Festival Daily

By Parul Pandya

Nandita Das has proven herself to be one of the first ladies of India, with over 12 years of acting and 30 films to her credit. Onscreen, she garners admiration for her unique ability to vividly paint the emotional landscape of the characters she embodies. But Das’s authenticity goes beyond her acting talents; off-screen, she is an active advocate for social justice and change in India and beyond.

Firaaq, her directorial debut, intertwines an investigation of the human capacity for suffering with a look at the social implications of violence on individuals and nations alike. The word “firaaq” is Urdu for both separation and quest. Das describes the correlation of the title with the vision of the film: “I mean [separation] metaphorically – separations that have happened in our minds and hearts. And also quest, because at some level we are searching, seeking, waiting for something. In all my characters, there is a search and yet there is a separation that is happening between them.”

Firaaq’s compelling journey begins after the riots in Gujarat erupt in reaction to the burning of the Godhra train at a routine station stop in 2002. The incident resulted in the deaths of 58 Hindu religious pilgrims, and a holy and bloody cause for Hindu retaliation. The resulting communal riots killed 3000 people, mainly Muslims, and displaced close to 150,000.

The severity of the violence is captured in the imagery of the film’s opening scene. Two Muslim men stagger among dozens of corpses, traumatized. “Violence spares nobody,” Das says. “It’s going to impact our lives. We can’t, unfortunately, wish it away. We have to do something about it.” So instead of showing the anonymous bodies of many, Das chooses to slowly move the camera over the faces of individual victims, suggesting that while religion may divide people in life, there is no segregation in the casualties of war.

The story then shifts forward in time, one month from the commencement of fighting in Gujarat. Meticulously, over a 24-hour period, several unique storylines unfold, showing the implications of living with conflict on a day-to-day basis.

After returning home from a forced exile to protect their small family’s safety, Hanif and Muneera find that the walls of their humble home have been burned and the insides ravaged. Hanif refuses to accept this and quietly seeks revenge, while his wife struggles to find trust in anyone and anything familiar. 

At the same time, another couple, Sanjay and Arati, privately struggle to find harmony in their jaded marriage. Arati is haunted by the presence of a stranger she turned away and she seeks penance for her mistake by befriending a young orphan boy.

A spiritual musician, Khan Saheb (Naseeruddin Shah), struggles with accepting the implications of his Muslim faith upon discovering that he has become an outcast in his primarily Hindu neighbourhood. His conviction is tested when he realizes that his philosophy to accept religious diversity may be an unattainable aim in his present reality.

And finally, Anuradha (Tisca Chopra) and Sameer (Sanjay Suri) are a young Hindu-Muslim couple who attempt to understand and conquer their personal fears.

Das, who co-wrote the screenplay with Shuchi Kothari, developed the characters through reading newspapers and watching news reports on television. She also drew on her own intimate exposure to sectarian violence in India. “These characters are as true as you want to believe them to be, and as fictional as you accept them to be,” she says.

Once the filming of Firaaq began, she realized the challenges ahead, she admits. Filming each of the multiple storylines to bring equal energy to the overall piece was more complicated then she had initially anticipated.

The transition from working as an actor to working as a director is a progression Das says she’s made as an individual. “To be able to tell your story in your own way is challenging, but also deeply satisfying. I think that to direct is to look into every aspect of filmmaking and not just the performance.”

Das’s feature debut urges audiences to recognize human collectivity through responsibility, and bursts any perceptions that religious violence does not affect those who live outside the centre of conflict. Yet while Firaaq is a film of essential messages, it’s no less one of ethereal stories. Das reflects that through her travels abroad, she has found one universal hope we all long for: peace.

Sept. 11, 8:15pm, Varsity 2