Meeting Filmmaker Govind Nihalani
ago, when I saw the controversial Indian TV serial 'Tamas'
(which dealt objectively with the horrors of the 1947 Partition),
and such critically acclaimed films from parallel cinema as
'Aakrosh'(1978) and 'Ardh Satya,'(1983) I never thought that
I would get to meet their creator. But on a freezing Roman
evening, as I rushed into the lobby of Cinema Capranica, location
of the Asiatic Film Festival, in walked Govind Nihalani, the
director of the above mentioned films including his latest
'Dev' which I had come to see.
into conversation and I saw him again at the post-screening
discussion of 'Dev' and his other film 'Hazar Chaurasi Ki
Ma.' Courteous and serious, he is in conversation as committed
to social issues as he is in his filmmaking. He started his
career as filmmaker Shyam Benegal's cinematographer, winning
awards for 'Junoon,' and went on to become one of those rare
directors, who use the medium to highlight moral dilemmas
and the struggle of the individual conscience against social
realities and political expediencies.
man's filmmaker has recently tried to straddle both mainstream
and alternate cinema (with 'Thakshak' and now 'Dev'). Why?
"I need to make money to fund the projects close to my
heart." But for Nihalani, the choice is not between parallel
and commercial cinema but meaningful and mindless cinema.
Thus even within the mainstream format of films like 'Dev',
his concern with thought provoking issues is never compromised.
Actually by using stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor
and Fardeen, he managed to use the mainstream distribution-exhibition
channels. "Even then the film didn't do well at the box
office, but made enough to break even." And the most
important thing was that it lured a wider audience, who thought
they were watching an action-thriller and exposed them to
the ugly political reality behind communal riots and to the
prime message of the film: standing up for human compassion
and conscience in the face of personal vendetta and communal
ago in his film 'Ardh Satya'(Half-Truth) he had dealt with
the world of law enforcement and its corruption. In some ways
'Dev' can be seen as a sequel, this time dealing with a larger
and harsher truth within the framework of national politics.
Both have police protagonists, but while in 'Ardh Satya' the
protagonist struggled within a corrupt system, 'Dev' goes
beyond the police world. With the graphic backdrop of Hindu-Muslim
communal riots, 'Dev' raises complex issues: the politicisation
of the police force, and how jingoistic bigotry among police
officers and politicians can betray humane values.
many critics reviewed 'Dev' as if it were just another thriller,
when it is a groundbreaking film dealing with the contemporary
problem of Hindu-Muslim violence. Those who have erased the
memory of Gujarat, need to be reminded that with provocation
from morally bankrupt but powerful people on both sides (like
Latif the Muslim agent provocateur; the unethical and pragmatic
Chief Minister; and Tej, the bigoted Special Commissioner
of Police, played by Om Puri), ordinary people can be sucked
into the spiral of vengeful violence and counter-violence.
said my film is based not just on the Gujarat riots but a
combination of events like the Babri Masjid demolition and
the bomb blasts in Mumbai; thus action and reaction [between
Hindus and Muslims] on both sides is shown here. It deals
with a human tragedy. I show that politicians have a major
role to play in riots and communal unrest. The police take
orders from them, stand back and let things happen. There
are people in the police force and elsewhere who agree with
the politicians and others who don't. The film is a platform
for both points of view. The story is about two protagonists
(Tej and Dev, the Joint Commissioner of Police) who are the
spokesmen of the film. There's a debate in the film. I wish
people would listen to the dialogues carefully.
at the post-screening discussion: What was the reaction of
the government to the film? "Except for some cuts, it
passed censorship." It was after all released post-election
and promoted as an action film. And how did the audience react?
"Some Hindu extremists reacted, as did some Muslims in
the audience who walked out as soon as they heard anti-Muslim
rhetoric from the character of Om Puri, which was necessary
to delineate his bigotry and which would be dealt with in
the course of the film. But they didn't stay to see the positive
resolution of the film. Some Muslims also reacted to the bomb
sequence outside a mandir. It was important to the story as
a turning point in the evolution of the Muslim character played
by Fardeen, but many didn't wait till the end. You have to
see the film from a holistic point of view."
elsewhere the criticism was that many of the Muslim characters
were either unsympathetic or reformed terrorists. Was the
message that the Muslim community is full of violent, subversive
elements, thus endorsing the dangerous idea that the majority
community only behaved violently due to provocation by the
the film tries to say is that as in the Hindu community, so
in the Muslim there are small groups with muscle power who
tend to dominate and misguide the vulnerable section of the
community. The film explores sympathetically why a person
becomes a terrorist."
no problems with the ideological and moral imperatives of
the film, which I salute, nor with the inevitable melodramatic
manner of its mainstream format, but I found it too long and
too graphic. Still, it manages to articulate the important
things, specially the summing-up words of Dev: "It matters
not whether I win or lose, live or die, but that I fought
for truth, justice and humanity."
I am touched
by the human drama of 'Hazar Chaurasi ki Ma' but about its
political perspective I ask Nihalani: "The film takes
place in the 1970's when the Naxalite movement was at its
peak, and deals sympathetically with idealistic youth taking
part in subversive activities. Admittedly, the Naxalite's
cause was laudable social reform but their methods were those
of terrorists. Given the film's identification of the mother
with her dead Naxalite son's cause, juxtaposed against the
present day sensitivity to terrorism, might not your film
be interpreted as endorsing the ideology of subversion?
is a question that bothered me too, and I and Mahasweta Devi
(author of the story) discussed this. But for one thing the
Naxalites were not terrorists except from the government's
point of view, and I feel that the important distinction has
to be made between subversion for a noble social cause and
Most social causes have political roots, and any method of
reform that employs violence is suspect: one man's freedom
fighter (or social revolutionary) is another man's terrorist.
Anyone who romanticises terrorist methods is on dangerous
grounds. But that is what I respect about Nihalani: he is
not afraid to skate on thin ice, take a stand. "You can
disagree with me, and a debate can start and that is the positive
outcome of any film that deals with issues seriously."
I couldn't agree with him more. As for dragging the complacent
among the audience (like the conventional mother in his film)
onto slippery grounds, to grapple with questions that lie
beneath the smugly smooth surface of accepted societal order
and arrive at a new balance and fresh ideals, I applaud this
WEEK; Meeting Activist-Actress Nandita Das
(R) thedailystar.net 2004