That’s right. Another movie about the Gujurati Riots.
The opening scene is less than three minutes long, but it definitely leaves an impression. It is shortly after the 2002 Gujurati Riots. A young man and his uncle have, somehow, been tasked with digging a mass grave for Muslim victims of the violence. A truck comes up delivering more corpses and the driver just dumps them onto the pile. The young man notices one woman, thinking that she might be someone whom he knows. As it turns out, she is not only a stranger, but she is Hindu. Since Hindus have to be burned and not buried, he asks his uncle what to do. His uncle flies into a rage and attempts to hack the dead woman into pieces, before the young man holds him back. The uncle then breaks down into tears of anguish.
The movie (thankfully) skips ahead a month and follows four (later five) tangentially connected groups of characters during what seems to be a twenty-four hour period in the city of Ahmedabad, where the riots took place.
Hanif and Muneera
Hanif and Muneera had fled with their baby daughter to a Hindu part of the city during the riots and were able to find shelter with other Muslims in the basement of one sympathetic couple. That couple, however, are leaving for Dehli tomorrow, so Hanif and Muneera have to go back home…or what is left of it. Basically, there is nothing left of it other than the walls; everything is burned and trashed. Already on edge and bickering before they got home, Hanif and Muneera turn their anger on each other when confronted with the extent of the damage. They have little before; now they have nothing.
Muneera wonders if Mehul and his gang were responsible for this destruction, as Hanif and Mehul had been at odds for a while. Hanif does not seem sure, and asks Muneera to ask her friend Jyoti, who is Mehul’s cousin. Muneera does not think that that will lead anywhere, but they don’t have much of a chance to discuss this, as Hanif leaves to see a friend.
As Muneera is cleaning what is left of the ruins that was her house, Jyoti stops by. They have a warm embrace, but Muneera becomes softly distant when Jyoti denies knowing what happened. With each of Jyoti’s denials and pleas to not think about it, Muneera becomes more suspicious. Jyoti tells her that she has a job doing henna at a wedding that night. When she invites Muneera to come along and help out, Muneera calls her crazy. Jyoti says that it is a small job for a rich family and she knows that Muneera needs the money. Muneera relents, but her suspicions continue to grow.
Aarti and Mohsin
From her nice secure house, Aarti was safe from the riots, but the riots had come to her. A Muslim woman had pounded on her door, screaming that there men with swords after her. Aarti did nothing, and let the woman die. Ever since then, she has heard the door knocking when no one was there, and heard the screams of the dying woman in her head. It seems as if the only way that she can stop the voices is to drop a bit of burning oil on her arm. Her elderly father-in-law does not seem to notice. Neither does her pre-teen son. Her husband, Sanjay, thinks that she is just going nuts.
Sanjay gets a text from the police, telling him and his brother Deven to come in for questioning. Sanjay thinks that they can bribe their way out of any charges. Meanwhile, Aarti goes out to buy some food. A little boy runs into her, dropping his banana. Aarti is initially upset at him, but almost immediately softens her attitude and invites him into her home. She introduces the boy, Mohsin, as a part-time servant for her father-in-law. She says that his name is Mohan, though, so as to not reveal him as Muslim.
Later on, Mohsin tells her that a mob of men burned his mother and brother. They also killed his sister and uncle. They even raped his aunt before killing her, though he did not exactly understand what they were doing. Mohsin saw all of this while hiding in a garbage bin. Another uncle took him to a camp set up for displaced Muslims, but he ran off to look for his father, who was elsewhere during the attack.
Sanjay and Deven return and it appears as if their attempts to bribe the police did not go as well as they had hoped. Deven is implicated in a gangrape case and the higher ups are looking to find easy scapegoats to help make this whole matter go away. Aarti offhandedly insults Deven and immediately regrets it, as Sanjay takes her to the bedroom and hits her. And, then immediately says that he is not a violent man, putting the blame on her. Mohsin sees his protector rendered vulnerable and, perhaps recognizing Sanjay from the riot, runs off.
Khan Saheb and Karim
Khan Saheb lives in a nice safe primarily Hindu neighborhood. For years, he has been performing music every week for a mostly Hindu audience. Since the riots, however, the only person to show up has been his doctor. His servant of forty years, Karim, points this out to him, but Khan tries to be optimistic. His not having visited the Muslim part of the city since the riots helps his optimism. Another thing that helps is the fact that his television is broken, and he has not been exposed to all of the news reports about the riots that he did not experience. He tries to discourage Karim’s attempts to fix it, saying that such an obsession with a worldly material object is not healthy. He counters Karim’s questioning about Muslims being killed by saying that all murder is terrible. All Lives Matter after all. Karim is not quite so optimistic or philosophical.
Khan and Karim attend the funeral of a community leader in the Muslim part of the city, the first time that Khan set foot outside of his house in a while. They try to go back home, but have trouble getting an autorickshaw to stop. Karim finally gets them a rickshaw, but Khan makes the driver stop in the middle of the street, where the shrine of a Sufi poet once was. Karim shushes the driver when he says that the shrine got burned down during the riots. Khan is so perplexed at its not being there that he almost gets hit by cars multiple times. It is only now that he realizes what went one and what still is going on.
