If there’s one thing that strikes you during Firaaq, it’s that a film like this could not have come at a better time. Currently, the national situation in India is one of great fear, as bomb blasts continue to plague the country on the basis of religion and other creeds that threaten the lives of innocent people. Nandita Das, who makes her debut as a director with this film, takes an in-depth look into several lives affected by the horrors of communal riots and makes a bold statement on religious prejudice that runs rampant in India.
Using the Gujarat riots that took place in 2002 as a backdrop, Das presents several stories that showcase the inexplicable consequences of such horrific violence. After fleeing out of fear, Muneera and Hanif return with their child to the home they left behind only to find their tiny house burnt and charred. Beyond losing most of their material possessions, the couple feels a great sense of betrayal and Hanif looks for revenge while Muneera becomes obsessed with finding out who committed such an act. At the same time, Khan Saheb (Naseerudin Shah) attempts to disregard religious differences between Hindus and Muslims but eventually is forced to face the brutal occurrence going on around him. One of his Hindu students, Anu (Tisca Chopra) begins to question her relationship with her Muslim husband, Sameer (Sanjay Suri) as the couple tries to make things work despite the animosity between Hindus and Muslims. An older woman, Aarti (Deepti Naval) is haunted by the gruesome violence she has seen. Her husband, Sanjay (Paresh Rawal), disregards her silence and continues adding fuel to the fire with his prejudice attitude. However, the most heart-breaking story of all is that of a little boy named Mohsin who wanders away from his refugee camp, blindly searching for his lost innocence.
The greatest feat of all is that the director manages to set all these stories within twenty-four hours and still brings great depth to them. The film subtly sends a message that portrays the religious prejudice that still thrives in India to this very day. Though the film is a great concept, Nandita Das is let down by a script that crawls towards the climax. By the time the film finally reaches its abrupt but thought-provoking conclusion, you feel disconnected from several of the stories simply because the film moves too slow to hold your attention. Also, the multitude of characters leaves you unable to truly connect with most of them, barring in mind a few like Mohsin, Muneera and Aarti who are very well-written and performed.
On the positive side, Das does manage to make you think by simply laying the situation out and allowing you to interpret it for yourself. Along with co-writer Shuchi Kothari, she creates some very realistic situations that move you to a certain extent. The problem is that although the situations move you, not all the characters do. However, several tracks of the film work very well such as the one featuring Mohsin. This is the beautiful tale of a boy who represents so many others in India and the rest of the world. Having lost his innocence after being overexposed to violence, he simply wanders aimlessly, looking for anything better than the situation he is in. He finds mutual comfort in Aarti but as soon as he witnesses a glimpse of violence, he flees from her. This shows that it has become almost a defense mechanism for the young boy to run whenever he encounters violence. This innate fear is one he will grow up with for the rest of his life. Without a doubt, the entire concept and execution of this angle in the film is the work of a master. It is through this story as well as the one featuring Aarti that Nandita shows great strength as a storyteller although she has some work to do in the writing department.
Even though the editing and screenplay is a letdown, Ravi K. Chandran’s stunning cinematography makes this film a visual delight to watch. Manas Choudhury also provides a great background score.
Although some suffer from a combination of lack of screen time and poor characterization, the cast is excellent. The finest of the lot would have to be the little boy who played Mohsin, who conveys volumes through his eyes. Deepti Naval is also excellent. Paresh Rawal makes you cringe, which is exactly what his character is supposed to do. He’s absolutely wonderful, proving his versatility yet again. Shahana Goswami delivers another strong performance, proving what a fine actress she is. Nasserudin Shah is great as usual while Tisca Chopra and Sanjay Suri are complete naturals. However, all three of them deserve better characterization.
Characterization does play a large role in the film to an extent, but the story relies more so on situations than characters. This is perfectly acceptable since the situations are quite soul-stirring, but one wishes that the characters connected a bit more with the audience. Still, Das has put great effort into covering several demographics of the Indian population through her characters and manages to portray quite a three-dimensional view of violence and discrimination. Even beyond that, the film touches on issues like gender conflict and family relationships, which have been very finely portrayed.
One might have expected slightly better from such an admirable personality like Nandita Das, but there are several parts of the film in which she redeems herself and proves that she has the makings of a very fine director – she just needs a better script. She crafts some very meaningful situations, but her characters don’t hold the weight they should. Unfortunately, Das only wins half the battle.