The final image from M.S.Sathyu’s poignant 1973 masterpiece, Garam Hava, is Salim Mirza (Balraj Sahni at his sensitive best) following his younger son Sikander (Farooque Sheikh’s debut), to join the march led by leftists, fighting for the rights of the unemployed and minorities. It is an image that clutches at fragile hope after the family has been traumatised by the pain of Partition: many of the joint family living in an ancestral haveli in Agra have left for the new promised land for Muslims, Mirza’s shoe factory has been closed, suspicion of Muslims has poisoned the air. Mirza is heartbroken after his darling daughter’s suicide when two suitors betray her after promising to come back from Pakistan to marry. Utterly bereft of all options, Mirza gets off the tonga to join the protest, putting his faith in the land of his birth. The film is set in 1948, after Gandhiji’s assassination. Scripted by Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi from an Ismat Chughtai story, Garam Hava is as relevant today as it was then.
From that blood-stained dawn of Independence to the present highly polarized society, things have only worsened. The new toxin is the all-pervasive Islamophobia thriving like weed in the fertile soil of hypernationalism, always on the hunt for the hated other. The basic problems of mistrust and alienation remain the same. Only circumstances have changed to exacerbate the division even more. That is perhaps one of the reasons why filmmakers have not dared to touch the subject — hence the roll call of brave exceptions: Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Naseem, both written and directed by Saeed Mirza; Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday, Nandita Das’ Firaaq, Amit Rai’s Road to Sangam, Hansal Mehta’s Shahid, Rahul Dholakia’s Raees and now Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk. Habib Faisal’s Ishaqzaade and Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan are of a different ilk. The first is Romeo and Juliet set in the Hindi heartland where the conflict is between Hindu and Muslim politicians whose progeny fall in love. Karan Johar takes his autistic hero abroad to teach Americans a thing or two, not only about branding all Muslims terrorists but also race relations.
There are so few films made on Partition as if we want to bury the unpalatable truth under a heap of platitudes. Only a handful of films look at the ghettoized community with any degree of sincerity or depth of understanding. We have buffoonish characters like the family friend spouting second rate shayari and his sequined Begum the object of decorous flirtation of spoilt Hindu brats: Hum Aapke Hain Kaun is one of the many films that offer the most objectionable and annoying stereotypes. Or the pious Maulvi to counter the Mafiosi as the villain. If the character is a cop or bureaucrat, he has to prove he is more loyal than the king, flaunting patriotism like a banner of servitude.
The Us versus Them has become embedded even more deeply in the collective psyche of late. Exhuming ancient hatreds is both daunting and emotionally exhausting. The original sin of mistrust and alienation remain. Only circumstances change to exacerbate the division further. The films listed above need a second look. Both of Saeed Mirza’s films have to be read together, as films from the heart. Salim Langde was made in 1989 before the Babri Masjid demolition. In this film Mirza puts the Muslim ghetto under the scanner, as he did the Catholics in Albert Pinto. His protagonist Salim wears the dubious suffix ‘Langda’ as a badge of distinction, a desperate clutch at individuality, to convey his unique swag. A petty thief and school dropout, his only ambition is to be like the criminals higher up in the hierarchy. He whiles away his time in smoking charas and hanging out with hoods when not extorting money. He has a crush on the local mujra dancer, has half-formed ideas of getting his sister suitably married, and provide for his parents. The father is a laid-off textile worker, another familiar Mirza trope. The man who makes him see differently is Aslam Ahmed, an educated, idealistic young man who is condemned to remain a proofreader. He wants to marry Salim’s sister and the new relationship stirs Salim into thinking. Aslam is the voice of a Muslim who believes in and argues for the right of Muslims to live as equals in post-Partition India. The change comes too late to save Salim from his foredoomed fate.
The mood of Naseem (the last film Mirza made) is vastly different, veering between tender lyricism of the grandfather’s relationship with the eponymous 15-yearold granddaughter and the simmering anger of Mushtaq, the grandson who has only contempt for these tales from a bygone age told by an old man who refuses to see how perilous things are during the Rath Yatra. The gathering storm looks ominously close on television as the fearful family watches in trepidation. To the strains of haunting music, an inter-title appears: “In India, on December 6, 1992, a medieval mosque was brought down by some people who believed it was erected in the exact same spot where Lord Rama was born. The riots, slaughter, savagery, and hate-filled months that followed, no Indian will ever forget. That one act of demolition wrote the epitaph of an age that had passed… perhaps never to return.”
