Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 4 Issue 25 | December 17, 2004 |

   Cover Story
   News Notes
   A Roman Column
   Face to Face
   Slice of Life
   Time Out
   Straight Talk
   Eating Out
   Book Review
   Dhaka Diary
   New Flicks
   Write to Mita

   SWM Home

A Roman Column

Meeting Filmmaker Govind Nihalani

Neeman Sobhan

Years ago, when I saw the controversial Indian TV serial 'Tamas' (which dealt objectively with the horrors of the 1947 Partition), and such critically acclaimed films from parallel cinema as 'Aakrosh'(1978) and 'Ardh Satya,'(1983) I never thought that I would get to meet their creator. But on a freezing Roman evening, as I rushed into the lobby of Cinema Capranica, location of the Asiatic Film Festival, in walked Govind Nihalani, the director of the above mentioned films including his latest 'Dev' which I had come to see.

We fell into conversation and I saw him again at the post-screening discussion of 'Dev' and his other film 'Hazar Chaurasi Ki Ma.' Courteous and serious, he is in conversation as committed to social issues as he is in his filmmaking. He started his career as filmmaker Shyam Benegal's cinematographer, winning awards for 'Junoon,' and went on to become one of those rare directors, who use the medium to highlight moral dilemmas and the struggle of the individual conscience against social realities and political expediencies.

This thinking man's filmmaker has recently tried to straddle both mainstream and alternate cinema (with 'Thakshak' and now 'Dev'). Why? "I need to make money to fund the projects close to my heart." But for Nihalani, the choice is not between parallel and commercial cinema but meaningful and mindless cinema. Thus even within the mainstream format of films like 'Dev', his concern with thought provoking issues is never compromised. Actually by using stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor and Fardeen, he managed to use the mainstream distribution-exhibition channels. "Even then the film didn't do well at the box office, but made enough to break even." And the most important thing was that it lured a wider audience, who thought they were watching an action-thriller and exposed them to the ugly political reality behind communal riots and to the prime message of the film: standing up for human compassion and conscience in the face of personal vendetta and communal intolerance.

Two decades ago in his film 'Ardh Satya'(Half-Truth) he had dealt with the world of law enforcement and its corruption. In some ways 'Dev' can be seen as a sequel, this time dealing with a larger and harsher truth within the framework of national politics. Both have police protagonists, but while in 'Ardh Satya' the protagonist struggled within a corrupt system, 'Dev' goes beyond the police world. With the graphic backdrop of Hindu-Muslim communal riots, 'Dev' raises complex issues: the politicisation of the police force, and how jingoistic bigotry among police officers and politicians can betray humane values.

Surprisingly, many critics reviewed 'Dev' as if it were just another thriller, when it is a groundbreaking film dealing with the contemporary problem of Hindu-Muslim violence. Those who have erased the memory of Gujarat, need to be reminded that with provocation from morally bankrupt but powerful people on both sides (like Latif the Muslim agent provocateur; the unethical and pragmatic Chief Minister; and Tej, the bigoted Special Commissioner of Police, played by Om Puri), ordinary people can be sucked into the spiral of vengeful violence and counter-violence.

Nihalini said my film is based not just on the Gujarat riots but a combination of events like the Babri Masjid demolition and the bomb blasts in Mumbai; thus action and reaction [between Hindus and Muslims] on both sides is shown here. It deals with a human tragedy. I show that politicians have a major role to play in riots and communal unrest. The police take orders from them, stand back and let things happen. There are people in the police force and elsewhere who agree with the politicians and others who don't. The film is a platform for both points of view. The story is about two protagonists (Tej and Dev, the Joint Commissioner of Police) who are the spokesmen of the film. There's a debate in the film. I wish people would listen to the dialogues carefully.

Some questions at the post-screening discussion: What was the reaction of the government to the film? "Except for some cuts, it passed censorship." It was after all released post-election and promoted as an action film. And how did the audience react? "Some Hindu extremists reacted, as did some Muslims in the audience who walked out as soon as they heard anti-Muslim rhetoric from the character of Om Puri, which was necessary to delineate his bigotry and which would be dealt with in the course of the film. But they didn't stay to see the positive resolution of the film. Some Muslims also reacted to the bomb sequence outside a mandir. It was important to the story as a turning point in the evolution of the Muslim character played by Fardeen, but many didn't wait till the end. You have to see the film from a holistic point of view."

Apparently elsewhere the criticism was that many of the Muslim characters were either unsympathetic or reformed terrorists. Was the message that the Muslim community is full of violent, subversive elements, thus endorsing the dangerous idea that the majority community only behaved violently due to provocation by the minorities?

No. "What the film tries to say is that as in the Hindu community, so in the Muslim there are small groups with muscle power who tend to dominate and misguide the vulnerable section of the community. The film explores sympathetically why a person becomes a terrorist."

I had no problems with the ideological and moral imperatives of the film, which I salute, nor with the inevitable melodramatic manner of its mainstream format, but I found it too long and too graphic. Still, it manages to articulate the important things, specially the summing-up words of Dev: "It matters not whether I win or lose, live or die, but that I fought for truth, justice and humanity."


I am touched by the human drama of 'Hazar Chaurasi ki Ma' but about its political perspective I ask Nihalani: "The film takes place in the 1970's when the Naxalite movement was at its peak, and deals sympathetically with idealistic youth taking part in subversive activities. Admittedly, the Naxalite's cause was laudable social reform but their methods were those of terrorists. Given the film's identification of the mother with her dead Naxalite son's cause, juxtaposed against the present day sensitivity to terrorism, might not your film be interpreted as endorsing the ideology of subversion?

"This is a question that bothered me too, and I and Mahasweta Devi (author of the story) discussed this. But for one thing the Naxalites were not terrorists except from the government's point of view, and I feel that the important distinction has to be made between subversion for a noble social cause and political terrorism."

I disagree. Most social causes have political roots, and any method of reform that employs violence is suspect: one man's freedom fighter (or social revolutionary) is another man's terrorist. Anyone who romanticises terrorist methods is on dangerous grounds. But that is what I respect about Nihalani: he is not afraid to skate on thin ice, take a stand. "You can disagree with me, and a debate can start and that is the positive outcome of any film that deals with issues seriously." I couldn't agree with him more. As for dragging the complacent among the audience (like the conventional mother in his film) onto slippery grounds, to grapple with questions that lie beneath the smugly smooth surface of accepted societal order and arrive at a new balance and fresh ideals, I applaud this admirable filmmaker.

NEXT WEEK; Meeting Activist-Actress Nandita Das


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004