Firaaq – A Brave New Effort

I saw Firaaq this week and was quite impressed with its realistic portrayal of the events. Nandita Das is not just a very fine actress but also an active social activist, and it shows in her directorial debut. The movie is a no-nonsense take at the horrible Gujarat riots. What makes Das’ effort different is her characters. It’s how her characters evolve in the aftermath of the violence that’s makes the movie special.

And boy what a stellar cast! It seems you can’t miss Naseruddin Shah when you are making a socially relevant film. Naseer has turned another fine performance after ‘A Wednesday’. You are absolutely charmed by his character of Khan Saheb, the musician. You can feel the agony in his eyes when he realises that his city is buring with communal violence. His response to his caretaker’s, “Apko is baat ka gham nahin ke musalman maara ja raha hai?” [TRANS : Don’t you feel sad that Muslims are being killed?]” is the dialogue that will stay with you. He says, “Insaan insaan ko mar raha hai is baat ka gham hai Kaleem miya!” [TRANS: “Human being is killing his fellow human being that saddens me!]”

Raghuveer Yadav is a brilliant actor be it any role, Firaaq is no exception either. He could have easily played the role of Kaleem miya, Khan saheb’s caretaker, in his sleep. It’s a pity that the world of Hindi cinema couldn’t fully utilize this tremendous talent. Ever since he charmed us in Massey Sahib almost two decades back, he’s given us some amazing performances on television and in movies.

The rest of the star cast too turned in restrained but commendable performances, be it the highly talented Shahana Goswami as Munira or Tisca Chopra as Anuradha Desai. Sanjay Suri has realised early that offbeat films is where he should focus on, and so far he is doing quite well. Mohammad Samad as the little boy Mohsin fitted the role perfectly.

For me the defining moment of the movie was when Munira (wrongly) thinks that her good (Hindu) friend was there when her house was being burnt down. In one shot the director was able to highlight the mistrust that the Muslims in Gujarat developed as a result of the mindless violence.

Sanjay Suri’s Sameer Shaikh speaks well for most educated Indian Muslims. Actually Das has managed to cover the majority of Muslim classes in India, and this is where she excels.

The musical score gelled well with the plot and was actually quite a surprise.

Firaaq is serious cinema, one that will hit you hard.

Recalling Jamshedpur riots of 1979

This month in the year 1979, the Hindu-Muslim violence in Jamshedpur took the lives of 108 people. The number of dead could have easily been 114, but as it turned out, my family and I survived the mayhem, to write about it thirty years later.

This unfortunate event occurred when I was at the tender age of five, however the memory of it is etched in my mind and it is one of the clearest early memories that I have. Thirty whole years later, and the images of the violence that occurred are still extremely vivid for me.

Earlier that day on April 11th, the tension in the air was heavy with anticipation of something horrible to come. Somehow my mother was able to sense it and on the morning of Ramnawami she went with her brother and my two little sisters to a nearby Muslim neighbourhood (Golmuri). My father being the idealist was confident that nothing would happen. In case something did happen, he had formed a group of Hindus and Muslims to defend the houses against any mob attacks whether they be Hindus or Muslims.

I and my brother, who was two years older than me, stayed behind though my mother and sisters had left early that morning. As the day went on, the small crowd that was outside on the streets talking amongst themselves began to grow. My brother started getting uncomfortable and by lunch time we convinced our father to take us to Golmuri where my mother had gone earlier. While we were there, eating lunch at Uncle Kamaal’s house, we heard shouts that the rioting had started.

Recalling 1964 and 1979 riots

We went out quickly to see what was happening and saw smoke rising in the air in the distance. My memories after that are vivid but in pieces. I remember that we were staying in a house full of women and children. I remember not wanting to eat the food as it was only half-cooked. This was my introduction to life as a refugee at a very tender age. I remember going on the roof at night to see what appeared to be the whole city burning up in flames. I also remember someone warning us not to go up there and stand there to avoid the risk of being an easy target for someone to shoot at. I remember that I was not able to see my father much and being very scared the entire time.

