Partition is a landmark in the history of the Indian nation-state, not just in terms of the division of territory that it bought forth, but also in terms of the horrendous bloodshed and communal carnage that followed the Partition. It gave way to the largest displacement in human history, divided people and communities and left behind a legacy of suspicion, hatred, loss and violence; the remnants of which continue to be felt in independent India. Since independence, India has witnessed several big and small riots between its various religious and ethnic communities. A majority of the riots have taken the shape of targeted violence by the majority community against the minority community as in the case of the 1984 riots against the Sikhs and the 2002 Gujarat riots against the Muslim community. Religion continues to be used to instigate passions to fulfill narrow political ends and ordinary people continue to bear the brunt of such episodic violence.
The film Firaaq is set in Gujarat, one month after the pogrom of 2002. It is an extraordinary narrative of six lives grappling with questions of identity, fear, loss and guilt in the wake of the riots. Here we encounter the predicament of a lower class Muslim couple who have lost everything in the violence; a guilt ridden middle class Hindu woman trying to find atonement for not helping a Muslim woman during the riots and a Muslim classical vocalist who still believes in hope and unity until he sees the decimated shrine of a Sufi saint. The film dwells into the long term material, psychological, interpersonal and inter-community effects of the riots and brings up difficult questions of responsibility, impunity, threat, suffering and humanity.
The Film’s appeal for a contemporary young audience in terms of aesthetics and format
This is a hard hitting film that is contemporary in its concerns as it deals with an event that continues to resonate through society in multiple ways. It features stories of different individuals that intersect at various points and these intersections would seem interesting to a contemporary young audience as well.
Background Knowledge: Issues of history, culture or specific mores which need to be explained to a young audience
The facilitator could hold two pre-viewing discussions that can lay the groundwork for an informed viewing of the film. Firstly, the facilitator could discuss the events that followed the Partition of India, the nature of large scale violence and displacement and its continuing effects on inter-community relations in Independent India. Secondly, the facilitator could discuss the Babri Masjid Demolition and the role it played in the violence in Gujarat. The facilitator could provide the students with a timeline of events that led up to the Demolition and explain the context of ‘Mandal-Mandir-Masjid’ where in 1990 there were protests by upper castes against reservations for backward castes in government jobs. There was a call by the Hindu Right Wing to combat the widening gap within the community along caste lines and a common enemy was identified, the Muslims. Babri Masjid was chosen as the site and Muslims as transgressors who had to be shown their rightful place in the country.
Muralidharan, S, ‘Mandal, Mandir aur Masjid: ‘Hindu’ Communalism and the Crisis of the State’, Social Scientist, Vol. 18, No. 10, (Oct, 1990) pp 27-49.
Dalrymple W, ‘The Great Divide- The Violent Legacy of Indian Partition’, The New Yorker, June29, 2015 issue.
The film is set one month after the pogrom in Gujarat. It depicts six main stories that intersect with each other. The characters in each story have been affected by the violence and are trying to come to terms with it. Sanjay Suri plays an upper class Muslim man who is married to a Hindu from the same class. Shaken by the violence and the vandalism and looting of a store of which he is a sleeping partner, he decides to move to Delhi. As the film progresses, we see him and his wife struggling with his identity as a Muslim. The character of Naseeruddin Shah, an aging classical singer, seems to still have his faith in humanity intact even while his trusted helper Raghuvir Yadav tries to tell him that times have worsened. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays a Muslim auto driver who is enraged by the violence and looting he has been a victim of. He gathers a few friends who discuss their predicaments. In a volatile and risky atmosphere, they decide to take matters in their own hands. Shahana Goswami, who plays the character of Nawazuddin’s wife, is trying her best to come to terms with the loss of all their possessions. She starts suspecting her close friend who is played by Amruta Subhash. In another household, Deepti Naval’s character, a submissive Hindu woman, repents for not coming to the rescue of a Muslim woman asking for help. She tries to atone for that by taking in a young Muslim boy who is orphaned by the violence. Her husband, played by Paresh Rawal and his brother Deven, played by Dilip Joshi, are busy trying to clear Deven’s name from a case of a Muslim woman’s rape, a crime which he in fact committed.
