Some films are born out of such troubled epochs in a nation’s history that they fill you with a mix of emotions. Overriding all else is plain astonishment: how did these films, which touch upon so many lives, burning nerves, ever manage to get made?
In Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Naseem (1995), an ailing, bed-ridden grandfather regales his 15-year-old granddaughter with tales of his youth, when India was fighting for independence from the British. The contrast between his world then, and the one in which he is living out his days now, is stark. The turbulence then was geared towards the making of a nation and the limitless possibilities of freedom; he is now, at the fag end of his life, witnessing another kind of turmoil, intent upon the destruction of the things he and his friends fought for, especially the idea of a composite India, with its many faiths, cultures and people.
The film opens in June 1992, and ends six months later, on December 6, the day the Babri Masjid was destroyed. That day, and that event, changed the nation, and the reverberations are still being felt. Naseem captures gently, but profoundly, both beauty and terror, of times past and present, of conflicts that heal and wound. “Dadajaan, what does naseem mean?” asks the granddaughter, whose name it is. The morning breeze, he says, and it is as beautiful as you.
Outside their home in Bombay, the ripples of the rising unrest in many parts of the country, are being felt. The film melds the political and the personal beautifully, as we see the growing edginess in this Muslim family — Naseem’s father (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), mother (Surekha Sikri), brother (Salim Shah), and the brother’s visibly agitated friend (Kay Kay Menon). Newcomer Mayuri Kango is the perky Naseem, and dadajaan is played unforgettably by Kaifi Azmi, the craggy lines of his face a lived history. They are the pivots through whose interactions we feel the director’s voice, laced with pain, most clearly. Mirza did not, could not, make a film after Naseem, saying in his novel, Ammi (2008), that after the demolition and the events that followed, he decided to travel, “and, hopefully, regain my composure, and try and understand my country and the world once again.”
Watching the NFDC-produced film (now streaming on Mubi) 25 years after it was made is both harrowing and thought-provoking. Were the mandir-masjid faultlines, so clearly and disturbingly visible now, always there, just hidden carefully till an opportune moment? Were the cracks that seem to be widening with every passing day, papered over by the heady air of freedom, which led to romanticism and idealism confined only to pockets of “intellectuals”? Except for one scene in which we see a procession bristling with masculine rage, the lead-up to that fateful day in Ayodhya comes to us second-hand, via the black-and-white TV set in Naseem’s home, the muted noises of the sloganeering mobs and rioters as effective as the full-throated shouts we hear during the procession.
A character asks Dadajaan why he didn’t leave for Pakistan during the Partition. He says that the house they lived in at the time had a tree which his wife liked. It was a question of belonging.
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