BLAME IT ON RIOT
The aftereffects of communal violence come through devastatingly in a small movie that packs a big wallop.
JAN 26, 2007 – THE RELEASE OF MANI RATNAM’S GURU a few weeks ago set off a bit of discussion about whether the commercial film format is really the best way for certain stories to be told, and for those who thought no, there’s a superb backup argument in the form of Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania. It’s about the horrors endured by a Parsi family in Ahmedabad – father Cyrus (Naseeruddin Shah), mother Shernaz (Sarika), son Parzan (Parzan Dastur), daughter Dilshad (Pearl Barsiwala) – when the son goes missing after the post-Godhra riots, and there’s a point later on when Cyrus ends up at the local movie hall, where he works as projectionist. Of course, films are the last thing on people’s minds as their city burns around them, and as Cyrus potters about the front of the empty theatre, we see a burnt-down hoarding of the film that was playing there. It’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, and it’s that shot where the entire family has gathered together for a group portrait. They’re all in smiles, they’re all in silks – and even the idea of that image of make-believe happiness in the midst of the families that have lost everything appears an obscenity, an abomination. It just doesn’t seem right – and suddenly I felt grateful that Dholakia had chosen to tell his tale without audience-pleasing sops, without beautiful people, without breathtaking photography, without songs, without dances, without tension-relieving comedy. There’s a line in the film where we’re told that God inflicts hardships only on those tough enough to endure them, and if directors are the gods of the movie pantheon, they should be doing the same thing: inflicting the hardships they’re talking about not on all audiences, but only on those tough enough – and willing enough – to endure these sad, little stories.
And to say that Parzania – based on real-life events – is a sad, little story is an understatement. It simply breaks your heart. It is so direct and honest and so unflinching in its purpose – and so filled with heartrending performances from a whole bunch of unstarry actors – that it doesn’t matter one bit that we’ve just seen a very similar set of scenarios in Shonali Bose’s wrenching Amu, which tackled the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. If you didn’t know from the newspapers and from television that these stories are true, you’d laugh them off as products of a hideous imagination. I mean, a bunch of Hindus pulling down the pants of a man to check if he is really a Hindu as he claims he is, the same group of fanatics dousing a pregnant woman with kerosene and setting her on fire while policemen are looking on and laughing, references to breasts being hacked off and children being raped and old men being butchered – who can dream up this stuff? Rather, who would dream up this stuff? Not even the most twisted, exploitative masala moviemaker – and yet, there were people who actually did all these things. Just the realisation of that is enough to make you wish you had as easy an access to Parzania as Parzan and Dilshad have. Parzania is the name of an imaginary country – named after Parzan, naturally; after all, it’s his imagination that came up with it – with buildings made of chocolate and mountains made of ice cream, and the way to enter this utopia is by throwing in the air a gauzy, white cloth that lands around you and envelops you like a tent. It’s as much a fairy-tale delusion as the titular address in 15 Park Avenue was to the schizophrenic in that movie, but with horrors such as those shown in Parzania, you have to delude yourself that things will get okay, even if you know in your heart-of-hearts that they won’t.
So Cyrus and Shernaz soldier on, trying to find Parzan. They’re so numb that when Cyrus extends his wallet to a policeman to show him a picture of his missing son and the latter coolly pockets the cash in it, he doesn’t say anything. We are so used to seeing Naseeruddin Shah get all hotheaded and protest against the System – thanks to his work from the eighties – that it’s a bit of a shock to see his lined, leathery face unable to comprehend what’s just occurred. There’s not a mention of the cop’s callousness. This emotional numbness extends to a later scene where they get a call from the police station that Parzan may have been found. Cyrus and Shernaz don’t hug each other in relief or shed tears of joy; they just look at one another blankly, as if they barely have the resources to process this news after all the hits they’ve taken. Dare they even hope? That’s what I mean when I say Parzania wouldn’t have – and couldn’t have – worked so well in a mainstream format. Because there you’re talking happy ending, you’re waiting for the moment when Cyrus and Shernaz walk into the police station and see their boy and run to him and drop to their knees to hug him, while the camera moves behind his head and shows us the teary-yet-happy faces of the parents, one on each shoulder.
