Between Reviews: The Truth about Fiction

Posted on March 28, 2009


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MAR 29, 2009 – AMIDST THE FEEDBACK TO MY REVIEW of Firaaq that appeared in this paper were the fulminations of a mildly rancorous gent, in whose estimation I had failed in my duties. I had not addressed, for one, the slyly opportunistic timing of the film’s release, “just prior to the elections,” the way Parzania was released prior to the Gujarat assembly elections. While being moved by the piteous plight of the Muslims that Nandita Das (the director) chose to present for our sympathies, I had, apparently, not taken into account the fact that Hindus too had suffered grievous loss of life and livelihood – not only in the cataclysms in Gujarat, but also in Kashmir and elsewhere around the country. In any event, the correspondent chided, I’d been conscripted into the ranks of the “secular media,” wearing my bleeding-liberal heart on my organically dyed khadi-kurta sleeve.

For the purposes of a review, however, a film is evaluated on simply one criterion, and that’s how well it goes about doing what it set out wanting to do. In other words, if Das wished for nothing more than to strike a matchstick in the dark recesses of Muslim suffering and frame these gloomily flickering images for our perusal, and if this goal was achieved, then the film is a success – even if it fails to consider, with a similarly empathetic eye, the analogous afflictions of the Hindus. The latter isn’t so much a failure of the film as our expectations. Just because we seek a comforting balance in communal representations in our cinema, the filmmaker isn’t obliged to comply. But more importantly, if filmmaking were reduced to the equivalent of ethically and morally responsible journalism, wouldn’t it lose its place of pride amongst the most vital and valuable of modern arts?

Yes, capital-letter art. Let’s, for a wishful instant, brush aside the bulk of our filmmaking output – the least-common-denominator entertainments engineered to rake in maximum profits – and talk of film in its most idealised sense, in its incarnation as what the novel was to the nineteenth century, a repository of great beauty, great ideas of great power, but not necessarily the truth. The latter is the domain of daily news, and it has little (if any) truck with art. When we settle down with a book, or sink into seats at the multiplex, our only concerns are (a) what is being told, and (b) how it is being told. It is the foremost fundamental right of the creator to weave, for our benefit, enthralling fictions that revolve around what could be his notions of truth, but which may not correspond to our own.

When we choose to see Rang De Basanti, therefore, it is not our place to snicker that there were viable legally and morally sound conclusions to the predicament of the disillusioned students, and that assassinating the corrupt villains, taking the law into their fragile fingers, was just not right. Of course it’s not right in the real world. But this is a fictional universe, the story of a few youngsters who chose this cynical option – as opposed to, say, the rose-tinted youth of Yuva, who managed to hold on to their optimism and still somehow triumph over slimy politicians oozing with the experience of decades of Machiavellian machinations. The story that Rakeysh Mehra wanted to tell was of an Aamir Khan and a Siddharth who turned their backs on democratic idealism – and that’s the story we need to respond to, whether that story was told well.

A Wednesday, similarly, isn’t a recommendation of vigilante violence as the insta-fix solution for our ills. It’s just the fiction of one man who’d had enough and decided to do something about it in his own way. In an alternate timeline of the universe, there’s possibly an Aamir Khan and a Siddharth who painstakingly put together evidence against the politico villains and published these facts in the free press, and there’s possibly a Naseeruddin Shah who enlisted the country’s best legal minds and set about avenging himself in court, and there’s possibly a story of the communal riots in Gujarat that divided its running time between the plight of the Hindus and that of the Muslims, with each side teetering between oppressor and oppressed. But those are entirely different movies – not the ones we got.

Perhaps other filmmakers may make those films – and perhaps they won’t. And till they do, if at all they do, our options are either to stay away from films with so inflammatory a core, films that so violently clash with our own belief systems, or else to surrender, for the duration of the film, to a different point of view, from an intelligent and passionate creator who isn’t after reportage so much as the rendering of a story that he (or she) feels deeply about. But to expect films to conform to objective evaluations based on abject realities of the world around us is to do the medium a great disservice. Art is too valuable to be consigned to the stultifying chore of chronicling the truth.

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