‘Mee Raqsam’ is a modern masterpiece
I am not a film buff. If someone praises a movie, I might make an effort to catch it, but there are more good films I miss than I get to see. That’s as true of Hollywood as it is of Bollywood or any other cinematographic forest for that matter!
However, I definitely know what I want from a film. A gripping story, moving acting, a few pretty faces and heart-stirring emotions. When I get all of that, I’m riveted to the screen. It’s impossible to distract me. If, in addition, it’s a tear-jerker, I’m quickly reduced to floods. There are many movies I’ve cried through, even in cinema halls with people looking sideways and wondering what’s going on.
Well, there’s a movie I saw last Sunday which has all of this and a lot more. It’s called Mee Raqsam. That’s Urdu for “I Dance”. It’s a simple gentle story that overwhelms you as the film plays out. Even though it has a heroic ending, the anguish and anger you feel is never totally erased. It’s still there when your tears of rage turn to tears of happiness as the credits start to roll.
Mee Raqsam is the story of a young Muslim girl, born and brought up in an Uttar Pradesh village called Mijwan, who has a fascination for Bharatanatyam and wants to learn the dance. In the eyes of the village’s Muslim elders, this is heresy. In fact, for them it’s tantamount to a betrayal of Islam and the honour of the Muslim community. On the other hand, the Hindu patron of the Bharatanatyam academy she joins is no less hard and cruel. For him little Mariam’s passion is proof that Hindu culture will triumph over Islam. That’s what matters to him. Not her talent nor her story.
Fortunately, Mariam’s father, a widowed village tailor, brilliantly played by Danish Hussain, is loving, understanding and supportive, even when the community, including his late wife’s family, turn their backs on him. His business suffers and shrivels but his support for his 10-year-old daughter never falters.
There are times when this story has echoes of Billy Elliot, an enchanting story of a Yorkshire coalminer’s son who defies the pit community’s traditions and learns ballet. Both films can be viewed as commentaries on the prejudices of their times. To an Indian audience, the British film may feel distant but Baba Azmi’s Mee Raqsam will not. It tellingly illustrates and illuminates the deepening Hindu-Muslim fissures that seem to be tearing our country apart.
Yet, I would say the strength of Mee Raqsam is not what it says of our attitudes and our society — though it speaks about that very eloquently — but what it reveals of the love between a father and his daughter. This precious relationship is treated without false sentimentality and, mercifully, without the Hollywood habit of overegging the story.
It’s the little things in life that can mean so much and that’s why it’s the little moments of affection — the look on a face, the touch of a hand, the smile on a little girl’s lips — that can move you to tears. Love is a big story and it has no ending but the paradox is it’s best told with just a few words and the occasional expression. That’s where this movie becomes a masterpiece.
I suspect the makers and promoters of this film — and the list has Shabana Azmi’s name at the very top — intended for the movie’s political message to be the one the audience takes home. No doubt it’s an important one. It needs to be heard and repeated. Indeed, even that might not be enough. But when you see the movie, it’s the beauty and magic of the love between a father and his daughter that you are bound to remember. Politics recedes, as it always should. Love triumphs as, hopefully, it always will.
If you take my advice and see this movie, I don’t think you’ll regret doing so.