The interconnected lives, thoughts and dilemmas of these various characters depicted through the film give the viewer a glimpse of the complex realities and the trauma that the victims and survivors of communal violence deal with. The film stays true to its tagline of being ‘a work of fiction, based on a thousand true stories.’
Themes for Classroom Discussion
- Gathering first responses: Before conducting any other discussions, it will be important to have a conversation with the young audience about their first responses to the film, asking them what they felt, if they had heard of the violence before, if they had seen or read anything about it. Index cards could be distributed asking the audience to jot down any questions, observations, feelings, etc. they may have. (It would be prudent for the facilitator to go through these index cards and choose the discussion topic carefully since this is a sensitive issue)
- What are the class dynamics of the violence? Does belonging to different classes affect how one is subjected to violence? With reference to the film, were there any similarities and differences between what the characters of Sanjay Suri and Nawazuddin Siddiqui went through? The objective would be to help the young audience understand the nuances of communal violence. The audience could be encouraged to go back to the film and illustrate their points with instances from the film.
- Understanding and analysing Dipti Naval’s complex character: Were her actions in the end justified? Was she correct in her treatment of the young orphaned Muslim boy? Was there any change in her character through the film? The objective would be to look at this character through the lens of gender and to understand how dominant structures like patriarchy force women into submissive roles. Another important dimension here is the class angle which shows that even upper class households practice discrimination, that that “education” does not preclude prejudice.
- The role of the State machinery: students could be required to gather information through the Internet on the role of the police and State administration during and after the violence, in order to reflect on the actions or lack of action of the State.
- The feelings of insecurity that were articulated by Sanjay Suri’s character: Is it true that people belonging to a minority religion find it very difficult to find houses even in urban cities? Do people belonging to a minority generally feel insecure? To what extent are such feelings justified? What might be possible ways to mitigate these feelings of insecurity? What role might different actors play: the State, the community as a whole, community leaders, non-profit organizations, local politicians, and individuals belonging to minorities themselves, educators?
Additional Pre-Viewing Information (social, ethical, cultural) and Resources
The material suggested here will provide background knowledge on the issues being raised in the film and more: the rise of communal violence in the country, the link between communal violence and patriarchal violence, failure of the legal justice system in the country to address and stop these crimes etc.
Suggestions for Deepening Understanding– Materials for use post the viewing
A collection of resources has been provided here; an instructional video lecture on state accountability and violence, and some literary pieces that will help the young audience deeply understand the pain and suffering caused during these violent situations. Another feature film has been suggested that also looks at the depth of religious hatred and mistrust.
Civil Society and State: A Lesson from Gujarat by Harsh Mander (2013) Directed by Gauhar Raza [Short Video] India: Anhad Media
Struggles to Overcome Communal Violence: Gujarat Narratives (2015) [Testimonial Video] India: The Ferdinand Centre.
Delhi-6 (2009) Directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra [Film] India: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Ronnie Screwvala
Lahoo Mein Doobe Yeh Haath Kab Tak by Gauhar Raza.
‘The Spirits of Shah-e-Alam Camp’ by Asghar Wajahat: a short story published in The Little Magazine, ‘Bloodsport’, vol III, issue 5 & 6; translated to English by Rakshanda Jalil and TLM
Key Learnings and Follow up Activities
- This feature film throws light on the complex nature of emotional and physical survival people need to go through to try and piece back their lives after facing horrific communal violence.
- The young audience can be asked to look for more film or literature around the Gujarat violence and can be asked to make group presentations about the material they found and the insights they gained from it.
- Activity 1: The facilitator can ask the students to form small groups of 4-5 to explore the topic and develop a short presentation on their findings. Each group will be given one aspect of the violence (the spread of the violence, sexual violence, looting and burning of property, role of the state and police, conditions of the displacement camps, etc.) While each group makes their presentation, the others will be asked to listen attentively and make notes. They will also be asked to give feedback to each group about their presentation skills. The groups can also use PPTs, maps, charts, etc. to make their presentations.
- Activity 2: After having understood the scale of the violence, the same groups will now be asked to think of action plans that could have mitigated the violence. The groups could be encouraged to think about the different people involved (like the police, the state, the media, civil society groups, citizens, schools, etc.) and come up with a plan accordingly. As before, the plans would be shared with the whole class. Finally, the facilitator could help the students derive conclusions about possible solutions to prevent or mitigate communal violence.