Nandita Das has time and again proved her credentials as thinking man's actor. She has always chosen subjects which go beyond the mundane and the cliché. When she choses to make her debut as a director, she stays true to form and makes a power-packed, disturbing drama on the aftermath of the Gujarat riots called Firaaq. At a time, when most people would like to sweep subjects like the Gujarat riots under the carpet and try and carry on with the act of living, which is difficult enough. But Nandita chooses to tackle the difficult and the disturbing and comes up with a movie, which reverberates with the angst of victims trying to pick up the pieces of their life again.
The best thing about the film is that it never celebrates or show violence for the heck of it. The director subtly manages to say it all through the stories of six individuals, each of who is trying to cope with their trauma. Yet at the same time, the director does not leave us, the viewer with a sense of despair but offers hope which wafts in through the voice of the old musician, trying to heal wounds through the power of his music. The director deliberately leaves the film open ended, without offering any concrete solution, or without a definite resolution. Very rightly so as well, because there is no instant solution to this kind of mindless hatred and prejudice which turns a human being to a beast. The solution, if any, has to come from the human soul itself, and therefore she rightly ends her movie with the image of the old Khansaab, again having a baithak in his house, with the mattress and white sheet laid out by his long serving retainer, singing the healing strains of some old, soothing raga. The injury or wound, which he seeks to heal is the fractured human psyche.
The film's opening is disturbing indeed, as it opens with the images of a mass grave being dug for the charred and maimed bodies of the victims. From there, Nandita takes us on a journey with her characters and we watch them trying to come to terms with their life.
There is the battered middleclass wife (Deepti Naval), who shuts the door on a woman desperately seeking help and cannot quite live with her sense of guilt. She tries to make amends by sheltering the young Mohsin, who has lost his entire family in the riots. He was a witness to his family being butchered and has escaped from the camp where he had been sheltered, in search of his father. She names him Mohan and tries to help him. Her husband (Paresh Rawal)'s role in the riots is subtly indicated by the director and he is later shown as being part of the up market mob which raided shops and establishments which belonged to Muslims. The next story is that of the upper middleclass couple, Anuradha (Tisca Chopra) and Sameer (Sanjay Suri). The wife is a Hindu and the husband is a Muslim. He has no qualms about admitting that he is scared of revealing his real identity and goes by the name of Sameer Desai, his wife's surname. One of the up market stores that was ransacked happened to belong to his Hindu brother in law. Sameer just happened to be a silent partner in the business. The couple have made their decision to pack their bags and are leaving for Delhi the next day, in the hope that they will not have to live with this kind of fear anymore. There is talk of the rioters having a database which has the names of all the Muslim businessmen in the state. Or, how else could they have found out the Sameer was a partner in the shop, argues Anuradha's sister. They try but are unable to really understand Sameer's agony, guilt and fear.
Then there is the most poetic image of all, that of the elderly musician, Khansaab (Naseeruddin Shah), who lives in his world of ideals and music, tendered by his faithful retainer (Raghuvir Yadav) of years. Finally, one day, by accident, he discovers the extent of this mad hatred that has gripped the city. He is shaken to the core as he declares, in one of the most moving scenes of the movie, that there will be no more baithaks. He says that his music is not strong enough to withstand this kind of prejudice. His faith in human beings gets shaken when he receives the first blow, that the mazaar of Wali, an eminent Urdu poet of yore, has been razed to the ground by the rioters. His retainer, who shelters him from the ugliness of the world, beseeches him not to give up on the baithak, as the ray of hope in these dark times lies only in people like the Khansaab.
Muneera, a poor mehndiwalli, whose house had been razed in the riots, suspects that her best friend may have had a hand in it. Blinded by fear and prejudice Muneera repeatedly questions her friend about it. Lastly, there is a gang of frustrated, scared and angry young men, who are trying to get their hands on a gun, which they feel will help them to exact their revenge on the rioters. But all they get for their efforts, is the cops after them.
Firaaq is a hard hitting film, which however, never takes sides or go into a blame game. It tackles the problem on a human level, and which is what elevates this movie.
Nandita says it like an expert storyteller. It is a flawless film, which really leaves you shaken. She is brilliantly supported by her technical crew as well. Ravi K Chandran's cinematography is so apt as he manages to capture even the hidden note and mood in every scene. Finally, the cast, which actually plays out the stories on behalf of the director, they are nothing less than brilliant. Nandita has made an immaculate choice in her cast of players, each of who shines brilliantly in this ensemble. Deepti Naval, Paresh Rawal, the child actor who plays Mohsin, the suspicious Muneera played by Shahana Goswami, Sanjay Suri, Tisca Chopra, all of them, live their roles and not just merely act them. And, of course, Naseer and Raghuveer Yadav, who serve as symbols of an era gone by, and ironically, also embody the hope for tomorrow. They are veterans at their craft and need to prove nothing anymore.
The final encore, however, is reserved for Nandita for living up to her convictions and presenting a balanced picture of one of the most disturbing chapters of contemporary Indian history. A very confident and assured debut as well.