Years later I would find out that our house in the Tinplate area of Jamshedpur was a refuge for all the local Muslims after all the Hindus of the joint front slowly left. My father, who was back in Golmuri the next day to drop off some supplies, got stuck there as the curfew was clamped. He couldn’t go back and Muslims of Tinplate feeling besieged went to the Tinplate factory to ask for help but instead they were brutally murdered by their own colleagues. My father survived this tragedy by not being able to leave the area.

Our house was looted but we were one of the lucky ones. Others had all their belongings burnt. Months later, we moved to a new area called Agrico colony, across the street from another Muslim neighbourhood of Bhalubasa. These freshly white-washed houses failed to hide the black soot of the fires that was set in them. We didn’t know if anyone had died in those houses but signs of loot and plunder were clearly visible.

Over the years, I met many people with their own tales of that horrible time. I will meet a woman with burn marks on her body, a survivor of the ambulance that was doused in flames with the intention to kill all inside. Everyday on our way to school, we will see the charred ambulance parked outside the Police Station.

Of the 108 dead, 79 were Muslims and 25 Hindus. There were many injured and many who lost everything. Jamshedpur is an industrial town dominated by Tata factories where many residents of the town are employed. Most of the city is company property and people of all faiths live together in company quarters.

It is difficult to understand why this tragic event occured in a city so young where and with such a diverse population. Most of the residents are from different parts of undivided Bihar or other parts of India, and all were blue-collar workers trying to make a decent and honest living. Muslims werent the only ones who lost their lives, Hindus did too, so who really benefitted from this tragedy?

The person who single handedly took the entire city hostage that day in Jamshedpur, thirty years ago, was local legislator, Dinanath Pandey. Pandey, the person responsible for the riots, was awarded a seat in the Bihar assembly, twice after the incident. As BJP candidate he won elections as late as 1990. He made his seat a safe BJP seat. In the last two assembly elections, BJP won from there with over 50% of the total votes polled.

India goes to the polls to elect its representatives and decides who will run the country for the next five years. When we complain that the government doesn’t do anything for us, or when we complain of goondas and criminals in politics, remember that we as voters put them there in the first place. People like Dinanath Pandey, with blood on their hands, have no place in any legislative body. Congress has done well by taking away party tickets from Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler, but it is the same party that ruled Andhra Pradesh when the Muslim youth of Hyderabad were illegally detained and tortured by the state police. They will not take any action until the public shows them how upset they are.

If the parties fail to take any action and continue to field these criminals, we the people have take the stand and refuse to vote in those with hate-filled agendas or a criminal history.

AR Rahman: The Mozart of Madras

THINK of the movie ‘Roja’ and its music comes instantly to the mind. The musical compositions of the movie swept the whole nation and created a star. That was also the time when many like me thought that an Indian musician has produced a truly international score. When AR Rahman followed the success of Roja with the music of Kadalan and Bombay, the genius in him was confirmed. Its 17 years since Roja but Rahman hasn’t lost his ground. He remains one of India’s finest ever music composers!

Rahman’s musical roots may be traced to his father R.K. Sekhar who was a music director himself. The highly respected singer Yesudas sang several Malayalam songs under Sekhar, something which he would repeat for his son. When Rahman created history at the Oscars, Yesudas promptly said, “Rahman makes music out of silence.”

Rahman took piano lessons at a very young age of four. Five years later, tragedy struck his home when his father passed away. Being the only son could have led to his musical career starting at just eleven. Rahman joined the legendry music director Ilayaraja’s troupe as a keyboard player and also accompanied the renowned tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain on world tours. He dropped out of school by this time.

Rahman finally got the opportunity to showcase his talent to a wider audience when Maniratnam met him at an awards function. Rahman was there to receive the award for the Best Ad Jingle for a coffee ad. The ace director signed him the moment he listened to his compositions. The movie was Roja and Rahman became a household name with its release. In fact the Maniratnam-Rahman duo gave movies from down South a new found respect amongst the North-Indian cinema-goers.

For me, Rahman’s crowning glory was the National Award (the first by a debutant) and the recognition for the music of Roja. In 2005 Time Magazine chose it as one of the ten best soundtracks of all time. The magazine was all praise for the man behind it, “This astonishing debut work parades Rahman’s gift for alchemizing outside influences until they are totally Tamil, totally Rahman.” Slumdog Millionaire took his career to a different level altogether.

