20 Years of Zakhm: A Film About Communalism That is Just as Relevant Today

Bollywood

20 Years of Zakhm: A Film About Communalism That is Just as Relevant Today

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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n a scene from Mahesh Bhatt’s Zakhm, when a young Ajay (Kunal Khemu) tries to reach his father over the phone, he is greeted by the slur “rakhyel ki aulaad” (son of a concubine). Ajay shudders, his skin having crawled into the back of his eye socket, waiting to pour out. But he keeps his resolve, at least for the first crucial moments in which his mother interjects. It is, after all almost true, perhaps even undeniable, the thing he has just been called.

That knowledge, and the desire to react to it at his tender age is evidence that Ajay isn’t just the love child of a forbidden relationship, sequestered from its truths. He is in partnership with this machine the sole product of which may be loss, and loss alone. At this point in the film, it is clear that Zakhm is a thoroughly adult world, its maturity born out of circumstance rather than wisdom. Wisdom that continues to elude India, amidst its sectarian politics and priorities.  

Zakhm is set during the Bombay riots. It opens with a poignant Ajay in his mid-thirties, played with a gloomy countenance by Ajay Devgn, trying to meet the city’s turmoil half-way. Despite the fact that he is now a celebrated music artist of the Mumbai industry, Ajay’s wife Sonia (Sonali Bendre) cannot help but feel insecure. “I don’t want our child to take his first breath in a country where people kill over faith. Is that too much to ask?” she says to her husband. To Ajay it is. As providence would have it, Ajay’s younger brother has just joined a rightist mob, lead by the scene-stealing Ashutosh Rana. Both brothers quibble over the phone over the nature of the country’s politics, much like we’d do today, or tomorrow. But when their mother is attacked and burnt by a mob, Ajay’s past, the one that never let him be a child, catches up. This time, though, he decides to write for it an elegy.

Bhatt, born out of wedlock to a Muslim mother (Shirin Mohammed) and a Hindu father (Nanabhai Bhatt) based large parts of the film on his own life. In an interview earlier this year he unhesitatingly stated, “I am a bastard child.” Bhatt’s bluntness has been near thematic to his life and work, which is marked by an absence of father figures — in films like Arth (1982), Aashiqui (1990) and obviously Daddy (1999) — and the macabre conservativeness of the country’s pettiest feuds: sex and faith. It is no wonder Bhatt has often exaggerated, overshot the runway on one more than one occasion. But there is also no denying that he sees conflict like no other director from the industry.

Throughout its running time, through its characters and actions, the film whispers secular advisories, bemoans symbolic separations and at times even overdoes its elemental placements.

In one scene in Zakhm a young friend of Ajay’s from school, upon watching a film extra dressed as Hanuman promptly joins his hands together in prayer. It’s a whimsical moment, comic in construction, tragic if deconstructed. It, of course, refers to the post-Ramayana years after Ramanand Sagar’s brand of Hinduism had seeped further than most educations in the country could hope to, neatly paving the way for the violence what would follow in the next few years.

A film like Zakhm feels relevant even today because of the rigidity of this country’s communal compass. Cast in stone, it seems, this needle exists only to mislead, as we remain ready to follow its basest insinuations, perpetually lost to the anger and hatred its maps are drawn with.

Zakhm fetched both the older Ajay (Devgn) and the younger one (Kunal Khemu) National Awards for acting. Throughout its running time, through its characters and actions, the film whispers secular advisories, bemoans symbolic separations and at times even overdoes its elemental placements. But it also does things that films in Bollywood seldom did at the time. It travels back in time to the impressionable years of childhood; to an age where conflict claims its price in the little things it teaches – fear, social stature. To children born amidst trauma, there is no referendum that grants them their innocence back. In the film, despite its cathartic end, the only thing Ajay gets to do is bury his trauma, rather than reclaim anything from it. It’s a price young children pay and have paid for the politics that is played around them.

As a child, your villains are cast before you feed any ink to the empty page. Though it is this past that accrues evil with time, it is the people hopelessly stuck in the present who pay the price. Even though Zakhm evaporates in the romanticism of oracular wisdom by the end, it remains bloodied by the loss not of life alone, but of lives that could never be lived. I remember watching Zakhm as a young teenager, bitter for the father figure none of its men ever become. I watched it as an adult for the innocence it can never achieve, because there is none. Our divisions, the islands we want to live on, Zakhm tells us, come with a price. A price we will never know each digit of.

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