Uh…so…you know about Narendra Modi, right? The current Prime Minister of India? Quite controversial? Considered very anti-Muslim? Thought to have helped instigate and encourage the Gujarat Riots on 2002? Well, this movie is about that last part. Well, it is not a laugh riot…but it DOES have Parker Lewis. And census workers.
Available online. Approximately 115 minutes.
The movie starts with…okay…it starts with an American guy’s voiceover saying that the city of Ahmedabad was founded by a Muslim king and was the birthplace of Gandhi…aaanyways…the movie starts in a classroom where the teacher is giving a lecture on the partition of India and Pakistan, stressing that the Hindus in the Islamic Pakistan were forced to go to India, but the Muslims in the “great secular democracy of India” could choose to stay or go. Young Parzan Pithawala is not paying attention; he is not-so-subtly listening to the India-Pakistan Cricket match on his radio. The teacher takes the radio just in time for Parzan to hear that Pakistan has won.
The teacher is sad…unlike a group of Pakistan supporters elsewhere in the city. They are celebrating in the street, drawing the ire of a couple of orange-scarved Hindu Nationalists. Well, the color is saffron, but…anyways…One of them takes out a map of Ahmedabad and starts circling areas with large Muslim populations.
As Parzan and his younger sister Dilshad are walking home, Parzan tells her about the land of Parzania, where you can listen to Cricket matches on the radio any time you want to…and everything is made of sweets. And all of your wishes will come true as long as you do a silly-sounding prayer. These are young kids.
Their father, Cyrus, meets Allan, an American who has been doing his thesis on Gandhi. Allan…swears quite a bit. He also drinks, which is not allowed in Ahmedabad. He is also a little ignorant, asking whether a picture of Zarathustra is Allah. Cyrus states that he is Parsi, not Muslim. Allan has no idea what Parsis are, so Cyrus says that they are like the Jews of India. Allan jokes that that means that Cyrus owns the theater. Cyrus doesn’t get it, but he can throw jokes right back. Cyrus does work in a cinema, though. He asks Allan how his stay in India has been, and Allan says that people have been way too nice. Cyrus says that it is because he is White and that people think that he has lots of money. Allan notes that there does not seem to be much money around here and Cyrus responds that there is plenty of money, just concentrated among a few people. Allan comments that it is basically the same in the United States. Cyrus says that at least people are not killing each other for no reason in America. Allan counters that America has three times the homicide rate as India. Typical small talk.
The Pithawala family lives in a predominantly Muslim community, sort of an apartment complex with a courtyard and a big door that opens out into the street. As their mother, Shernaz, jokes with a neighbor about the gas shortages and the stinginess of another neighbor, Parzan teaches Dilshad about the rules for entering Parzania. Then they hide under a bedsheet and Parzan says that they are entering Parzania, but the scene immediately cuts to Allan driving by a group of Hindu Nationalists moving materials off of a truck. It is unclear what most of it is, but there is a barrel marked Kerosene.
It is a few hours later and I guess that the two kids are back from Parzania, Dilshad is now dictating stuff to Parzan, who is not taking it well. Their father comes in with some chocolates, but Shernaz tells him about Parzan listening to the radio during class. Cyrus jokes that maybe Parzan should become a Cricketer, and Shernaz complains that Cyrus undermines her efforts in disciplining Parzan with these jokes. Cyrus tries to smooth things over by…um…renewing their wedding vows.
Allan speaks with Dr. Jayaraman, a follower of Gandhi and friend of Cyrus, and thanks him for giving him a book. Dr. Jayaraman tries to stop Allan from drinking from his flask, telling him that he needs purity, not reactions made of anger. Allan says that a little bit of anger is good at some times…and then takes a drink from the flask. Jayaraman reminds him that an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.
As some of his Hindu coworkers complain about the supposed pro-Muslim content in the newspaper, Cyrus tries to teach Parzan how to use the film projector. Parzan asks if he can be a projectionist and Cyrus says that he can be anything as long as he pays attention. Parzan’s future is full of potential.
Hindus are placing saffron flags on certain buildings in certain areas of the city. Gee…I wonder what the purpose of those flags could be.
As Cyrus rejects the offers of a man who seems to be trying to pimp out a girl (!), Shernaz tells the kids the story of when the Parsis left the Holy Land Persia on a big ship (not Titanic) for the Indian state of Gujarat a thousand years ago. The King of Gujarat was concerned about there not being enough room to house the newcomers, but the Parsi priest said that the Parsis would contribute positively to (or “sweeten”) the culture of Gujarat.
