Firaaq: A Review

Firaaq – Dir: Nandita Das; *ing: Naseeruddin Shah, Paresh Rawal, Deepti Naval, Sanjay Suri, Shahana Goswami, Nawaz, Mohammad Samad

For more than a decade now, Nandita Das has been one of the Hindi film industry’s most admired young actors, also known for her involvement with social causes. There are many cynics out there though, who haven’t looked too kindly upon these ‘extra-curricular’ activities; actors should act, they say. Well, clever girl Nandita has found a way to combine her two passions by making her directorial (and co-writing) debut with a film that is a ‘social issue’ film if ever there was one, and is as far removed from ‘Bollywood’ as one can get.

Firaaq is a multi-strand narrative set in the Indian state of Gujarat, one month after the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots. Hanif (Nawaz) and Muneera (Goswami), a working-class couple, return to their home after having fled the violence, to find it burned to the ground. Sameer (Suri), the Muslim half of an inter-faith couple finds that his racially moot name provides him protection from reprisals, but that his sense of identity is in turmoil. Sanjay (Rawal) is an opportunistic bigot, one of the perpetrators of the violence, who is abusive towards his timid wife Aarti (Naval), herself tormented by the memories of her helplessness and inaction during the bloodshed. Khan Sahib (Shah) is an aging, ailing music maestro who is deceptively oblivious to the simmering strife around him, even as the number of his disciples dwindles to naught. And then there is Mohsin (Mohammad Samad), a little boy orphaned by the riots who is looking, it seems, not only for shelter, but also his place in an uncertain future.

Some have criticized Das’ effort as being an apologist piece; indeed, it appears that the film was not even given a proper, publicized release in India by certain vested interests, for fear that it would effect the outcome of the then-impending national election. Firaaq has its flaws, but being an apologist piece is certainly not one of them. For instance, there are moments when one wishes it was more of a Sunday Bloody Sunday style docudrama, so that one would also get a sense of the hows and the whys of what occurred. At the same time, however, it is easy to appreciate that this is not that sort of film; it is one that looks to the future, to try and conduct the monumental task of absorbing, understanding, contemplating and overcoming. It is also a brave film, for it looks squarely at the persecuted minority. Even braver is its contention, depicted through the weaving of the inter-dependent characters and story threads, that this would and could be a strong, harmonious multi-faith community, were it not for their/our overwhelming and misplaced investment in larger intangibles.

Firaaq is not an overtly ‘cinematic’ film, and it does not need to be; there is a matter-of-fact-ness to it that goes well with the subject. At times the dialogue can be a trifle didactic, to be expected when there are multiple arcs to be delineated, but that doesn’t detract from the potency of its message, or the sensitivity of its treatment. Perhaps the most powerful, and telling, moment comes in a brief, silent exchange of looks between Sanjay and Aarti, one which states clearly that there cannot and will not be status quo.

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