It was Kaifi Azmi’s wish to have his village Mijwan come alive on screen one day. The renowned poet’s son, Baba Azmi, could only smile at his father’s desire because shooting in a tiny village, which did not even have a pin code to its name, seemed impossible.
Years later, Baba, who has been a cinematographer for four decades, found himself in Mijwan with his crew and a burning passion, telling a story of a girl wanting to dance against all the odds. “My father’s blessings made it possible,” he tells indianexpress.com.
The debutante director talks about the journey of Mee Raqsam, which also stars Naseeruddin Shah and Danish Hussain, and the need for more positive Muslim characters on screen.
How long have you lived with the story?
This concept has been there with me since 2012, and I wanted someone who understood the subject well to write the script. I was fortunate enough that writer Ali Husain Mir came on board. He has written it beautifully. I was very sure that I wanted to make it with newcomers because I could see the subject’s beauty with new actors.
Since last year was my father’s centenary year, I felt this could be the best tribute I could give him as long ago, during a chat, he had said, “Beta, is it possible that we could ever shoot in my village?” I just smiled because it was such a small village then. There was no infrastructure there. So I used to think where would I put my crew of 50-70 people. This thought remained in my mind but then last year I decided to make the film. And with his blessings, the shoot of 50 days went smoothly. I was able to make a film that I believed in. I made it the way I wanted to make it, without any compromises.
The last 40 years I have worked on big films and with top stars. I have been there and seen it all. My desire was to make this film the way I want to make it. It’s a small film with new actors. Fortunately, all the performances are very good. I got to experience such good talent like Shradha Kaul. She is a fabulous actor. The main character, Mariam, is played by Aditi Subedi, who is from Mijwan. She is a kid, all of 15 years. She is terrific.
Once Shabana (Azmi) and I had gone there for three-four days, and I saw Aditi, whom I have seen growing up. She is so bright, confident and lively. I auditioned her and she blew my mind! Since she is from Mijwan, her diction is clear. Her strength is that she is not a trained actor. There’s no craft but spontaneity.
Tell me about the challenges of shooting in Mijwan.
First of all, we were shooting in winter. UP’s winters are really bad, especially Jan-Feb. There’s not even a lodge, let alone a hotel. But trust me, one month before the shoot when I went to Mijwan, I saw a building on the way. It was a new building but shut down. I checked with my local guy, and we were told we could rent it. That’s how things fell into place. Then it was about the unit’s food. There’s even no Dhaba there.
So, we decided to take everything required for a kitchen from Mumbai, but the issue was where to put them. I renovated my father’s house and made a kitchen. We don’t find these basic things about production big otherwise, but you have to start from zero when you have a location like this. But all of it became possible only because of my father’s blessings. And now I feel like making my next film also in Mijwan because I have become comfortable with it.
This premise is as risky as it’s noble, especially with growing religious divide. I felt two things strongly after watching the trailer. There’s a possibility of opposition from both the religions considering the theme of a Muslim girl wanting to learn Bharatanatyam. So, did you think about it before taking it up?
Secondly, your film questions the patriarchal mindset that some in the community have held on to. Did you at any point consider this point of view as a risk?
Because in this film, no community is speaking against another, and no one is blaming each other, that risk should not exist. The film is finally saying that art does not belong to any religion. Dance has been a part of our tradition since time immemorial. The story is about that. There’s a 15-year-old girl who likes to dance. She would watch her mother practise Bharatnatyam, and that became a way of communication between them.
Now, a teenage girl does not think from a religious point of view. She just wants to learn a dance form. That’s her purity. And then there are external oppositions and points of view. But you are right, in today’s times, anything can become a huge topic. If it happens, it would be unfortunate.
Naseeruddin Shah’s character of a cleric, who becomes a gatekeeper of a religion, trying to teach us what God means…
(Interrupts) If you heard the last line of the trailer, “Islam is not so weak that it would be insulted by an innocent girl’s will to dance.” The girl’s father, who supports the cleric, reads Namaz five times a day. That’s the USP of the film. There’s no chest-thumping of speaking against someone. And that’s because I am not like that.
The house that I have grown up in, the way I have been raised never had anything to do with religion. Like, the way Holi is celebrated at our place till today, it’s actually one of the most famous Holi celebrations in Mumbai. We celebrate Diwali, Christmas, Eid with equal fervour. Shabana and I have grown up with this ideology. There was never even a discussion on religion. That’s what it means to be a pure Indian, Hindustani. But unfortunately, what you are saying that situation exists today, and it cannot be denied.
Do you feel today more than ever you are reminded of your religious identity?
(Pauses) Yes, in a way definitely. There’s never been any hindrance for me at work though. Maybe because I am well-established so that doesn’t interfere. I don’t know.
We get Ganpati every year at home. My wife is a Maharashtrian. It was not like this since the beginning. During one Ganesh Chaturthi, my wife said, “Why don’t we have Ganpati at home,” and I said okay. And since that year, we have been bringing him home. It’s that simple. If someone talks against someone else or the religion, that’s their wish. But I don’t share those beliefs.
Your criticism cannot make me more Muslim or Hindu. I am what I am. My beliefs are the ones I grew up with, and they would remain so forever. I mean even today it’s not possible that a Hindu doesn’t have Muslim friends or vice versa. That’s our beauty.
So, how have we come to a point where unfortunately religion gets a mention in every discussion of ours? Unlike earlier, today, even our actors’ religious identities are highlighted. How do you react to the changed discourse?
I don’t believe in this. I feel it’s a passing phase. And the fact that your top three stars are Muslims validate what I am saying. You have had a Muslim president. It’s the same country, no. This is our strength. Definitely, there are dents. But I don’t think it will change a lot.
In small towns, when there’s a calamity, people don’t help each other because they are Hindus or Muslims or Christians. They just think of each other as neighbours. These are the beliefs of our people. There have been so many recent instances in the COVID times, when Muslims of an area have helped cremate bodies of Hindus as no one else was willing to touch them.
Do you think Hindi cinema has largely boxed Muslim characters – from their appearances to their views on patriotism – based on the majority view of a good and a bad Muslim? Either they have to be overtly patriotic or we put them in the category of terrorists. There’s no individuality to them.
When was the last time you saw a positive Muslim character in a film? You will have to ask Google. Muslim characters have no other jobs except of a butcher or a terrorist. This has become a norm. So, showing a positive Muslim is a long shot. And every Muslim will talk using phrases like “Janaab” (laughs). I don’t know any such Muslim. We are normal people, and we wear shorts, also swim and play tennis.
The language that we speak is Hindustani. Urdu was born in Hindustan, in Avadh. You have made it the language of a Muslim. That’s not correct. Circumstances are such. What can we do? You can keep doing your work, hoping that it will leave some impact, if not in your lifetime but one day for sure.
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