The next day, the family goes on a picnic with Allan, and they sort of try to teach him Cricket. That night, Cyrus asks Allan why he is studying Gandhi, and Allan recounts his childhood under an angry and abusive father who was a pastor. When Allan was thirteen (and had attempted to run away), doctors removed a brain tumor from his father’s head and the violence went away. Figuring that no just God would give His biggest advocate a brain tumor, Allan went agnostic and lived a life of debauchery, until that stopped being fun. Eventually, he went back to college, where he found out about Gandhi. When he tried to return to his hometown, he found that the reasons why he left had not changed, so he decided to do his thesis on Gandhi, which brought him to Gujarat and Ahmedabad. And his thesis was due three months ago. He takes another drink of bootleg liquor from his flask as Cyrus coughs it up. Allan jokes that Cyrus is going to meet an early grave, and Cyrus says that Parsis put their corpses on a tower for the vultures to eat, since the soul is no longer there and the body still needs to be of use. Allan is impressed.
As Parzan and Dilshad are being driven to school, Parzan is describing Parzania to another schoolgirl. The car is stopped by a group of cops and Hindu Nationalists, who check the driver’s license and ask whether there are any of the children are Muslims. The driver claims that they are all Hindus, including Parzan. The cop tells him to drive on, so that Hindu children will not be illiterate like the Muslims.
That night, a couple of Hindu Nationalists arrive at the house where Allan is staying. They claim to be conducting a census…at night. They ask him what religion and caste he is, and he says that he is a Satanic Cannibal who preys primarily on census workers. They ask whether there are any Hindus living in the house; Allan says no, but invites them to live there. One of them spits on the ground and they leave. Allan goes to his typewriter and writes a different type of thesis. It starts out about Gandhi…getting shot by a Hindu Nationalist…the type of Hindu Nationalist who would create a political party that stokes hatred of the impoverished Muslim minority. He compares their twisting of religious teachings to the Ku Klux Klan.
It is all over the news. A train carrying Hindu pilgrims catches on fire near a railway station in Godhra, killing nearly sixty people. The fire is blamed on Muslim terrorists who have support from Pakistan. The media reports that Muslims had also raped many Hindu women. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi gives a speech vowing that the perpetrators will be punished. While he calls for peace, the movie cuts off his speech when he says that no one will be spared. The Pithawala family is listening to the news on the radio, and Shernaz assures Dilshad that Godhra is three hours away, so nothing will happen to them.
Things seem to be going normally in the little communal building when a cop car pulls up. One of the cops comes out with a megaphone telling the people in the building to stay inside, and that the cops will fire upon anyone who comes out. He says that curfew has been declared and then gets back in the car, which drives off. Well…it seems as if the cop did not tell the Hindus about the curfew because that are out in the street, marching angrily, holding big sticks and swords and Molotov Cocktails. The people in the complex, meanwhile are rushing about, trying to get to their homes. The big door has closed.
The mob has arrived. There must be thousands of them. And they are not looking for candy. They are looking for carnage. One of the Muslims calls the police to complain about the crowd outside. Cyrus gets a call at the theater and says that he will return home. Shernaz locks Parzan and Dilshad inside the apartment. The water is cut off. Cyrus is driving back.
The mob use a log as a battering ram and break down the big door.
The mob is in the courtyard.
They start throwing the Molotov Cocktails.
One of the Cocktails gets inside the Pithawalas’ apartment and starts a fire.
Shernaz manages to put it out, but Parzan and Dilshad are panicking.
Some of the residents on the balconies pelt the mob with bricks and whatever else they can find.
Allan is driving down a street and sees a group of men dousing a woman with some liquid and then setting her on fire.
Cyrus passes by another group of men assaulting a woman while cops sit and laugh on the other side of the street.
The Pithawalas’ apartment is really on fire now and there is no putting it out.
Cyrus is stopped at a police checkpoint near the residence.
Shernaz runs to one of the apartments where a Hindu couple lives, asking them to take in the children.
The wife seems to waiver, but the husband refuses.
The mob has reached the second floor and a slaughtering everyone they can reach.
A group of them come across Shernaz and the children.
Shernaz screams that they are Parsi, but the mob does not care.
Shernaz and the children run off, but Parzan gets kept back when a stream of people suddenly come rushing past him.
Shernaz is forced to take Dilshad and jump off the balcony and into the courtyard.
Shernaz shouts for Parzan, but Dilshad runs off, so Shernaz runs away with her.
They run out of the complex and into a field.
A group of men are about to catch up to them when a Hindu boy distracts the men and directs them elsewhere.
As Cyrus is arguing with a police officer, who assures him that his home is safe even if he is not allowed to go home, a group of Hindus set fire to Cyrus’ motor scooter…in full view of Cyrus and the police officers.
Shernaz and Dilshad hide amongst the trees and witness as the mob kills others who are not so lucky.
When the men leave, Shernaz tries to go look for Parzan on her own, but Dilshad gets a panic attack and starts to shout.
So Shernaz stays to calm her down.
The complex is completely on fire and the flames are the color of the scarves.
Night comes and Cyrus finds Shernaz and Dilshad, still safely hiding amongst the trees. The killing has stopped. But Parzan is still missing.