We, in India, knew his talent for long and for us it was just a matter of time before the rest of the world would recognise it. Bharat Bala, producer of Vande Matram, echoed the same thoughts after Rahman’s incredible show at the Oscars, “I think his music is truly international as he is able to connect with global audiences, something which no Indian has been able to do.” For Rahman his music is the outcome of a desire to influence the young India, “I wasn’t too happy with the I-don’t-want-to-listen-to-it attitude of our youngsters towards film music. Why can’t we get our guys to listen to our own music rather than to Michael Jackson? I didn’t want us to lose the market to the West. The music had to be cool and rooted, and yet had to branch out.” The acclaimed lyrics writer Gulzaar agrees, “Rahman’s compositions are a challenge – because he is innovative and unconventional. His music talks to you and work becomes easy.”

With a Padma Shree, 4 National Awards, 25 Filmfare Awards, 1 Bafta Award, 1 Golden Globe and 2 Academy Awards most people would change in their outlook, but not Rahman. He makes sure that all his artists are given due credit. That’s why you will find the mention of his entire team on the inlay card of an album. I was once listening to the flute player (forgot the name) behind the theme music of the movie ‘Bombay’ on NDTV expressing his surprise when during a show in Dubai the crowd chanted his name. A singer on the same show talked about how he refused to sing a song for Rahman as it didn’t suit his style. A few months later Rahman approached him again for a different song and he agreed. That’s Rahman for you! He holds no grudges.

If music has given him fame it’s his religion which gives him peace. The transition to Abdul Rahman (he later changed it to Allah Rakha on music director Naushad’s suggestion) from Dileep Kumar took place in 1988. One of his sisters fell seriously ill and all medical aid failed. That was the time when the family came in contact with a Muslim Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani popularly known as Pir Qadri. He prayed for them and Rahman’s sister made a miraculous recovery. Influenced by the events the whole family converted to Islam.

An atheist once, Rahman today, is one of those rare Muslims in the film industry who have managed to strike a balance between religion and work. He never misses his five daily prayers and has been to Haj twice. To him his religion provides a base that keeps him humble, “While praying you attain a certain position, telling the lord that you are the most horrendous sinner in the world, that you must be granted forgiveness and mercy.”

Rahman has a strong belief in Sufism, “I’m a deeply spiritual person. Sufism is about love – love for a fellow human, love for humanity, and ultimately love for God.” He is an outright critic of the extreme means adopted by some Muslims. In an interview given to Arab News he goes at length offering his outlook on the Islamic teachings-

“Muslims should go to lengths to follow the basics, which say ‘be kind to your neighbours, keep smiling when you meet others, pray and do charity.’ We should serve humanity. We should not show hostility toward others, even to the followers of other faiths. This is what Islam stands for. We should present before the world a model through our behaviour, nature and presentation. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) never used his sword to spread Islam; rather he spread the religion through his virtues, behaviour, tolerance and righteousness. And this is what is needed to change today’s distorted image of Islam.”

He rubbishes the rumours that link him to fundamentalism and forced conversion, “How can it be that I provide funds for them (suspected charities), when I have received death threats from the extremist (after he sang and re-composed Vande Matram) and the state government has posted police personnel to guard my residence.” On conversion he says, “When I am not perfect myself, how can I convert others? I follow my religion, let others follow their own.”

Rahman was once asked what makes him click. He replied in all humility, “It is all the will of Allah. I just do my bit and leave the rest to Him. It is He who decides the fate of us mortals.” Sure he does!

Baffling Supreme Court Judgment On Beards

Bearded Muslim

In Mohammad Salim versus Nirmala Convent Higher Secondary School, a Supreme Court bench headed by Justice R V Raveendran decided that the plaintiff has to abide by the rules and regulations of educational institutions especially if it is a minority institution. The judgment, while correct in its spirit, is debatable in its implications. Private educational institutions do have a right to make their own rules and regulations but if it results into an infringement upon their fundamental right to freedom of religion of students then it is borderline unconstitutional. Continue reading Baffling Supreme Court Judgment On Beards