24 Years Before the Ayodhya Verdict, Saeed Mirza’s Naseem Captured the Plight of Indian Muslims

Bollywood

24 Years Before the Ayodhya Verdict, Saeed Mirza’s Naseem Captured the Plight of Indian Muslims

Illustration: Arati Gujar

On paper, Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Naseem (1994) predominantly revolves around the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. But in reality, the film chooses to shows us very little of the actual acts of violence and hate-mongering that took place during the time. We don’t see the dastardly image of the belligerent karsevaks climbing atop the dome of the mosque – we get only get one brief scene of a political rally in the days preceding the demolition. Snippets of the inflammatory speeches made by political leaders are only heard through the news playing on TV in the background, running in parallel with the drama between the characters. The movie focus is more on the intimate. Through the eyes of its protagonist Naseem (Mayuri Kango), a school-going girl, it clues us into the repercussions that the communal tensions had on the everyday lives of Muslims.

The film spans six months, starting June 1992 and steadily building up a palpable sense of dread and claustrophobia as it culminates into the demolition of Babri Masjid on that fateful day in December. Less a dramatised documentation of the real-life event than a solemn elegy for a bygone era, Naseem explores the middle-class Muslim’s anxieties about living in a country that was starting to forget them. At the centre of the film is the warm and gentle relationship between Naseem and her grandfather, a former freedom fighter, played with a quiet dignity by Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi in his only film role. 

Naseem’s grandfather lived out a life in an India that he and his comrades had envisioned during their freedom struggle: a country where harmony and brotherhood between Hindus and Muslims was the norm. (It’s worth noting that Azmi also wrote MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1974), which explores the apprehensions of Muslims in the period right after the Partition.) Mirza is quietly taken by the question of nationalism. At one point in Naseem, when his son asks him why he didn’t choose Pakistan during the time of the Partition, his response is as matter-of-fact as it is charged with profound poetic undertones. All he says is that he chose to stay back because his wife and him loved the tree in front of their house in Agra; his wife was particularly attached to it. Why should he need another reason to stay back?

In a way, Mirza uses the grandfather as a symbol for an era left behind. He is shown as sick and bedridden throughout the film; his health steadily deteriorating as communal tensions escalate. His room feels like a retreat full of warmth in a house that grows increasingly tense as the film goes along. In several shots, we see Naseem walking away from the cacophony of news blaring on the TV into her grandfather’s room in a single-take shot. There’s the understated suggestion that one is withering away as the other is accompanied by a sense of foreboding. Naseem is full of moments like this, where nothing much happens in terms of plot progression but which still manages to speak volumes. 

Naseem explores the middle-class Muslim’s anxieties about living in a country that was starting to forget them.

Mirza constantly intercuts between the present day through Naseem’s point of view and the past through flashbacks showing her grandfather in his youth. This highlights the contrast between the two versions of India – the one which Naseem’s grandfather fought for and the one that was brought into being in 1992. The flashbacks signify an era when “Bharat mata ki jai!” was a slogan used by the oppressed standing up to their oppressors, a far cry from the infamous connotations it has gained today.

What is even more persuasive in Naseem is that Mirza is not interested in explicating any sort of “message” for the viewer – his perspective for most part remains that of a silent spectator, a fly on the wall. It is left to the viewer to derive conclusions about what they see. Take for instance, a captivating scene where Zafar (Kay Kay Menon, making his debut), a snappish young man tells Naseem’s grandfather that Muslims are the ones that always die in these riots. The grandfather argues that it’d be more appropriate to say that it’s the underprivileged and the downtrodden that suffer, not just the Muslims. To which, Zafar retorts, “Well, is there a difference between the two anymore?”

Even though Naseem ends on the day the Babri Masjid was demolished, it closes on a reflective note. The only image we see is that of a pensive Naseem in her grandfather’s room. She looks out the window, and we are reminded of an earlier scene where her grandfather explains to her that her name means the morning breeze. At the same time, we are aware that this is the same day the demolition of the mosque was carried out, much less a dispute over a piece of land than an assertion of dominance and power by one faction of people over another. Situating the two contrasting things in the same time and place, Naseem etches a heart-rending requiem not just for the grandfather but for the dream and vision of India that he once held dear.

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