Saeed Mirza created a wonderful character in the grandfather. Naseem, arguably his best and most mature film, is set when the Rath Yatra and the Ayodhya incident made Hindutva respectable. Bedridden, he sees the turmoil, unleashed fear and hatred filtered through TV images. Compounding this are the angry outbursts of young men and, hushed talk among family members and friends. Arrey, dekhi zamaane ki yaari, bichade sabhi baari baari is hauntingly evoked in the background while the poet who penned those lines, Kaifi Azmi (inspired casting by the mellowed angry young director) recalls life lived from the cusp of Independence to the betrayal of secularism. When asked why he did not migrate to Pakistan, the answer is heartwrenchingly simple: your Dadi was attached to the tree in the aangan of the family home in Agra. Such poetically expressed wisdom and remembered pain elevate the character to a sublime level. A dying old man’s memories write an epitaph to an era and make him transcend the particularities of that film. If I go into hyperbole, my excuse is that Naseem is an all time favourite
Shahid is a compellingly honest film about a young man of Bombay slums who briefly flirts with terrorism, via a training camp in Kashmir, and then turns to the law to fight the good fight against Muslim young men wrongly implicated in terrorist activities. Raj Kummar Rao lived the role that traversed a range of experiences and deservedly won the National Award for Best Actor as did Hansal Mehta for Best Director. The narrative has a documentary feel for locales and people, weaving emotional and political truths as part of the warp and weft of a brilliant film that punches you in the gut with its uncompromising honesty.
Nandita Das’ Firaaq was a search for truth in the immediate aftermath of 2002 Gujarat pogroms. She weaves together four different strands of lives ruptured beyond repair, taking us through their experiences directly and commenting obliquely. The horror of what happened is captured graphically before the titles: two men bury truckloads of bodies in a mass grave stoically until they see a Hindu woman’s bindi-smeared face among the dead Muslims. Their faces tell the story of horror that left no one untouched.
Even the reclusive musician-guru whose music insulates him from the violence around him finally confronts the truth that destroyed so many lives and scarred hitherto neighbourly relationship (between a Muslim woman returning to her looted tenement and her Hindu best friend. Das uses Faiz’s iconic poem Daag daag ujala to quietly tragic effect as it is recited by Naseeruddin Shah in his excellent voice and impeccable diction. A dirge for a sullied present and hope betrayed.
Amit Rai’s Road to Sangam is littered with good intentions and regurgitated clichés. And yet, it is a film to note because it yokes the past with the present, bringing the emblematic urn of the Mahatma’s ashes discovered in a bank vault and the division it causes in the Muslim community in Allahabad decades later. A terrorist suicide act results in the routine rounding up of many innocents followed by the hartal called by the local Muslim leader. This pits the skilled mechanic (Paresh Rawal, carrying gravitas without overacting) chosen to repair the motor of the original truck used to take the ashes. He keeps his workshop open, despite the hartal and thus incurs the charge of disloyalty. The arguments and characterisation are routine, the plot moves along predictably, and yet, the realisation of what they owe a man who fought for them and fell to a fanatic Hindu’s bullet comes through with moving conviction. The film was based on a true story.
At last, we come to Mulk which dares to ask the really relevant questions that we refuse even to acknowledge. It gently but determinedly rips off the cover of evasions — not only about the prejudice of the majority but also the defensive strategy of the beleaguered minority to combat this all-pervasive bias. Anubhav Sinha, whose notable films earlier were Ra.One and Dus, surprises us with the quiet, persuasive strength of his no-frills narrative. He returns to his native Benaras and creates the close-knit life of a mixed mohalla, its maahaul (ambience; “atmosphere” is a poor substitute for this evocative word) where Hindu neighbours outnumber the Muslim guests at Murad Ali Mohammad’s (Rishi Kapoor wears gravitas and sincerity like a well-fitting sherwani) birthday. A Brahmin devours kababs in stealth and turns shudh vegetarian when his wife is around. Another lady says matter of factly: it’s alright to participate in the naach gana but draws the line at eating. And all this is acceptable, taken for granted, no offence meant or taken.
That is, until Shahid (Prateik Babbar), Murad’s nephew is shot dead on the run from a terrorist act. He could have been caught, but the anti-terrorist cop (Rajat Kapoor) is a Muslim who wants to disassociate himself from the community emphatically. A few from the community wish to commemorate Shahid’s shahadat (martyrdom), but the patriarch Murad is aghast. They mourn the nephew who went astray but will not receive his body. A terrorist is a terrorist to Murad Ali, a respected advocate. Ostracism and suspicion descend on the family like an impenetrable blanket of simmering hate.
The second half, though the legal process is not above questioning, is riveting courtroom drama where Murad, defending his rather dim brother Bilal from the charge of abetting terrorism, finds himself an accused. Now steps in his Hindu daughter-in-law Arti who asks all the inconvenient questions. The verbose, mocking prosecutor (Ashutosh Rana going deliberately overboard) sums up all the biases we harbour against Muslims: they are uneducated, polygamous so that their numbers increase — and Pakistan lovers. He also sneers in passing at My Name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist. Arti (effectively restrained Taapsee Pannu) names the whole herd of elephants in the room. The entire case is based on prejudice, on Us versus Them, she points out with unflinching accuracy. The device for making a practising Hindu make this argument works well because it forces us to confront our own prejudice. A devout, bearded and skull cap-wearing Muslim is as patriotic as the janev-wearing, tilak-anointed Hindu. Our society doesn’t ask the Hindu to prove he is a patriot. But the Muslim is forever asked to choose between his quam (community) and mulk (nation) — a binary that a Muslim is saddled with. That is the tragedy. Could posing these questions lead to a new beginning?
A postscript: Garam Hawa was held up by the Censors till Sathyu showed the film to Indira Gandhi. She okayed it. Naseem, Salim Langde, Firaaq and Shahid won awards and accolades. Does that tell us something?