Bruce Hoffman (Inside Terrorism, 1998) defines terrorism as: “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence, or the fear of violence, in the pursuit of political change (and is) specifically designed to have far-reaching psychological effects beyond the immediate victims.” Nandita Das’ directorial debut Firaaq explores how conventional relationships between men and women, men and men, men, women and children in traditional and modern societies are affected by profound, man-made hate that upsets age-old balances within and without the victims directly and indirectly. It also shows how questions of identity become critical for young Muslims faced with the threat of the Hindu-dominated police force whose bias against the minority community surfaces repeatedly through the film.
Firaaq begins in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, where three thousand Muslims died in communal riots. In an early scene, two Muslim men dig a mass grave for the victims. The story then jumps by one month, away from the direct physical effects of the conflict to the more amorphous, but increasingly persistent, inner discord. Who is the terrorist in the film when the labelled ones have done their job and disappeared? The ordinary housewife punishes herself everyday by branding herself with the hot ladle while cooking. Her life, as it unfolds, shows her up as a victim of filial terrorism, where her husband beats her up, insults her and humiliates her all the time. Is he a terrorist in a manner of speaking? When her husband reprimands her for having taken in the little boy into her home, hiding his Muslim name, the little boy walks out, wandering aimlessly in search of his dead father. Munira, who returns with her husband Hanif and baby back to what little remains of her ransacked and destroyed shanty, begins to suspect her close friend, a Hindu, though the latter tries her best to help her friend bring life back on tracks. Hanif joins a gang of young Muslims, intent on killing the majority for causing this mass destruction of life and property. Sameer, married to Anu, a Hindu girl, tries to hide his Muslim identity for a while as the couple is planning to escape the city, finally asserts his identity to the police and decides to stay back in the city he loves so dearly.
The most outstanding quality of Firaaq lies in that it makes its statement come alive against the terrorist attacks in Mumbai that happened much later. In no way do the Mumbai terrorist attacks render Firaaq a politically and historically passé film. It forces us to rethink similar terrorist attacks engineered or encouraged by State support such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid with security forces remaining mere bystanders when the process was on, under official instruction. Or, the swift execution of a pogrom against Muslims by gangs of Hindutva in January 1993. In Gujarat, the Hindutva mobs actually had the blessings of those in power in the state.
Firaaq is an Urdu word that means both separation and quest. Separation, from what, or from whom? Quest for what? Is it a separation from the ideology of humanity we are presumably born with? Or is it a separation from the faith one has been brought up to believe in? Is it a separation from one’s roots as Sameer is forced to reconsider in the changed circumstance of his life and his relationship? These are questions left hanging in a vacuum that disturb you much after the film is over. It is a quest for one’s inner beliefs, a quest for redemption from an ambience of hate, a quest for love, friendship, fellow-feeling and brotherhood. From the physical separation between a little boy and the rest of his family, it reaches out to the separation of values from humans who till then, held on to them closely.
Nothing is articulated except through tiny, almost imperceptible incidents that say everything that needs to be said and everything that is possible to say through this unique language of communication called cinema. A man, who spies Munira’s husband Hanif hiding under his balcony, drops a slab quite cold-bloodedly on the younger man who dies on the spot. Who between these two men is the terrorist – Hanif, or the older man on the balcony? Arati walks away from her oppressive environment not knowing whether the world out there is better or worse than the one she lived in. There is a montage of shots where the camera closes in on the bewildered expression on her face, as she looks out of the auto rickshaw at a city she cannot recognize anymore, or, cloistered and imprisoned in her home, she may never have set eyes on for a long time. "Thank God your parents named you Sameer," says his Hindu wife, unwittingly hurting him with the implied suggestion that perhaps, she regrets her choice of a Muslim husband. Towards the end, when Sameer tells the bread-omelet vendor and the policemen that he is Muslim, the shock that registers on the vendor's face is almost tangible. One scene shows Munira riding piggyback on a scooty with her Hindu friend who, seeing the police approach, quickly takes the sticker bindi off her forehead, turns around and sticks it on Munira's to save her from attack/capture by the Hindu police. After a point, the lines between the would-be terrorist and the terrorized get blurred. The victim is a victim per se and his/her communal identity ceases to matter.
The five different stories are linked through the common suffering, the anxiety, the insecurity and the fear they face on the aftermath of the riots. The characters cut across schisms of class, gender, age and community, offering a microcosm of Indian society today. Some characters are victims, some are perpetrators, and some, like Arati’s husband, go on as if nothing has happened. But, after a point of time, you cannot really separate the victim from the perpetrator from the person who pretends to remain immune and insular to the happenings around him.
The acting cast is a wonderful blend of veterans Naseeruddin Shah, Paresh Rawal and Deepti Naval, talented contemporaries like Raghubir Yadav, Sanjay Suri and Tisca Chopra and talented newcomers like Shahana Goswami, Nowaz, and the little Mohammed Samad. Co-scripted by Nandita and Suchi Kothari, the film’s cinematography is as if shot in natural light, much in documentary style by Ravi K Chandran. An almost caressing camera takes its time to drill in the shocks, intercut with scenes of arson and firing and police chases in the backdrop with the dynamic pace needed to hold the gaining momentum of multiple narratives and characters. Razor-sharp editing by Sreekar Prasad, imaginative sound design by Manas Choudhury and a emotionally fitting music track jointly conceived by Rajat Dholakia and Piyush Kanojia helps make Firaaq a cogent, consistent and incisive celluloid analysis of people's minds when they are placed in a situation of catharsis they are not responsible for. The final frame closes up on the face of the little boy, his eyes a mixture of confusion, question and intrigue, tinged with the naďve innocence of a little child, the only symbol of universality in a world wracked by terrorism and human hate.