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'Firaaq' Holds a Mirror to National Healing

The Current Discussion: The Academy Awards are coming, and an Indian movie, "Slumdog Millionaire," could win best picture. But what are we overlooking? What's the best non-Hollywood movie you saw this year?

Danny Boyle's film "Slumdog Millionaire" presents a lively, fast-paced image of the plucky lives of the millions who live in the urban slums of India. It is exaggerated, it is melodramatic, and the coincidences that build its plot are more Bollywood than Hollywood, but the larger truth that the movie represents is not far removed from reality.

But for a truly realistic view of what happens to vulnerable people in urban India during times of strife and turmoil, I would suggest Nandita Das's absorbing, gripping, shocking, and harrowing film, "Firaaq" -- an Urdu word which can mean 'separation' or 'quest.' "Firaaq" is set in 2002, around the ghastly events that took place in Godhra, in the Indian state of Gujarat, when the compartment of a train burned, killing 58 Hindus. In retaliatory violence, Hindu mobs subsequently killed hundreds of Muslims.

With the film, director Das -- herself an accomplished actress whose credits include "Fire" and "Earth," -- unveils a mirror to Gujarat's society. And the image that it reveals is debilitating - that is, if Gujaratis care enough to see what the film attempts to show. Das creates scenes of the horrific aftermath of violence: gutted homes, destroyed hopes, futile plans to wreak revenge; the timidity of the perpetrators, the sullen anger of the victims, and the calmness of the guilty. The cast, which includes some of the greatest names in India's new wave cinema movement - Naseeruddin Shah, Paresh Rawal and Deepti Naval - gives the film a bone-chilling quality. In showing the moral acquiescence of those who witness violence and do nothing about it, Das takes the film beyond Gujarat, making it a searing indictment of everyone who chooses not to speak out against violence.

Since 2002, the Godhra incident has acquired a Rashomon-like quality, with various versions claiming to be the real story. Hindus have claimed that a Muslim mob torched the train in Godhra, whereas others dispute this, with some official inquiries suggesting that the fire may have been an accident. What is undisputed is that the compartment burned, and that it had among its passengers Hindu activists returning from Ayodhya, where they had gone to campaign for the building of a temple for Lord Rama, the site where they believe he was born thousands of years ago.

The underlying root of the controversy was that a 16th-century mosque stood at the site in Ayodhya until 1992. That year, Hindu activitsts destroyed the mosque, insisting that a temple had once existed there and that Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, had destroyed it in the 16th century to make way for the mosque. Hindus want to rebuild a temple on that site. The dispute continues today: In the lead-up to Parliamentary elections to be held soon in India, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has already called for the temple's construction on the disputed site.

But Das's film shows that none of that matters in the context of what happened later. The day after the Godhra incident, in early March, 2002, Hindu mobs went on a rampage throughout Gujarat, and the authorities encouraged, if not facilitated, the violence that by official counts would leave 1,042 dead, including 784 Muslims. Not only was the retaliation an affront to justice, but the killing, rape, burning and mutilation had a stomach-churning cruelty about it. Within a month, Human Rights Watch produced a report entitled "We Have No Orders to Save You," which exposed the state's complicity. Subsequently, dogged campaign by activists and a few publications like the Indian magazine Tehelka (Sensation) has brought more gory stories to light. And yet Hindu opinion firmly backed Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, who has since been re-elected to office.

The film's strength lies in focusing on ordinary Hindus and Muslims whose lives were affected by the riots. One is Aarti, a housewife who is silently haunted by the image of a Muslim woman begging for sanctuary. Another is Khan Saheb, a renowned musician who lives in a Hindu area, and teaches classical music. He cannot understand the destruction of his familiar world, and naively assumes that it is possible for the two communities to live together. There is also Muneera, who hides with friends during the violence, and returns to her home to find it burned to the ground. And there is Sameer, a young, dashing, wealthy Muslim married to a Hindu, who is torn between the dilemma of staying in Ahmedabad or leaving for another city where he and his wife might be safer. Lastly, there are the stories of other hapless Muslims, who make incompetent plots to take revenge.

What is surprising is that Das rarely shows violence in "Firaaq." Its fear, anger and anxiety are all understated. But there is no happy ending, as there is in "Slumdog Millionaire," where the poor Muslim boy from the slums wins the Hindu girl of his dreams. Das shows us the uncomfortable truths and painful reality in which the people of India must live, as they set about repairing the destroyed trust between these communities. This stirring film shows that even if those tales are buried, they will only remain right beneath the surface, and "Firaaq" makes the viewers feel that simmering tension. For Das, life in India isn't a fairy tale.

That Gujarat today is one of India's most prosperous states adds to the complexity. The state attracts large amounts of investment from businesses, implying that all is forgiven, and that bygones are bygones. (Recently, leading industrialists endorsed Gujarat's chief minister Modi as the next Prime Minister of India. Modi has been denied a visa to enter the United States by the State Department for his role in those riots).

"Firaaq" is about Gujarat, but it could just as easily be about other communities that have seemingly erupted in violence - Serbs and Bosniaks in the Balkans, Zulus and the "foreigners" in Soweto, or Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. By showing us how the lives of those who survive violence are changed forever, Das reminds us why healing takes a very long time.

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Comments (1)

wontnamemyself Author Profile Page:

"Since 2002, the Godhra incident has acquired a Rashomon-like quality, with various versions claiming to be the real story."
I think that statement says a lot about the state of India's chattering classes. Both "secular" and "communal" biases, which are terms that are cynical code for the vote banks that are being appealed to, are responsible for a lack of objectivity in reporting and commentary. India's society and its talking heads have quite a lot of growing up to do.

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