Firaaq: Good intentions, bad filmmaking!
From the time of the Partition, all the way up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid and most recently the pogrom at Godhra, modern India has a hefty stock of horrific tales of communal violence. Stories of meaningless murders, rape, immolations and a general feeling of fear are everywhere. You read them, you watch people crying all over news channels, while they lap up the rising TRPs, and you reach a point when it stops affecting you.
In her directorial debut, Firaaq, Nandita Das tried to avoid these images of people in the very act of violence. She chose to situate her stories a month after the actual riots. Cinematically, and psychologically, this is a far richer period for exploration, and while Das’ film has all the ingredients one can predict, the film barely manages to scrape a little something off the surface.
Firaaq is a ensemble of six stories, sometimes intertwining, with characters who are in some way affected by the riots. Since Das was admittedly bursting with the accounts she had heard relating to the riots, she decided to opt for this fragmented narrative, in an attempt to present a larger picture, where the focus is not on one person or one family and how they are affected, but across religions and across classes. As noble as this intention is, its execution is poor. Yes, she has covered the rich and the poor, the Hindu and the Mulim, the guilty and the victims, but maybe that’s too much ground for one film. In an attempt to touch upon a variety of responses, the film doesn’t give itself the time or space to delve into even one of them. By the end of the film, Das tries to give each story closure, but it seems premature. It seems like the entire story was never told, but we just see the highlights that will suit the film and the comment the director wants to make. We never get a chance to get to know a character. Firaaq is hopelessly lost in the most mundane and ordinary modes of depicting a riot-ridden time – a guilty Hindu, a lost, orphaned Muslim boy, a fear ridden Muslim man, a corrupt police – these are little more than stock figures, and all Das has done is throw them in together.
A curious contradiction became evident to me while I watched Firaaq. On the one hand, the director is well aware of the usual hysterics a film about a recent politically-charged riot can throw itself into. It increases the tempo and is more likely to push the crowd into thinking that they are moved by the film. And Das has avoided this path, simply by situating her stories away from the actual riots. And yet, Firaaq plays a strange game where it avoids yet adopts rhetoric. It may not be loud, but it is hyperbole nevertheless. The film has given itself to a language that is very ordinary and extremely predictable. The stories are so surface-oriented and contrived in their dialogue that beyond a basic pity, you just don’t feel anything. Personally, I was not even pushed to think, because her comment, which is simplistic and limited, was hitting me in the face constantly without any room for further exploration of thought or emotion.
Coming to the characters, once again, the director has been sadly short-sighted and almost hurried in her creations. The fatal flaw of the film is the character played by Paresh Rawal. Pure black. Only evil. The horror of communal riots is not that habitually awful people participate in horrific violence, but that ordinary, ‘normal’ people get involved. One critic said (in Das’ praise) that she doesn’t shy away from showing the ugly side of her characters. What he fails to notice is that she is showing an ugly side of an already ugly human being. That’s not really an achievement, that side is visible without making much of an effort. None of the stalwarts associated with this film, with the exception of Raghuvir Yadav, delivered performances worth mentioning. Oridnary acting, coupled with a contrived screenplay, the film was in downward motion from the word go.
What any filmmaker has to accept is his audience. Any director would love for the entire world to watch her film, but there are certain givens in the kind of audience that goes to watch a certain kind of film. It may not be a politically correct thing to say, but on an average, that is a truth. A film about Gujarat riots will largely be watched by the intelligensia, or other privileged classes. And these are people who already have access to basic debates around communalism, the riots, the blame game, the human tragedy etc. 24 hour news channels leave little to the imagination. And unfortunately, Firaaq doesn’t go beyond what this group of people already knows.
Unless situations we already know of, the stories we’ve already heard, are reinterpreted, re-contextualised and say something new, or make newer connections, a film like this is an exercise in futility. And a good intention is just not good enough.