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The buck stops here

Like the finest art, Firaaq achingly compels us to look within. It is a film not about violence but about the hate which has colonised so many of our hearts. Harsh Mander writes.

india Updated: Mar 19, 2009 23:28 IST

There are exceptional works of art which endure to become moral beacons for an entire age. These reflect, with humanity and unflinching truthfulness, on our most painful realities. They light our pathways in dark times.

Some of the deepest wounds that our people carry on their souls are born out of the violent estrangement that has been engineered in our land between religious communities. This led to the catastrophic dismemberment of the country and the loss of a million lives. A film which unforgettably captured the anguish and tribulations of a Muslim family, which chose to stay on in secular India, was one such humane and ethical work of art. This was MS Sathyu’s first film, Garm Hawa. Another first film, by actress Nandita Das, I believe, will achieve the same enduring space in our collective conscience, helping us traverse a difficult journey to acknowledge and heal from another traumatic moment in India’s recent history, the 2002 Gujarat carnage.

The film is called Firaaq, which means both separation — the estrangement between communities — and quest — a search, for hope and the meeting again of hearts. It is remarkable that a film about the most gruesome episode of mass violence post-Partition — in which women and children were subjected to mass rape and were burnt alive only because they belonged to a religious minority to which the State was hostile — is extraordinarily free of violence. It is set in a single day, a month after the carnage. The killings and arson, by then, have been stilled. There is no blood flowing on the streets, no fire leaping into the skies, no screams crowding the air. There is, instead, a clamorous silence, a dense suffering, as devastated people try to come to terms with the shock of loss and betrayal.

With compassion and insight, it gently follows a number of characters in the course of this day. In the opening frames, it declares that it’s a fictional story based on a thousand true stories. As I watched the measured screenplay unfold, I could testify personally to many of these true stories.

At the centre of the story is a little boy who has lost his family. He describes the slaughter: the women, he said, were stripped naked and then burnt alive. The men, he innocently adds, were not stripped naked. They were just burnt. I recall another boy who followed a fact-finding team of women activists, insisting that he wanted to tell them what rape means: making a woman naked and then setting her on fire.

In another heartbreaking episode in the film, an impoverished young couple return to the ruins of their home, now burnt and looted by their neighbours, and weep at the enormity of the betrayal, at their loss and helplessness. I have heard the same story from a hundred different people. That moment when you return to what was once your home, you see in its ruins not just the destruction of your life’s savings, your dreams, the precious pieces that made your world; but you see shattered pieces of the friendships and trust that you had shared with your neighbours.

The film has an upper-middle class Muslim named Sameer who is often mistaken for a Hindu because of his name. It is a misunderstanding he doesn’t try to correct for fear of how people would respond when they get to know he is Muslim. There is a gentle old Muslim musician, unwilling to acknowledge the realities of hate around him, like many idealists of an era that has passed. Then there is a Hindu woman, who is in deep remorse because she did not have the courage to oppose her violent husband and rescue a Muslim woman who begged for shelter at her door during the carnage, and her ultimate rebellion.

The thousand true stories may not be our own. But they are stories of what we have condoned with our silences. Like the finest art, Firaaq achingly compels us to look within. It is a film not about violence but about the hate which has colonised so many of our hearts.

Harsh Mander is the Convenor of Aman Biradari