Sameer and Anuradha
Sameer and Anuradha are leaving for Delhi tomorrow. It is not stated outright in the movie, but it is pretty clear that these are the people who sheltered Hanif and Muneera for a month. But they are leaving the city. Anuradha is still unhappy about the move, not necessarily due to making the Muslim families return to their destroyed homes, but because she will miss Khan Saheb. Sameer, however, was adamant about leaving. Though not particularly a particularly devout Muslim, he is still a Muslim with a Muslim name. They believe that his that being a silent partner in his Hindu brother-in-law’s store was enough to get it marked for looting, as that Muslim name of his put that business on a list of Muslim owned businesses.
Before they leave, though, they go to visit Anuradha’s sister, Ketaki, in hopes that her husband, Raman, has received the CD that shows footage of the looting. Unfortunately, Rajat has been on the phone for two hours, trying to negotiate a deal to buy the CD…which is supposed to be his in the first place. As Ketaki asks Anuradha if she regrets marrying a Muslim, Rajat tells Sameer that he believes that Delhi will be no safer for him than Ahmedabad. Ketaki’s passive-aggressive displays of contempt towards Muslims become less passive as her both-sidesing the violence leads her to blame the violence against Muslims on their alleged attack on a train carrying Hindus. While Anuradha passionately engages her in an argument, Sameer just sits there, stewing in quiet rage at the world and hatred for his own cowardice.
Anuradha intends to leave when they hear the doorbell. Sameer thinks it may be Raman, the man who is supposed to come with the CD. Instead, it is a couple of men who are collecting funds for a Hindu temple. Rajat declines, but Sameer gives them some money. When they say that it is such a little amount for a man who lives in such a nice house, he gives the rest of his money without telling them that he does not live there. They ask for his name to put on the receipt, he gives them Anuradha’s Hindi surname. Rajat playfully jokes about Sameer’s conversion to the sisters, but Sameer is not in a playful mood.
I had discussed another film about the 2002 Gujarat Riots last month. They even share a couple actors. All in all, Firaaq takes a somewhat safer route, coming out later and taking place at a later time. Pretty much all of the main characters were spared the brunt of the violence; even young Mohsin was physically spared from most of the harm. That said, Firaaq is not a story about the suffering of an individual family and its neighbors; it is about a city under trauma; a society that is struggling to come to grips with itself. Struggling and failing. But, maybe that failure is necessary; would reflection and introspection be worth anything if they were easy? I…suppose that it is kind of like 2004’s Crash in that way, but set around an actual incident of massive brutal violence. Also, I like it a lot better than I like Crash.
This movie seems to be one of uncertainty and confusion. Many characters wander around in confusion, missing a key piece of knowledge or unsure of what to do. Those who do act like they know something are either deluding themselves or outright wrong. They can call out the self-centered attitude of others but are blind to their own privilege. Some come to that realization by the end of the movie, but others most definitely do not. Some are so wrapped up in their own worries that they cannot sympathize with people who have also suffered. Others mentally barricade themselves behind abstract thoughts and big picture conceptualization in order to avoid having to deal with this terrible event as something that happened in their very city not long ago.
And the rest of the country would also rather not deal with it. The English-language television news appears to be interviewing victims all of the time, yet the greater society either remains shamefully silent or casually contemptuous. Sanjay and Deven, the only two characters confirmed to have played a role in the riots, may come across as actively over-the-top jerks with no redeeming qualities. Yet, other characters come across as no better. From Ketaki’s attempt to see the “other side” of the story to the food seller who sneers at Khan to the other food seller who calls all Muslims violent except for the one Muslim whom he actually knows to the cabbies who avoid Muslims to the police who overturn the barrels of water meant to put out fires. The small steps matter…but larger steps led to electing Narendra Modi as leader of the nation. And then reelecting him.
While not as bleak as it could be, the movie seems to take the stance that any change that could come from this will be small and not enough from preventing something similar from happening again. While all of the stories are related in some way, they rarely actually intersect. Even though Sameer and Anuradha housed Hanif and Muneera for a month, their stories remain separate after that, and they barely mention each other. In fact, it seems as if there are only two characters from separate stories who eventually come together by the end of the movie. That is seen as a spot of hope. All the other characters, however, either stay with their own group or find themselves alone. And even if they did come together, what could they accomplish? They are wracked with guilt and too scared to truly do something. Each act of bravery is either on a small personal scale, or dangerously foolhardy. None of it may accomplish much in the long run…or even in the short run. And the consequences may negate everything. Yet, it is all meaningful.
Again, there is some hope to this movie, but it is surrounded by pessimism. The final scene has a character pretty much staring at the camera, at the audience. Were they complicit? Were they passive? Were they victims? What do they have to say? What are they going to do? What am I going to do? We live in uncertain times now. The things that will happen within the next few days, weeks, months, years, could affect everything.
WTF ASIA 106: Yojimbo (Japan: 1961, approx. 111 minutes)
WTF ASIA 107: Eat Drink Man Woman (Taiwan: 1994, approx. 124 minutes)