Next week, the death toll in the post-Godhra Gujarat riots will rise from 952 to 1,180. Seven years are up and so all the missing persons will be declared dead. But should they be forgotten? If you think not, watch Parzania.
We Indians are inured to riots and strife. Communal strife, religious riots, bombs on trains, and now terrorists invading South Mumbai: we’ve seen them all. Life still goes on. Detractors question the attention that the media pays to the negatives. Why not stay on the message, they say, instead of focusing on what are essentially aberrations in the ‘India Shining’ story. It takes a film like Parzania to remind us otherwise.
Parzania gives many reasons for despair — uncaring cops, an unnervingly slow bureaucracy, and complicit government officials. It looks at the world from the point of view of Rupa and Dara Mody, whose 10-year-old son, Azhar went missing when they fled an angry mob intent on attacking their home at the Gulbarg Society in Ahmedabad. The Modys never saw their son again, either dead or alive.
Parzania opened to rave reviews and a lot of press. It is the sort of film that every Indian ought to see; that every Gujarati ought to watch and learn from, said the critics. There was only one problem. No movie theatre in Gujarat was willing to screen the movie claiming that the content was too incendiary. One man who went around by the slightly ludicrous name of Bajrangi threatened to burn theatres that screened Parzania.
I talked to Parzania’s director, Rahul Dholakia, a couple of years ago right after I watched the film. I didn’t know him from Adam but felt compelled to track him down and ask him about the making of the movie. Dholakia was in America when the riots happened. Having grown up in a progressive Gujarati family, he watched Hindus and Muslims butchering each other on the evening news and found himself asking, “Why?” He says that he wanted his viewers to ask the same question which is why he made the film. “Somehow I felt responsible for all this (Godhra) and could not have just been a silent spectator,” says Dholakia. “I had to take a stand and so Parzania happened.”
It helped that Dara Mody, the missing boy’s father was his friend, giving Dholakia the emotional investment necessary to make such a difficult film. With funding from two NRIs based in America, Dholakia shot the film in Gujarat, Mumbai and Hyderabad. The riots were shot in a huge set in Hyderabad. “It would have been unsafe and suicidal to do it in Gujarat or even Mumbai,” says Dholakia.
Films generally use two techniques to depict history. Some use a large canvas, a broad brushstroke with multiple characters and monumental sets. Films like Schindler’s List and Troy for instance, use scope and a sweeping camera to make viewers sit up and take notice. Others drill deep; they choose to view history through a single prism hoping that drawing viewers into an intensely personal tragedy will make them empathise with the larger blood-stained canvas. Parzania takes the latter approach. It humanises a massacre by showing how one family copes.
The film spends a lot of time depicting the peaceful family and communal life enjoyed by the Modys making their life after the riots more starkly sad in contrast. Naseeruddin Shah as the father delivers a powerhouse performance but the real surprise is Sarika who plays the mother. After a long hibernation as South Indian hero, Kamal Hasan’s wife, Sarika returns to the screen with a haunting performance that is less about histrionics and more about a mother’s deep never-ending sorrow. Besides opening people’s eyes to horrors of communal violence, the film’s strength lies in drawing viewers into the emotional strife faced by the Mody family: the mother who goes insane with grief but tries to hide it so as to preserve a semblance of normalcy for her daughter; the father who wakes up in cold sweat from a dream of vultures swooping over his son’s body; both parents alternating between murderous rage and despair because they face a life that is every parent’s nightmare: losing a child without the closure that even death, terrible as it is, offers.
Next week, Dara and Rupa Mody will be forced into closure when their son’s name joins the list of the dead. But parents who lose children never lose hope. Or fear. Whether it is Madeleine who went missing in Portugal or Azhar Mody who went missing in Ahmedabad, the questions never stop. For the parents at least. Could my child have been kidnapped and taken out of the country? Is he happy? Is he dead?
Maybe not. Maybe he will surface like that Muslim child, Muzaffer, who was rescued and raised by a Hindu mother. What if he has been inducted into a ring? Child trafficking, paedophiles, child labour… don’t even go there. Better dead than that. But how did he die?
Parzania doesn’t give answers. It is disturbing, for sure, but as a director, Dholakia has achieved what he set out to do: make people question things. Watch it. If nothing else, it is a way of honouring the missing people who are now presumed dead in Gujarat.
Shobha Narayan is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes andwrites the column, The Good Life, for Mint