If I were given a chance to give out an award during this festival, then Firaaq by Nandita Das would be my choice for the best film I've seen during the festival. And it's quite amazing in itself being a first film of the accomplished Indian actress, that it's laced with sensitivity while at the same time tackling some hard issues head on that deals with the deep rooted negative human condition of hate and violence.
Set against the backdrop of the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots between the Hindu and Muslim communities in Gujarat, India, it's an ensemble film with a myriad of characters in multiple story threads which involves a muslim family who returns to their home only to find it burnt by rioters, of a mixed marriage couple who has to deal with their fears and decision to leave Gujarat for Delhi, of a woman who gets haunted by the ghosts of the incident, and punishes herself for her inaction, of a group of Muslim men all flustered and planning for revenge, of a young orphan wandering the streets, and the list goes on.
In each of the threads, which for the most parts are independent of one another, Nandita Das weaves very moving stories and crafts very interesting characters to function within each story, either serving as a mouthpiece for keen observations, or highlighting very deep rooted fears. The film doesn't flinch from making harsh criticisms or statements through dialogues and interactions between characters, and Das manages to paint characters on both sides of the equation, some exhibiting bad behaviour even when confronting their prejudices or when confronted by their fears. If I could draw a parallel to an established film that Firaaq gets close to in examine similar themes on the human condition, then it will be Paul Haggis' Oscar winner Crash.
One can imagine the human rights violations committed during the tense period, and it's quite natural to see how the outcome of such violations through the mob mentality, affect the common man even after the tumultuous period had passed over, because deep inside, we all know that some prejudice are hard to eradicate. I thought the story of Sameer and Anu was one of the most striking of the lot, and most enduring as well, though with each protection dished out by the wife, the husband feels more insecure about his manhood. Some of the most direct and pointed conversations happen when they are on screen, especially how one's inherent self-preservation mechanism kicks in and would go through anything as extreme as a name change to avoid another extreme such as being stripped to verify identities.
The final act was actually quite chilling, and I felt it could cut either way, depending on your outlook. One, that it is of hope, that with the next generation lies opportunity to bury the past and forge a new future ahead filled with better understanding, and the appreciation that such violence should never occur again. On the other hand, it reminds of how impressionable a young mind is, and through the wandering within a camp, taking in the sights of the aftermath of atrocities committed, that the seeds of revenge could have been innately planted, and being ready for improper indoctrination for further atrocities to be committed, some time in the future. It's extremely difficult, but not impossible, to break the stranglehold that violence begets more violence.
For a rookie director, I feel that Nandita Das has demonstrated that she has what it takes to join the illustrious ranks of female Indian directors in telling very mature stories through assured technique. Firaaq is a shining example, and I hope to see more of her directorial work again soon. Definitely a highly recommended movie in these troubled times of ours, to hold a mirror up against oneself, for some serious self-examination within.
Writer-director Nandita Das was in attendance today at the only screening of Firaaq at the Asian Festival of First Films, and shared with the audience that this film took some 3 years to work on the script and crafted through numerous interaction with people. It's scheduled for wide release in India on Jan 23, and it is her hope that the film will help to make people empathize and understand one another more. Anger is the easy way out she explains, and we all can choose how we respond to acts of violence committed. As a first time filmmaker, she relished the challenge in being able to
In her own words, this film is about human relationships, and about how different people choose to react, and the fears that run across the different classes. It's an ensemble film with veteran actors as well as fresh faces, and she recounted that the most difficult casting was that for the young boy, whom she eventually settled on despite his penchant for smiling! When asked what was the reason the film had casted a more sympathetic eye on the Muslim victims, she explained that it's because that's the context that she took for the film, because they were the victims during the incident that the film had set its historical backdrop on.