Dholakia’s politics may skew a little to the left – there’s a distinct pro-Muslim bias in Parzania – but when it comes to his filmmaking, he gets it mostly right. He shows a tight control and an unerring focus over his material, whether with scenes of emotional conflict or those of physical conflict. (Well, except for the stray, silly metaphor like a pressure cooker letting off steam right in time to comment on the pressure-cooker situation outside.) The centrepiece riot sequence is superbly realised. You hear the dull boom on the soundtrack, as if cannons are going off in the distance, and when the fanatic mob uses a battering ram to force open the gates of the chawl that Cyrus lives in – it’s called a “mansion‿ here – you can’t miss the analogy to actual warfare, from the times when cannons and battering rams were used to bring down forts. This sequence is all the more chilling because there’s no background score reminding us that this is just a movie (and therefore just a re-enactment); it is scored simply to the screams and the cries of the hunters and the hunted, and it’s all unbearably real. The chawl setting is a masterstroke, because nothing serves as a microcosm for the country as much as this collection of families belonging to various religions and speaking various languages and yet coexisting in harmony. This is the kind of place where Nikhat (the wonderful Seema Chaddha, who has the most infectiously gurgly laugh) lets Shernaz know that she’s got a call (on Nikhat’s phone), and as Shernaz hurries down the stairs to Nikhat’s house to take the call, Sheela ben’s husband asks her to tell Cyrus to keep aside two tickets for a movie show. These people are literally in and out of each other’s lives, they’re literally one big family, and this brings about a special poignancy later on when this same man refuses Shernaz’s request to shelter at least her children (because they’ll be safe in his Hindu household). So much after, when Sheela ben sees Cyrus putting up “missing‿ posters of his lost son – this, after experiencing a rare act of grace; the guy at the photocopy machine refuses to take money for the copies – you don’t need any dialogue to know what she feels. One look at the wracked agony on her face says it all, that she will carry this guilt around for the rest of her life.
Parzania is a film of such faces. With such a juicily contemporary subject, one that could be extrapolated to make all sorts of finger-wagging points, you’d think the director would keep pulling back to give us the larger picture, the long shots – but Parzania is full of close-ups, and it’s full of remarkable performers who can hold these close-ups. (The only actor who sticks out with his obvious “acting‿ is Corin Nemec, who plays an American named Allen.) In the earlier scenes, I cringed at dialogues like “Gone are the days of sati and burqa,‿ uttered by a 75-year-old Muslim – the film is mainly in English, with smatterings of Hindi and Gujarati – and I wished the whole thing had been set in the vernacular instead (and subtitled for foreign consumption), but somewhere along the way, this stopped bothering me. Suddenly, their speaking in English seemed the most natural thing – and that’s because of the performances. At this stage of Naseeruddin Shah’s career, it may be redundant to point out how marvellous he can be, but you just have to see the things he does here – the cough that he experiences after a shot of particularly strong liquor, the gruff love that shines through as he calls his son a tiger, the hands that spread out in a gesture of yeh-kya-ho-gaya helplessness. And I also loved how Raj Zutshi managed to turn his stock-Muslim character into a genuinely affecting presence, though I wish the film had found more use for him. He threatens to develop into a major shadow looming over the latter portions, but he never does.
In the midst of all these fine Indian actors, it’s the foreigner who’s the film’s sore point. It’s not just Nemec’s performance, it’s the conception of his character – an American who’s down here to finish his thesis on Gandhi. This character is clearly meant to be that of an outsider looking in, but not in the way that Konkona Sensharma was in Amu. In that film, she was an NRI from America who came to Delhi to visit her family, and Amu made use of her Americanness and her Indianness to say that no matter how far you go away, you never really shake off your roots. But Allen is there just to explain certain aspects of the story to those who aren’t in the know – which is to say, the foreign audiences, for whose benefit the VHP is equated to the KKK and so on. And his all-too-pat transformation – from smoker-drinker (a.k.a. Bad Guy) to someone who burns a poster of the politician who did nothing while the riots raged on (a.k.a. Good Guy) – is the film’s single most unconvincing effect, far more embarrassing than the presence of a Gandhian made to look like the great man himself, with granny glasses and khadi clothes and a bald head. I guess these presences are meant as an instructional counterpoint to the central action, but these – the metaphors, the monologues, the symbolism – are primarily stage devices, and when transposed to a living, breathing medium like the cinema, they simply bring things to a halt. Then again, that’s not always the case, because Shernaz delivers a monologue towards the end and the camera never quite leaves her face – and far from appearing static or stagy, this scene simply burns up the screen.
And it’s Sarika who’s the revelation in Parzania. This is the same actress who used to be called in for parts where she mainly had to wear a bikini, or get raped and die – remember Kranti? – and barring the rare Grihapravesh, she never gave any indication of depth, but perhaps the stuff she’s gone through in her personal life has deepened her. (Or maybe it’s just that no one ever approached her with this kind of role before.) She maps out every little detail of a mother’s anguish in the scene where she asks Dilshad to stay put so she can go look for Parzan, and her dilemma – whether to hang on to the kid that’s safe, or go after the one that’s lost – is as close to a Sophie’s Choice scenario as I’ve seen in our cinema. And it’s equally hard not to tear up when she confesses at a point – when they’re still looking for Parzan – that he is fading away from their lives, for what could be sadder than the fact that a child has moved on from being a cheerful physical presence to a sad memory to a lifeless picture on the wall? Her sorrows are all the more senseless because she doesn’t even belong to one of the two major religions, and you can’t help shaking your head at the naiveté in Cyrus when he explained to Allen, earlier, that he’s a Parsi and not a Muslim – because the only thing that mattered in Gujarat at the time was that they were not Hindu.
Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express