“In Harf-i-Nishat Awar Mi Guyam wa Mi Raqsam/Az-Eshq Dil Asayad ba Inhame Bitabi” (I sing these joy-inspiring words/I dance with delight/It is Love that is a balm to the heart.) — Iqbal
The pride we have in our country’s secularism is giving way to a sense of shame. Can the consequences of majoritarianism be fully comprehended by the dominant faith? Who could imagine that a tattoo on one’s hand, a symbol of devotion, can cause so much displeasure that the hand itself has to be sawed off from the body? Do concerns about a possible threat to life cross the mind of a woman from the majority community, as she packs her husband’s office lunch? Yet minorities have paid with their lives for perceived “offences”, including carrying non-vegetarian food on a train, transporting their own cattle, wearing a skull-cap, at times while being forced to chant “Jai Shri Ram”.
The Azmi siblings’ timely film, Mee Raqsam (I Dance), rekindles hope at a time of the dismantling of democratic values. Maryam, the teenage protagonist, is delighted by Bharatanatyam. However, society’s expectations, ingrained into the vulnerable psyche of the oppressed, result in self-censorship and a denial of her passion. Bharatanatyam is director Baba Azmi’s visual yet subtle metaphor, questioning the irrational mindset over the ownership of our living traditions within the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. It is a sincere reiteration of the idea that ours is a pluralistic nation, where religion is personal, while culture — the arts, festivals or clothes — belongs in the public space.
Maryam’s sole surviving parent, Salim, a tailor, decides he will nurture her talent, despite the inevitable ruffling of feathers both within and between communities. Together, daughter and father fight society’s manufactured rules that threaten to shatter a shared composite heritage. Their confidence is founded on the belief that it would surely take more than an ancient dance form to weaken bonds between peoples or break-up a neighbourhood, much less a nation.
The chosen theme of culturally-demarcated identities, elaborated upon by writer Ali Husain Mir, raises questions that are frighteningly real. In 2016, actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui was compelled to abandon his role in the Ramleela midway through ongoing performances in Bihar on charges of not being a Hindu. Will there come a time when laws and patents will determine who can recite Sanskrit shlokas, Sufi verses or Buddhist chants? How does one construct a dam that bifurcates the waters of the Ganga from Yamuna, an inter-mingled tehzeeb? Can we slice apart the rivers?
Mee Raqsam’s forthright story-telling retains its focus — the complexities of society’s deeply-entrenched hierarchies, based on faith and class. The lines between feature and documentary genres blur: Rural landscapes in Kaifi Azmi’s hometown of Mijwan, UP, Muslim bastis, characters primarily comprised of those who live the realities, not emote them, captured in a cinema verite style. There are no mandatory nods to Muslim stereotypes such as an obligatory Sufi song, qawwali, or azaan.
When isolated and excommunicated even by their own, the daughter-father duo displays human frailties. A local cleric blocks Salim’s entry into a mosque, as he is now perceived to be a kaafir. The tailor’s once busy sewing machine is compelled to sit idle beside him, even during Eid. His books must be sold by weight, though not of the words within them. When Salim visits his wife’s grave, where he can recreate memories of better times and regain strength, no sher-o-shayari is layered as a background score to accentuate his condition. The concept of qabristans and cemeteries as tangible physical sacred spaces to offer gratitude at, are acknowledged as healing spots, with minimal fuss.
Says Shabana Azmi, who presents the film in commemoration of progressive poet Kaifi Azmi’s birth centenary: “Kaifi Azmi’s values and principles quietly pervade and inspire us. It is time we redefine the toxic masculinity. Why can’t men be portrayed as nurturers?”
An illustration is when Maryam sits crouched in an attempt to apply alta to her feet in preparation for her first performance. Her father extends a helping hand. It is a gesture so spontaneous and non-traditional for a male parent. On her withdrawal, he inquires, “Ammi ko mana karti?” (Would you not permit your mother?). This startlingly simple analogy and the actor’s indulgent delivery is a refreshing tribute to single parenting. Screen mothers play dual-parenting roles; a father’s contribution is generally limited to being the breadwinner. The gentle parental gesture is also a throwback to a time when Kaifi Azmi dressed his daughter for school, while her mother was away at work.
Permeating the film is the subtle presence of three personas. Three personalities blur, three art forms merge: The one who is paid tribute to through this film, Kaifi Azmi, the filmmaker Baba Azmi and his actor, Danish Husain. Each one communicates in his own chosen creative medium, reinforcing contemporary reality. The message remains the same. Kaifi Azmi uses verse as his language to bring dignity to the common citizen. Baba salutes the town’s tailor who offers solitary resistance. A third reiteration of respect for the worker comes from Salim, who enacts his portrayal with an intrinsic tameez, a trait typical of UP.
Making the struggles worthwhile, this sense of self-worth of the working class is imbibed by the new generation, conveyed by young Maryam. Now an acknowledged dancer within the small community, she announces publicly, “Darzi hain, mere Abbu”. There is a quiet pride in her tone, not shrill defiance. She follows this disclosure with a performance to a medley of musical genres; now meter and melody in praise of Shiva, now to the chants of Ali.
No, the waters of the rivers will not be separated.
Mee Raqsam is a rare gift of 2020. It’s also the Azmi siblings response to their father’s final alvida to them, a reminder from his hospital bed: “Kar chale ham fida jaan-o-tan saathiyon/Ab tumhaare hawale watan saathiyon.”
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 25, 2020 under the title ‘Can we slice apart the river?’. The writer is a filmmaker
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