Dir. Nandita Das. India.2008. 101 mins
The directing debut of the superb actress Nandita Das, Firaaq is a probing and discerning work that examines the emotional and personal consequences of the religious strife and sectarian violence roiling Hindus and Muslims in contemporary India.
Best known in English-language markets for her excellent work with Deepa Mehta (Fire, Earth), Das sketched out the story and script for Firaaq with writer Shuchi Kothari. Like The Bandit Queen or Peck on the Cheek, a strong 2002 movie that starred Das, the movie is steeped in the country’s somber, devastatingly contentious modern history.
Bound to create attention at home for its harsh and unsentimental treatment of India’s most inflamed subject, internationally Firaaq is a strong festival title that is likely to find its niche in the same urban markets with Indian emigres. Ultimately, the movie’s strongest revenues are likely in ancillary, particularly DVD and home video.
The movie’s title is an Urdu word meaning either separation or quest. The story is set around a chilling contemporary event, the 2002 ethnic clashes that left some 3,000 Muslims dead in the province called Gujarat. The story unfolds over an incident-packed 24-hour period, set one month after the outbreak of violence. Das constructs her story like a fugue or dance. She makes distinct and intensely visceral the sense of loss as witnessed by the young Muslim couple (Nowaz and Goswami) who are devastated to find their home in charred ruins.
It is a nightmarish projection of guilt and fear, like the middle-class housewife (Naval), who is haunted by her unwillingness to help provide shelter to a woman being attacked. Das’ story also encompasses the professional classes, the most wrenching and acute part of the story is investigated through the private and small indignities heaped upon a mixed-race couple who are trying to flee the toxic environment.
In her movies as an actress, Das is a vibrant and physical performer. As a director, she shows considerable visual talent, deploying imagery both harsh and unrelenting.
The stories mesh well through the filmmaker’s instinctive and natural empathy for the rhythms and tensions of actors. Das is working in a fairly large, even symphonic tapestry and some of the stories show an occasional false note. The larger portrait is smart, tough and compelling. Like the films of the great Satyjit Ray, Firaaq adopts the point of view of a young boy, Mohsin (Samad). His courage and resourcefulness provide a clear-eyed, unsentimental portrait of madness and abuse. Das ends her impressive work on the young boy’s face, an ambiguous close to a work steeped in anger and regret.
Percept Picture Company
Harindra M. Singh
Shailendra M. Singh
Ravi K Chandran