New releases Firaaq and Barah Aana have more in common than just the actor Naseeruddin Shah. Both films invite us to reflect on the Indian Dream. Not the dream of Mukesh Ambani to govern every aspect of our lives through Reliance products or the vision of Ratan Tata to flood our roads with cheap cars. Remember the older, loftier one of building a nation in which citizens are equal and safe from violence? That one.
Firaaq, directed by Nandita Das, unfolds in a city that resembles Ahmedabad. It explores the aftermath of a communal riot through several characters, including an orphaned Muslim boy and a guilt-ridden housewife. The worst hit in this riot, as in most communal conflagrations that have the overt or covert backing of the police force and the local government, are Muslims. The reference is, of course, to Gujarat, the state that has managed to wash away the stains of the 2002 riots and repackage itself as the country’s best governed state.
Raja Menon’s Barah Aana is set in Mumbai, and it satirizes the opportunities for entrepreneurship that the new economy has supposedly thrown up. The movie’s watchman, driver and waiter find that wealth doesn’t trickle down in the new India—it has to be squeezed out of its source. The movie claims to be a comedy, but it’s as funny as a kick in the shins.
Art house gem: Naseeruddin Shah (centre) in Barah Aana
Although both films hold a mirror to the world we live in, they remind me at least of the art house cinema movement between the 1960s and 1980s. One of the hallmarks of Indian art house cinema, which was also known as the Indian New Wave or the parallel movement, was its grimness. Several art house titles, including Shyam Benegal’s Ankur, Gautam Ghosh’s Paar, Ketan Mehta’s Holi and Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, unsmilingly revealed the blemishes of the secular and socialist republic of India. They forced us to look certain ugly truths about India in the face. There were almost certainly no song-and-dance sequences or detours to Switzerland to lift the mood.
Parallel films often reacted to the issues of the day, sometimes in a literal and direct manner that undermined a movie’s efficacy. Several art house films were indulgent and misfired rants against discrimination and exploitation—summed up in the crude but succinct coinage “arty-farty pictures”. Often poorly funded (by the government-run National Film Development Corporation) and even more poorly distributed, the movement seemed destined to fail. Yet, these movies took us to places we’d never been before, whether it was rural India or the recesses of the Indian conscience.
For all its flaws, parallel cinema was easier to identify than multiplex cinema, which is indiscriminating in its embrace of stories, film-making forms and production techniques. By encouraging small-budget movies that explore offbeat themes and feature non-marquee names, the multiplex has drastically changed the dynamics of film-making. Yet the fact that the multiplex is a largely urban phenomenon means that small-budget films mostly reflect urban concerns.
Multiplex movies don’t often travel outside Mumbai or Delhi, secure in the knowledge that the multiplex-goer has paid far too much money to be reminded of the economic despair that lies outside the city’s borders. Experienced art house director Shyam Benegal’s most recent release, the ribald comedy Welcome to Sajjanpur, was set in a neat and tidy village that clearly smacked of a studio set—a departure for somebody known for using rural and small-town locations. Benegal acknowledged the artifice by introducing a plot twist that questioned the honesty of his “village tale”.
The urban backdrops of Firaaq and Barah Aana reveal the shortcomings of the secular and socialist republic of India. Nandita Das’ acting career sprang out of the dying embers of art house passions. She imports from parallel cinema its naturalism, preference for realistic locations and situations, and the desire to make a meaningful statement. Yet Firaaq is open-ended enough to signal its unease with convenient solutions. Barah Aana is more in the spirit of an American indie, but it works hard on rooting its characters in a milieu that’s very local and easily identifiable. It’s fitting that both films have Shah, who is one of the great veterans of parallel cinema and who, in his roles as the self-absorbed Khan in Firaaq and the taciturn Shukla in Barah Aana, is perfectly poised to be a nightmare catcher for today’s fraught times.
Nandini Ramnath is film editor, Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).Barah Aana and Firaaq released in theatres on Friday.