FIRAAQ / SEPARATION (Dir. Nandita Das, 2009, India) – Rejecting The Other










Released in 1973 and directed by a former member of the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), leftist director M. S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (Hot Winds) was the first and one of the few films to deal with the crisis of partition faced by a North Indian Muslim family:

‘Despite its affirmative secular-nationalist closure, Garam Hawa remains the only film to address the plight of Muslims in post partition India in the early years after independence. Ironically, the film found itself in a great deal of trouble with a section of the Muslim community who appealed to the government to ban the film.’

Secularism and popular Indian cinema by Shyam Benegal
The Crisis of Secularism in India by Anuradha Dingwaney Needham,
Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, 2007, Duke University Press

Thankfully, Nandita Das chooses not represent the Muslim as simply ‘the other’, dealing with aftermath of the Gujarat riots in 2002 with a very sensitive eye for the self destruction brought on by communalism. Reminiscent of Crash in many ways, but minus the liberal pretentiousness, the film shifts across a number of parallel narratives whilst sympathising quite strongly with the plight of women. In many ways, a striking ideological criticism is aimed at a collective patriarchy that fuels communalism and makes women the real victims regardless of religious differences. Nandita Das is a well respected figure in the film industry and her image as a humanitarian and social activist who has campaigned for the rights of women in India mirrors that of her idol, Shabana Azmi. The marginalisation of the film has been criticised by Nandita Das, accusing the producers of failing to market the film properly, which probably seems likely given the difficult subject matter. Supported by a strong and talented ensemble cast, Firaaq excels particularly in its menacing depiction of a milieu under curfew at night in which social collapse creates a crisis in terms of trust and suspicion. We would have to categorise the film as a contemporary example of parallel cinema as it rejects many of the rules of popular Indian cinema, dispensing with songs and foregrounding a realist approach adopted by the director.

I’m not sure how a male director would have handled this material as Das purposefully avoids representing any of the violence, referring instead to the representation of the riots through television news channels. She also succeeds in offering a credible and rational voice to a cross section of the Muslim community, avoiding the all too familiar trap of tokenism. The workaholic and brilliant Naseeruddin Shah pops up in a minor yet significant role, delivering another effortless performance whilst the criminally underused talents of Paresh Rawal are put to good use in what is an alternative role. The film does not set out to offer any explanations or provide any glib solutions to the sectarian divisions that have come to exist in some parts of India. What we are left with at the end is a plea for tolerance and understanding. It is a humble message but the right one. Overall, this is an impressive directorial debut and demands to be seen by a much wider audience.

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