Thursday, April 16, 2009

'Firaaq'ing away from coherence

The name Nandita Das immediately brings to mind a dusky beauty with the subtleties of performance and a gentle reminder of the late Smita Patil-like straight forwardness. After her moving portrayal as the new bride caught between an arrogant husband and a caring sister-in-law in Deepa Mehta’s controversial movie ‘Fire’, she has made a variety of interesting choices in her performances. Some of them include well known features like ‘Aks’ with Bachchan Sr. and ‘Rockford’ by Kukunoor. But apart from a few such recognizable titles, Nandita’s choices seem to have been based more on heart than brain. Sure, she always had the choice to ascend the mantle of the much revered Bollywood but she didn’t do that. Instead she relied on her instinct and did what she felt was right for her inner self. An attribute I truly find worth a commendation. Commercial success of a movie doesn’t always mean that it has genuine quality. That said, having seen a few other works of this young woman I can safely say her choices were never influenced by anything more than a script which appealed to her. If not for anything else, it was her understanding of the sensitivity of human emotion that I found most noteworthy.

With this backdrop in mind I watched ‘Firaaq’, her directorial debut. One of the hottest topics that new and experienced film makers have chosen is the Gujarat riots of 2002. Be it Govind Nihalani with ‘Dev’ or Rahul Dholakia with ‘Parzania’. Almost everyone who has ever wanted to make a statement that was humane to the core has chosen that dreadful event as the theme. This is nothing new as communal riots and inter-faith rivalry has been the bread and butter of Bollywood and art house productions alike for almost half a decade. But what makes each attempt stand out is the coherence with which the strands of the story are held together. One has to understand this concept deeply before attempting to stitch together a piece that genuinely makes you feel…well, human. To see what I mean you can see ‘Garam Hawa’ by MS Sathyu any day. This is where ‘Firaaq’ becomes quite abrupt. At a running time of about 100 minutes, ‘Firaaq’ somehow seems like an incomplete fair.

So let us dig in. We have Paresh Rawal, a wife-hitting Gujarati goon with an extremely submissive spouse, Deepti Naval. The horrors of the atrocities meted out against people, especially the Muslims, is a nightmare that continues to haunt Deepti every wake moment. This extends to such lengths that she has to singe herself with oil just to make the hallucinations of riot victims knocking on her door go away. Then we have another couple, Sanjay Suri and Tisca Chopra, who are moving to New Delhi to start a new life after Sanjay’s business was looted in the riots. The fact that Sanjay is a Muslim is a hot potato topic that he is not able to come terms with. Then we have Muneera (Shahana Goswami), a Muslim woman who returns with her husband and child to find that her entire house has been reduced to ashes by the mob. With the aid of her Hindu friend she starts picking up the pieces of her life albeit at the constant risk of brandishing around as a Hindu. Then we have an orphaned kid Mouseen who is told to tell people his name is ‘Mohan’ since being a Hindu apparently is the only way to stay alive. Finally we have an archetype musician Naseeruddin Shah with a realist housekeeper Raghuveer Yadav. Shah lives in his own world of nostalgic stereotypes and is absolutely clueless about what is happening in the world around him. It takes a few minutes of television watching for him to see the depth of hatred that has seeped into the society he seems so proud to be part of.

With such diverse themes running parallel to each other, there was a need for more clarity between the characters about what all this means to them. This is exactly where ‘Firaaq’ runs into incoherent zones. On the one hand Nandita tries very hard to convey the intensity of human emotions by making a bunch of victimized Muslim men plot an absurdly unsuccessful plot to kill a fellow Hindu. On the other hand we have these multiple stories that seem to go nowhere. Yes, we do get it that these people have been affected by the riots one way or the other but then what does it mean for their present and future? Will they ever be able to get redemption for what they did and had to go through? Is there some appropriate closure that can be given to their stories? Should there not be a way to bring about some meaning to the extremely sensitive threads that were strung up to evoke real human emotion? Why start developing a relationship between a character and the audience when a 10 second frame will capture what we should only guess is the ‘closure’? All valid questions but with incomplete answers.

Somehow I have always felt that cinema’s attraction towards human tragedy is quite insatiable. Film makers often choose these themes since the abstraction of portraying something like this seems to come easily. In that mould of abstraction, somewhere the theme starts separating itself from coherence. Ironically, ‘Firaaq’ which means separation, falls into that trap of ending up as another half baked attempt by an unprepared amateur. The slow moving shots and the long pauses without appropriate background scores (which might have been an attempt to capture ‘real human drama’) don’t make it any easier. Performances are quite consistent given that there is no ‘Bollywood’ face involved except for maybe Paresh Rawal and Naseeruddin Shah. Everyone else is a seasoned player in such features and so contributes his/her part quite effectively. The fact that some of the characters mostly speak English, while is real enough, seemed a tad pretentious given the overdose of verbose vocabulary they were fuelled with. I am not entirely sure what demographic audience Nandita had in mind but it seemed to lose points on all scores anyway. Also, the quickly vanishing and hard to read English subtitles when the characters speak very fast Gujrati don’t help the audience either. This is a clear indication that this was a movie made about the masses but for the classes.

I sincerely hope that Nandita’s second venture is much more deeply researched and a lot clearer with its vision and execution than this movie. ‘Firaaq’ ends up being a bizarre concoction of unfinished ideologies and abrupt strands.


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