This movie was somewhat controversial when it came out. Shown in film festivals in 2005 to some acclaim, it was released in India in January of 2007, but it was shut out of Gujarat. Cinema owners there refused to show it, fearing violent backlash. It is somewhat ironic, given that the character of Cyrus worked in a movie theater. It took the efforts if a group called Act Now for Harmony and Democracy, which had been set up in response to the riots, to make the film available to screen in Gujarat.
There have been a few Indian movies about communal violence, and even a few about the Gujarat Riots. I have seen only a few, so take the rest of what I say about them with a grain of salt. It does seem to me that they tend to shy away from the actual event, dealing with aftereffects and trauma. There was an English-language movie released in early 2005 called Amu, about an Indian-American girl who returns to her birthplace and starts becoming obsessed with the story of an anti-Sikh riot in 1984, twenty years earlier. Spoiler alert: the movie is okay. There are hints of the Gujarati Riots two years prior, but they are just hints. This movie (again, take this with a grain of salt) goes in a different route. It takes an extremely recent event, disregards any argument of it being too soon, and puts the riots at the center of the story. Yes, a lot of the movie deals with the aftermath, but there is also a long lead-up and a presentation of the riots. Granted, the actual riot sequence lasts barely nine-minutes (the violence supposedly lasted three days), and what is shown is nowhere near as horrific as some of the stories that have emerged. Still, for what it was, it was quite effective. Without indulging in exploitation, it shows the hatred, the fear, the chaos, the confusion, the violence, and the destruction.
There are arguments that, despite being filmed in India and featuring Indian actors, it is not an Indian movie. There is some truth to this, but only some. One sticking point is that the writer-director-producer, Rahul Dholakia, is a Non-Resident Indian, or NRI. Though he was born in Mumbai (I don’t know his age) he has been based out of the United States since 1990. Also, his co-writer on the movie is American.
Another sticking point is that much of the film is in English, significantly more than in the typical Bollywood movie. While this may be true (though there is a little bit of Gujarati and Parsi that go untranslated in this version; you can sort of guess what they are saying most of the time), it does not automatically keep it from being an Indian movie. Dholakia has said that he wrote the movie in English both because he felt that the issue was an international one and because he was not sure whether it would be released in India. That said, there are many Indian movies, (such as Amu) that are primarily in English. I have seen a few of these and from those that I have seen, they tend to be a little deeper, bleaker, and more low-key than the standard Bollywood fare, as I had mentioned in my article about 15 Park Avenue. Perhaps this is because they are meant to appeal to a more highbrow and upper-class Indian audience. Still, since English IS a relatively widely-spoken language in India (and with a political baggage that does not favor a specific region), those films are no less Indian than any other movie made in India, and so the language of this movie should necessarily not be held as an argument.
The character of Allan is a little harder to dismiss. While not necessarily the main character of the film, he tends to carry himself as if he is. And while he does interact with the Pithawala family, quite a bit of the film has him in his own subplot. He enters the movie as the White Westerner trying (sort of) to find himself through Eastern spirituality. We get quite a bit of backstory of him fleeing the violence and religious hypocrisy of his own community, as well as the debauchery of his personal rebellious phase that still tempts him. Not too far into the movie, though, his role starts to shift slightly. Even before the riots begin, the movie shows him at his typewriter, ranting about a group of Hindu Nationalists who have to be up to something. He compares them to the Ku Klux Klan, which I am guessing means little to Indians, but means quite a bit to Americans. His rant may seem like a way for the movie to appeal to American audiences as opposed to Indians, but it ties into another typed rant that he goes on later in the movie, where he claims that the riots were planned before the Godhra train fire. One could argue that his character is meant to make the movie’s supposed propaganda palatable for American audiences. One could also argue, though, that the, similar to the English-language letters at the start of City of Life and Death, the character’s Whiteness and Americanness gives the propaganda the sense of validity from an outsider’s objectivity.
And…propaganda. Nevermind that the Pithawala family are Parsi (and the film provides a nice little backstory of how the Parsis came from Persia a long time ago); this film has been called pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu propaganda. Maybe it is, maybe not. Given the numerous Indian films that show Muslims acting violent against Hindus and merely hint at the reverse (some of these movies were met with violent protest, but also box office success), maybe a little propaganda in the other direction is necessary.
Even as propaganda, the movie could have gone even further. While it recreates part of the post-train fire speech from Narendra Modi and later on has Allan deface one of Modi’s political posters, the movie does not explicitly point the finger at him for allowing the violence to happen. It does so implicitly…a lot…but it does not connect the dots. After all, the dude got cleared of wrongdoing concerning the riots, the country moved on, and now he is Prime Minister. People believed that he would improve the country’s economy, and it would hardly be the first time that money matters mattered more than pursuing justice. And now India is grappling with a citizenship law that explicitly discriminates against Muslims specifically along with a lot of other stuff.
So…I don’t have a closing paragraph for this.
WTF ASIA 101: Heneral Luna (The Philippines: 2015, approx. 118 minutes)
WTF ASIA 102: High and Low (Japan: 1963, approx. 143 minutes)