A lost world (Clockwise) Das with Naseeruddin Shah; Deepti Naval; Mohammad Samad; Shahana Goswami
A lost world (Clockwise) Das with Naseeruddin Shah; Deepti Naval; Mohammad Samad; Shahana Goswami

OF THE many crises of our age, the most helpless perhaps, are the crises of word and image. Bludgeoned in ways it’s never been before by an excess of information — the entire compact of sight, sound, emotion — the human race has not just become inured, it seeks inurement. Obliteration. When everyone is desperately seeking inurement, how is one to evoke? All the old descriptions are dead. “Awesome” is no longer something terrifying or aweinspiring; it is just a good ice-cream.

Into this opacity of meaning, occasionally, something slips. Briefly breaching our fortifications. Briefly triggering a healing disquiet in our being. Nandita Das’ directorial debut, Firaaq is such a moment. To say something new about the horror of Gujarat 2002 is almost impossible, to evoke empathy for it is heroic. But Firaaq does that.

The film begins with an overwhelming image of the dead. A mud flow of ravaged bodies being off-loaded from a truck, and a gravedigger — the most stoic outpost of life — imploding in tears, crushed by their awful inhuman weight. This is the only direct image of violence in the film, the rest hovers just outside its penumbra, imbuing the film with a kind of nervous dread. Firaaq’s greatest triumph, in fact, is this evocation of violence in absentia.

Located in the aftermath of the riots, Nandita uses an intricate mesh of life sketches to draw out not just the physical violence of the rapes and deaths, but the psychological debris the riots have left behind. A middle class Hindu woman, married to one of the rioters — a casually violent man — grapples with the guilt of having abandoned a frantic Muslim woman. A Muslim auto-driver and his wife return from a trip to find their home devastated. A gracious old musician struggles to cling to the courtesies of an older world. A group of rudderless young Muslim men are driven by impotent rage to find a weapon. And a swish, middle-class couple find themselves suddenly struggling with the idea of being Hindu and Muslim when their shop is looted. Linking all these stories is a waif of a boy, meandering through the city in search of his father — a wisp of innocent humanity bearing witness to a world gone mad. A world whose innards are falling away in little unnoticed chips.

Emotionally taut, self-assured, pared, Firaaq is a searing exploration of subterranean poisons unleashed by Gujarat 2002. Guilt, rage, self-hatred, suspicion, the brutalisation of survivors — Nandita reminds us that the legacy of violence is more dangerous than violence itself. In one of the film’s most disturbing moments, the little boy in search of his father smacks an ant dead with sudden force. “Maar diya sale ko,” he says with unexpected vehemence. He has borne witness to vast and tiny cruelties. Now, he is a premonition of a new generation.

Brimming with stellar performances by Deepti Naval, Paresh Rawal, Naseer – uddin Shah and Raghubir Yadav, and much more accomplished than other well-meaning films like Parzania, for 40- year-old Nandita, Firaaq ought to have been a moment of great gratification; a moment of arrival in a long journey. In a sense, she has been grooming herself for this from childhood. The daughter of bohemian painter Jatin Das and director of National Book Trust, Varsha Das, unconventionality and acceptance of difference was coded into her blood. “There were no stereotypes possible in my life,” she laughs. “My father stayed at home and cooked, while my mother went to work from nine to five. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realised this wasn’t the norm.” Though her parents separated when she was seven, Nandita claims an uninterrupted closeness between them, her and her brother, Siddhartha.

Her real catalysts, though, have been a rich cast of diverse, politically enlightened activists. Theatre activist Safdar Hashmi, tragically killed; Aruna Roy, architect of the Right to Information movement; Medha Patkar; and most unusually, Daya Bai, a Malayali novitiate who, disturbed by the abyss of poverty outside, jumped across the walls of her convent on the eve of taking her vows, and went to work among the tribals of Madhya Pradesh for 30 years. These inspirations, coupled with long stints with NGOs, have been key to Nandita’s sensibility and cinematic choices. “They gave me the strength to stand by my convictions and be disturbed by one’s own hypocrisies and contradictions,” says she.

Using an intricate mesh of life sketches, Nandita draws out not just the physical violence of the rapes and deaths, but the psychological debris of the riots

IN FACT, combating hypocrisy was the trigger for Firaaq. “I was very disturbed by the prejudice of our own class of people,” says Nandita. “This is why I wanted to make a film about ordinary people that my viewers could identify with. I didn’t want to overdramatise, show heinous acts or manipulate emotion. I wanted to take small ordinary incidents so that people who watched could not hide from themselves by saying, ‘Oh I would never do this kind of thing’.” Among other things, this is what gives Firaaqits disturbing charge. It reminds you it is not just the 2,000 dead that makes Gujarat such an indelible rupture in our national life (though that ought to be reason enough). What makes it indelible is that the riots were just the most horrific face of a prejudice that runs much wider beneath the skin.

For all this, Firaaq should have been a moment of great gratification for Nandita. A moment of recognition and animated discussion. Instead, this quiet, thoughtful gem of a film has come unheralded into our multiplexes. In all probability, it will slide unnoticed out next week. The director’s great conviction is unmatched by her producers. This shameful neglect is just one of the many creeping crises of our time.