Review: Firaaq / Straight

Posted on March 21, 2009


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An impressively understated examination of lives impacted by communal riots. Plus, a woefully undercooked romantic comedy.

MAR 22, 2009 – A LITTLE AFTER THE RIOTS in Gujarat that wiped out multitudes of Muslims, Sanjay (Paresh Rawal) is seated at the dining table, viewing his television set with unconcealed contempt. The images that flicker on screen are, by now, distressingly familiar to us – not just from that specific instance of tragedy, but also subsequent ones. The destitute and the displaced form the wailing backdrop of a proscenium as a television journalist occupies centrestage, a one-woman Greek chorus lamenting the senselessness of these horrors – but Sanjay doesn’t buy any of this. He smirks that had a similar pogrom been unleashed against the Hindu majority, no one would be speaking up about it, and because it’s a minority group that’s bearing the brunt, the liberal world is bristling with outrage.

It’s a testament to the liberal beliefs of first-time director Nandita Das that – with this scene, and with this statement – she doesn’t flinch from indicting herself. Firaaq – “a work of fiction, based on a thousand true stories” – opens with stomach-churning visuals of the Muslim dead being deposited in a mass grave, and much later, we witness a Hindu mercilessly cracking open the skull of a hapless Muslim, who’s already winded from outrunning a relentless cop on his trail. The character most blatantly proffered for our sympathies is an adorably wide-eyed Muslim child (Mohsin, played by Mohammad Samad), who doesn’t realise he’s been orphaned in the riots. We see Hindu cops callously kicking over water drums filled to the brim by Muslims in order to douse the fires they fear will be set off by torch-bearing mobs.

We sense the apprehension in an impoverished Muslim mother who’s afraid to part with her newborn even while relieving herself, and the upper classes, too, are running scared – Sameer (Sanjay Suri) often takes advantage of the fact that, with his name, he could easily pass for Hindu. A spoilt, rich Hindu bride whines that these bloody riots have put a damper on her wedding celebrations, clearly unmindful that there are people dying around her. When a Muslim husband slaps his wife, it appears to be the simple circumstance of a man cracking under the pressure of persecution, but a corresponding event, in a Hindu household, is viewed as vile as the violence on the streets. As agenda-driven films go, it couldn’t be clearer whose side – for lack of a more politically correct term – Das is on, or at least, whose stories she’s attempting to sell.

And yet, Firaaq is no bleeding-heart lefty screed. It doesn’t seek to instill shame in us, it doesn’t attempt to dispense insulting band-aid solutions for a seriously sick society – it just wants to be. It just wants to observe cross-sections of the populace directly (and sometimes indirectly) affected by the carnage. Whatever Das feels about it all is amply evident in what she chooses to show us – but never in how she shows us these things. The outrage she felt (and perhaps still feels) roils under a surface of preternaturally eerie calm that never breaks, so we are aware of being talked to but never lectured at. That’s what so refreshing about Firaaq, especially for those of us who do not take kindly at all to movies that wag their fingers at us, striving to send us home with ennobling halos behind our gravely nodding heads.

Firaaq is crafted in what’s quickly turning out to be Bollywood’s signature style of 2009 – a series of finely wrought vignettes brought to life by an astounding cast of character actors. (Naseeruddin Shah, Paresh Rawal, Raghuveer Yadav, Deepti Naval, Shahana Goswami, Tisca Chopra, Amruta Subhash – now there’s a case for instituting an ensemble award category.) These parallel story threads revolve around Hindu-Muslim girlfriends, or a Hindu-Muslim married couple, or a doormat Hindu housewife still haunted by memories of the riots – but Das, in a marvellous decision, refuses to weave these strands together into a tense, climactic knot. There’s a fleeting mention that further trouble may be brewing, and we grip our armrests in anticipation of an explosive showdown that unites the disparate people and pieces of information thus far, especially with the subplot about the acquisition of a revolver by a group of vengeful Muslims.

But Das isn’t after any sort of overarching big picture. She’s content to create a series of albums consisting of individual snapshots that vanish from view as soon as the page is turned, residing only in our memories any further. (Among my favourite snapshots are those of Naseeruddin Shah – who plays an old-world musician untouched by the cataclysms of the present-day, much like the art-patron zamindar in Ray’s Jalsaghar – gently wiping the surface of a gramophone record with the flap of his kurta, and, elsewhere, Mohsin delighting in a colourful kite, distracted for just an instant by the business of being a child once again.) Perhaps the graph of some of these incidents could have benefited from a better trajectory, a little more detailing that would have made the epiphanies more hard-won, but this realisation only reaffirms – in an election year, no less – that there are never any easy solutions.

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PARVATI BALAGOPALAN’S FIRST FEATURE, Rules: Pyaar Ka Superhit Formula, was a winning little comedy that worked primarily because of the latter qualifier. It was a small film, one of modest ambitions, an old-fashioned Cinderella story gussied up with modern-day frills like a gay subplot (which wasn’t so ubiquitous back in 2003) and a fairy godmother in the form of a tart-tongued grandmother. The director, subsequently, has turned ambitious. She’s still working within the confines of romantic comedy, but this time around, the issue of sexuality is no longer in the fringes. Pinu Patel (Vinay Pathak) is worried that he might be gay. (Perhaps it has to do with the unfortunate fact that his given name sounds like a mischievous abbreviation of a certain sexual organ?)

He’s a waffly wallflower under pressure to marry a nice girl from back home. (He’s settled in London, where he runs a restaurant named… Gaylord.) Fanning his flames of confusion are employees Renu (Gul Panag) and Kamlesh (Anuj Chaudhary), whose relationships with Pinu defy convenient slotting into the categories of romance and bromance. There’s possibly a laugh riot lurking in here somewhere, but Straight plays as if a chef assembled all the right ingredients, tossed them into a pot, and forgot to turn the stove on. Somewhere through the undercooked proceedings, there’s even a feeble message of tolerance, courtesy Shakespeare. (“If you prick us, do we not bleed?” a character declaims, only partly in jest, equating anti-Semitism and homophobia.) Someday, the history books will recall Straight as the film that showcased Bollywood’s first on-screen erection, but it’s otherwise limp as a day-old noodle.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi