaust or the Godhra carnage(that forms the basis of Firaaq) which are disturbingly one-sided. How does a filmmaker attempt to ‘balance’, when the unevenness is mitigating in its ‘execution’? Well, cinema is a lovely art-form, and like all works of art, eventually results in catharsis of its audience. So, as artists, it becomes our prerogative and responsibility to help trigger the right emotions. Aristotle believed that plays were written about the peasant-folk and their angst so that their anger could have a ‘reasonable’ vent in the expression of the play and its characters. Great monarchs commissioned writers to write plays that were aimed at quelling possible common-folk rebellions. I will have to compare Firaaq to Mumbai Meri Jaan to elaborate on my argument, as the latter does everything ‘right’ what the former wrongs. 

The face of villainy- when dealing with incidents such as the Holocaust or the Godhra massacre, incidents that were lopsided, filmmakers can very easily fall prey to ‘generalization’. When making a film on the Holocaust, one has to be very careful in not presenting the present Germans as responsible for the act or all of the Germans who lived back then as complicit to it. The manner in which this is achieved is by denying the narrative a ‘villain’. In films such as The Pianist or Life Is Beautiful, the ‘situation’, the ‘times’, the ‘madness’ become the villain. These films do not have a definite ‘face’ to their villain. Also, despite the involvement of civilians, one restrains from portraying civilians, in general, in a negative light. The acts of villainy are carried out by the state and its agents. In Firaaq, Nandita Das shockingly generalizes the whole Hindu Gujarati community as remorseless evil fundamentalists who want nothing more than to wipe the Muslims off the map of Gujarat. So in a film that is about the sufferings of Muslims in a post-Godhra Gujarat, the only Hindu characters are either plain evil, ignorant or impotent.  

Nandita Das, in a dubious and poor casting decision, chooses the Hindu Gujarati Paresh Rawal to play a Hindu Gujarati- a wife-beating, Muslim-hating evil minion of the nth order. In Mumbai Meri Jaan, Nishikant Kamat very cleverly avoided the ‘easy’ casting choice of Madhavan for the south Indian. But Das is not sensitive, and she surely ain’t subtle. So the film opens to a macabre pile of Muslim bodies being loaded off a truck, topped by a body of a child nonetheless, and the Muslim gravedigger(Tamil actor Nasser) who gets enraged when he sees a Hindu woman among the pile and decides to attack her dead carcass with his shovel. The gravedigger, never seen for the rest of the film, turns up in a worrying climax to underline what has until then been the most politically problematic film in recent times. I’ll come to that later. 

I was willing to overlook that Das chose to have a Hindu Gujarati play a Hindu Gujarati as the face of villainy…willing to overlook that every Hindu character in the film from a roadside omlette-vendor to an educated upper-middle-class couple seemed to either condone the state-sponsored pogrom or have an apathetic reaction towards it. It didn’t even matter that the crisis of the Deepti Naval character, the only Hindu character that was haunted by the bloodbath, was resolved more as a feminist triumph than a socialist awakening. No, all of this I was still willing to overlook. Where the film became unpardonably troubling for me was in a scene towards the end. A Muslim youth runs away from a cop and successfully evades him. A random Hindu Gujarati looks out of his terrace and asks the cop about who is running after. The cop says, “Ek miyaan”. Later, having evaded the cop, the Muslim youth comes out of hiding and takes shelter under the very terrace that the Hindu Gujarati we earlier met lives in. The Hindu Gujarati notices him, goes inside, brings out a slab of rock and throws it on the Muslim youth’s head, killing him instantly. By having a random character of one community resort to a sudden random act of violence against the other community, Das incriminates an entire community of being in on the carnage.  

If that weren’t bad enough, a young Muslim kid Mohsin, who has been witness to his mother and aunt being raped and killed by Hindu extremists, is witness to this act. The film closes with this kid returning to the shelter camp he earlier ran away from in search of his father. Only this time, the kid has lost his innocence. He refuses an invitation by other kids to play marbles. He sits stoically against a wall, and Das reveals the man sitting next to him- the gravedigger we met in the beginning. With nothing said between the two, and leaving a blank stare on the kid’s face, Das diegetically ties the future of this kid with that of the gravedigger. Who knows what this kid could grow up to become? He could grow up hating all Hindus, or worse get brainwashed into becoming a Jihadi. His future is most certainly bleak, and for Das sadly, it is also the only future possible.  

As a Muslim walking out of this film, having seen all Muslim characters suffering and not seeing one repentant Hindu character but instead have an actual Hindu Gujarati play the ‘face’ of villainy, what is my catharsis going to be? Has my anger been given a proper, responsible and reasonable channel? Or have I been incited, and dangerously so in an ignorant and naïve fashion? Let me come back to Nishikant Kamat’s Mumbai Meri Jaan and illustrate how he gets it right where Nandita Das gets it so wrong. 

In Kamat’s film, apart from the casting cleverness mentioned earlier, he also did something very admirable and responsible by having the Kay Kay Menon character. Kamat’s film was based on the 7/11 Mumbai train bombings. That too was a one-sided act of violence, innocent civilians losing their lives to an act of terror. The film could have easily been only about those who suffered in the aftermath of those attacks. It could have only been about Madhavan, Irrfan and Soha. It need not have been about Paresh Rawal’s cop and Kay Kay’s Hindu fanatic. But these two characters served as different devices. Rawal’s cop was the resigned voice of a city that had come to accept its crumbling under many variables, but Kay Kay’s character served a more important function, a function that Aristotle would’ve been proud of.  

Had Mumbai Meri Jaan been just about those who suffered those attacks, directly or indirectly, I could’ve walked out of the auditorium sad and angry…at the attacks and the terrorists. Unreasonable and gullible minds could even find their hatred against the Muslim community being vindicated. In having Kay Kay’s character, Kamat tempers your anger and disallows you from jumping to hasty conclusions. So right from the beginning, in Kay Kay, he plants a surrogate for the audience who is presented as an extremist Hindu who believes every Muslim is a terrorist. The loud, exaggerated execution of the character is meant to create the Brechtian alienation so important for us to view him from afar. We get turned off by his insinuations…and if we do find ourselves relating to him, then Kamat cleanses us by having his character go through a graph where he ashamedly realizes his own folly. We walk out of the hall, feeling both heavy and light at the same time…..but more importantly, guided in our responses and reactions by a clever and sensitive director. 

Nandita Das’s inert film does nothing of the sort. A narrative that pretty much ends where it begins(if not at a worse and bleaker place), Firaaq offers no hope and no respite. I’m not asking for a dance number, but certainly a more life-affirming end.