In his first feature film as director, Mee Raqsam (2020), Baba Azmi shows the same strength that can be found in his photographic direction of such iconic Bollywood songs as Ek do teen (Tezaab, 1988), Hawa Hawaii (Mr India, 1987) and Dhak dhak (Beta, 1992). Songs that turned actors like Madhuri Dixit into stars.
Coming a year after the centennial of Kaifi Azmi’s birth, Mee Raqsam is a fitting tribute to the legendary poet. I could have listened to Shabana Azmi speak of her and Baba’s father for days on end. In fact, I, who am always most grateful to the stars that gave me my birth in the household of my parents, found myself jealous of Baba and Shabana Azmi’s good fortune. This, despite the fact that my parents and family never had me wanting for anything at all. This, despite my believing my parents to be the most exemplary parents I could have dreamt of, even in my most dreamy dream. What I was jealous of was the poet that they had access to, the artists (Kaifi and his wife Shaukat) whom they got to wake up to and listen to last before they went to bed.
Mee Raqsam is the story of a young Muslim girl born and raised in Mijwan, Kaifi’s birthplace in Azamgarh. Mariam, a young girl who has recently lost her mother, challenges the traditional mindset of the Muslim elders of the village when she chooses to learn Bharatanatyam, a decision encouraged and supported by her widower father, Salim. They see her instruction in this classical dance of India as a betrayal of their version of Islam. Unperturbed by these hostile and extreme reactions, Salim faces every challenge — including that of his livelihood being lost when his tailoring business is boycotted by the community. All for the sake of supporting and encouraging his daughter’s god-given gift of rhythm and dance. Mariam and Salim tackle the vicissitudes of their circumstances with dignity and grace, and Mariam blossoms as a practitioner of this revered dance form.
With simplicity and clarity in dialogue and imagery, Baba Azmi holds our attention, as we ride the emotional rollercoaster, along with the father and his talented daughter. A girl who is most poised in her demeanour, who is circumspect and polite, stoic and brave, is tormented and and challenged by misogynistic bullies who co-opt religiosity, pedantic doctrine and dogma that are anathema to the religion that they are, supposedly, championing.
Castigated and cast aside by the supposed gatekeepers of their faith, the father and daughter are shown sharing a relationship that is as pure and simple as the love that the most devout believer would share with their creator. The tenderness that the father has for his daughter places a rare but most welcome form of the masculine in the spotlight. A manliness that is in command of its virility and, so, can indulge in its softer and empathetic humanity. As the daughter progresses as a dancer, so does the father as a nurturing parent. Frame after frame brings the viewer a refreshing example of what a father-daughter relationship ought to be.
Undefeated by the bullying members of the community, Mariam dances in a competition and wins the top spot with ease. But then, she is marginalised and mistreated by the Hindu keeper and promoter of Bharatanatyam. The classical dance form is, very sadly and swiftly, rubbished into something parochial by the smallness of the man in whose custody the dance form, representative of the grand and ancient culture of this nation, was entrusted.
Kaifi asked Baba to shoot a film in Mijwan many years ago. One hundred years after the poet’s birth, the son returns to his father’s hometown, and, in doing so, he shares this story of hope and trust, of faith and grit, of determination and sincerity, of simplicity and purity. The story of a father who champions his daughter and her desires and femininity while also sharing his own deep-rooted confidence as a man. As I listened to Shabana reminisce about her deeply feminist father and how he encouraged his children to do whatever they wished as long as they did it passionately, and about the deeply independent, boundlessly empathetic, nurturing and forever optimistic man he was, I wondered if Baba’s Salim, the astonishingly kind father in Mee Raqsam is, in many ways, based on the real Kaifi.
Mee Raqsam is not about the pros and cons of religion and its believers. It is a statement about how intolerance is the most dangerous of all poisons and incongruent to the plurality of thought, action and deed that one might ascribe to a civil society.
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