Abzee’s thoughts on Firaaq

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.


  1. Gorilla
    March 23, 2009 at 11:25 PM

    excellent review. Read it in parts (beginning and end) as I have not seen the film and can relate to most of what abzee would have felt if the film indeed is one-sided.

  2. julie
    March 23, 2009 at 11:33 PM

    A bold and engaging take on the film. Excellent piece there ăbzee.

    Even though I haven’t seen the film, I can relate with your views. For her first directoral venture, Nandita Das has conveyed only one side of the picture.

  3. neelu
    March 23, 2009 at 11:35 PM

    Thanks abzee, beautiful review. IMO most extreme liberal sentiment presents its own POV and casts its own biases on any telling of a story. Dev was extremely balanced and unique. Do people think Gulzaar’s Maachis was a balanced film, or colored by his sentiments?

  4. rudresh
    March 23, 2009 at 11:36 PM

    really disturbing.

  5. rudresh
    March 23, 2009 at 11:38 PM

    And after reading it I donot think I ever want to see the film.
    IS Nandita Das Bengali?

  6. RAJ
    March 23, 2009 at 11:41 PM

    Nadita Das is an Oriya..She is the Daughter of Dr.Jatin Das(Artist and Social worker)

  7. julie
    March 24, 2009 at 1:00 AM

    My main problem with themes like Firaaq is that when movie makers do not undertake proper research on the subject and make a representation of facts as skewed as this, they ignore the deeper and more sensitive issues that are involved in the subject. Genocide or pogrom is by no means something anyone will endorse, but one must be very sensitive in the way such themes are represented across the board, through the medium of cinema. Imagine the impact for instance a movie made on the genocide of 26/11 would have on the sensitivities of viewers.

    This also points out to some deeper issues. Our movie makers either seriously lack in creative talent, or have just run out of subject and good scripts to work on. Nandita Das would have possibly made a greater impact had she selected a theme on Gujarat’s poverty, slums rather than tackling a theme which has been done to death by both the media and fimmakers.

  8. Tango
    March 24, 2009 at 3:29 AM

    Thanks Abzee.

    I like the way you bring forth the plus and minus and also the fact that even in criticism you are balanced.

    I have not seen Firaaq and your review deters me further. I dont like one sided portrayals.

  9. Kambakth Beld
    Kambakth Beld
    March 24, 2009 at 8:07 PM

    i am all for cinematic liberty but i think there should be limits to that. Based on abzee’s version of the movie (great one at that – i for one believe he can write awesome stuff as long as he stays away from srk ;-) ), I think this movie definitely qualifies for banning. Who are we kidding here – we censor movies with sex, movies with minority bashing – why cant we censor movies with majority bashing. Some convoluted logic of how we want to show that we are a free society where we allow all opinions to flourish.

    anyway – thanks abz – this is a movie i will avoid and so will I avoid nandita das going forward.

  10. rudresh
    March 24, 2009 at 9:07 PM

    True Beld, Had you seen a single channel pointing out this. And if some movie have had single word against minority these channels whould have come up with the special buletins, debates and blah blah….

  11. RAJ
    March 24, 2009 at 10:43 PM

    Nadita Das alnog with Shabana Azmee are the members of so called pseudo secular brigade for quite a long time…They are from that school where majority bashing is termed as secular..I am never been a fan of Nadita Das evenif she belongs to my Home City…

    Infact more than Narendra Modi ,these are the individuals we should be careful of…Atleast Modi does something for masses but charachters like Nadita and Shabana only toxicates the atmospere and make their bucks……

  12. RAJ
    March 24, 2009 at 10:51 PM

    A large chunk of the English media(most of them have communist bent of mind) still try to haunt Modi with Gujrat Riots whenever there is a election…The entire media tried to entangle Modi in last Gujrat election..What happned???Modi who was on weak grounds when the campaigning started won with a thumping majority..

    My point is when Gujrat has moved on after the incidents ,why the media is trying to widen the wound…And the timing of release of the movie “”Firaq”” proves that the same section of people is out again to incite the sentiments…

    The more media and psedu secularists will try to corner MODI the more stronger he would become…

  13. Bachchan Khan
    Bachchan Khan
    March 25, 2009 at 5:40 AM

    One should always see all sides of the pie. Nothing more to say. Good review by Abzee.

  14. Rocky
    March 26, 2009 at 8:31 AM

    Some great comments by Julie, Beld and Raj on a great post by Abzee, his need for disclaimer not withstanding !!

  15. rockstar
    March 26, 2009 at 9:27 AM

    good points on media

    media boom in india(mostly english media) is still at its nascent stage and at present its some elite’s who controls it its a fact though

    well on to N.D.T.V one remembers how some journalist who covered some operation got padam shree by government with no past accolade these things certainly raises question

    on to movie must say its the poltical hue and cry again most of the persons mentioned here are themselves poltical figures with association from certain parties though they are actors so what can you expect from them when elections are round the corner

  16. rockstar
    March 26, 2009 at 9:32 AM

    and as someone mentioed one has to look at all side of pie isn’t if there had been no godhra(where people have been burnt alive in a locked train which is being ignored compleately) there would have been no riots to

  17. Qalandar
    March 26, 2009 at 10:38 AM

    Re: “Who are we kidding here – we censor movies with sex, movies with minority bashing – why cant we censor movies with majority bashing.”

    Which films have been censored on the grounds of minority bashing?

  18. rockstar
    March 27, 2009 at 11:31 AM

    “Nadita Das alnog with Shabana Azmee are the members of so called pseudo secular brigade for quite a long time…They are from that school where majority bashing is termed as secular..I am never been a fan of Nadita Das evenif she belongs to my Home City…

    forget that most of their antics are unique right from the time they showed their lesbian love on screen in fire

    the most hillarious comment from shabana which i heard was about gadar and how that is an anti minority movie

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