May issue 2009
Inspired by, and based on a thousand true stories a month after the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002, Firaaqmarks Nandita Das’s directorial debut. Shown at numerous international festivals, including the KaraFilm Festival, where it won an award for the best feature film, it has still been criticised by some for raking up a violent past in the Indian history when Hindu-Muslim riots broke out, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Muslims. Hindu mobs ruthlessly persecuted the Muslims in Gujarat and, in fact, as shown in the movie, Muslims were equated to being Pakistani and therefore belonged in Pakistan and not India.
Das’s magnum opus traces the lives of Hindus and Muslims whose lives are not connected, but it is their common experiences and emotions that provide the narrative for the film. Khan Saheb (Naseeruddin Shah) is a Muslim musician who regularly holds music lessons for students. He remains oblivious to the tension in the city and continues to believe in humanity and that religion never affects true musicians whose love for music always rises above petty conflicts. But as the numbers of his students dwindle, he is forced to face the harsh reality.
Arati (Deepti Naval) is a homemaker who struggles with the guilt of not helping a Muslim woman who was being chased by a Hindu mob. Ironically, while her perspective drastically changes and she feels for her Muslim neighbours, her family still believes that the killings and persecutions were rightfully deserved. In order to compensate for what has happened, Arati decides to adopt an orphaned Muslim boy but keeps his identity a secret from the rest of the family. Sameer Shaikh (Sanjay Suri) lives in constant fear of being persecuted and being married to a Hindu girl doesn’t help, and consequently they decide to move to another city to avoid a possible violent reaction. Muneera’s (Shahana Goswami) house is ransacked and burnt while she and her family are away, which leaves her suspecting everyone around her.
In an age where religion has become the defining characteristic for every individual, just as race and ethnicity was decades ago, Firaaq deals with the subject with great finesse and sensitivity. And because it tells the stories about the loss of hope and questions humanity through the perspectives of each of the characters who have a different story and a history, Firaaq is a powerful film that strikes a chord. One thing that stands out throughout the film is that at no point — except for the opening scene — has the director used violence or gory images to depict the gravity of the situation. Das has skillfully used the power of storytelling to mark her debut as a director.