Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval, Paresh Rawal, Sanjay Suri, Tisca Chopra, Shahana Goswami
Direction: Nandita Das
From its very opening scene of a truck dumping dozens of corpses at a graveyard site for mass burial, Nandita Das makes it clear that her directorial debut, Firaaq is not going to be an easy watch. A fictionalised account of true stories set one month after the horrific communal riots of Gujarat in 2002, Firaaq focuses on a handful of ordinary characters whose lives are changed irreparably by the riots.
There's an affluent mixed-religion couple (played by Tisca Chopra and Sanjay Suri) who prepares to shift to Delhi because the Muslim husband is afraid of what might happen next. An auto-rickshaw driver whose house is burned down, and his wife (played by Shahana Goswami) who suspects her Hindu friend's husband did it. An optimistic elderly Muslim musician (played by Naseeruddin Shah) who ultimately resigns himself to the fact that no music can hope to calm this rage. A passive, abused wife of a bigoted Hindu (played by Deepti Naval) who is haunted by guilt for not opening her door to save a woman running from the mob. And a little Muslim boy in search of his father, unaware that he's been orphaned in the carnage.
These stories interconnect occasionally in a manner that makes it clear that victims, perpetrators and silent observes are all connected somehow. Director Nandita Das steers away from political overtones, choosing instead to tell a dramatic story about everyday people and the repercussions of violence. Interestingly, you don't actually see any incidents of violence in Firaaq, but its aftermath can be felt throughout the film, in the fear, anguish, loss and anger felt by those left in its wake.
Firaaq is an important film because Das never shies away from showing the ugly side of her characters. I'm reminded of a disturbing scene in the film in which Paresh Rawal's character gleefully asks his younger brother if he enjoyed a gangrape he'd participated in. Barely moments later, his brother turns to watch a TV news report in which a Muslim woman is seen complaining that they were robbed of their dignity during the riots, to which he spitefully comments that they had little dignity to begin with.
It's scenes like these that deliver the full impact of this powerful film, and Das assembles an ensemble of some of the finest actors who bring her characters to life.
If there's a problem with Firaaq, it's the fact that despite her best intentions, Das fails to bridge the gap between the audience and her characters. It's unquestionably sad what happens to these people, you know their lives have changed forever, yet there's a certain unexplained distance that never lets you "feel" the pain yourself.
Remember, the most compelling films are the ones that transport you to the centre of the drama, and make you a participant in the action. Firaaq is a noble film, an admirable debut, but you don't feel the pain.
There is also the issue of the affected English dialogues in the Sanjay Suri-Tisca Chopra track, and the somewhat meandering nature of the Naseeruddin Shah track.
Overlook these faults, however, and make it a point to watch Firaaq. It's an unsettling film, one that throws up difficult questions and demands urgent responses. I'm going with three out of five for Nandita Das' Firaaq; perfect it isn't, but it's much better than anything else you're likely to have watched recently.
Rating: 3 / 5 (Good)
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