April 18, 2014
Feroz Abbas Khan
Apoorva Arora, Satish Kaushik, Tanvi Azmi, Vinay Jain, Satish Alekar, Sharad Ponkshe, Alok Rajwade, Jayant Wadkar, Ganesh Yadav, Dhiresh Joshi
In a seaside town somewhere on the deceptively tranquil Indian coast, the giant cut-out of a neta falls on a poor man, crushing him to death. Under normal circumstances Hamid Tangewala would have got a funeral and been promptly forgotten by all but his closest family. As it happens, however, this is no ordinary poor man. He was once Kishan, an impoverished Hindu who fell in love with a Muslim woman called Fatima (Tanvi Azmi), converted to Islam and married her a long long time ago. In a nation perennially searching for political hot potatoes, a local Hindu leader (Sharad Ponkshe) shifts his attention from an offensive book to demand that “Kishan’s body” be handed over to “them”. What follows is a battle involving police, courts and media, in a film that underlines the utter ridiculousness of riots and religious bigotry, like few Hindi films have done in the past.
Director Feroz Abbas Khan’s Dekh Tamasha Dekh (DTD) is an unusual cocktail of humour and poignance, unusual because of the grimness of the subject and because he has chosen satire as an instrument to convey the bizarre lengths to which violence-prone communalists will go to score a point. Khan – a veteran of theatre, but relatively new to the film world – had earlier helmed Gandhi My Father, a film on the Mahatma’s strained relations with his son Harilal. The assured directorial hand he displayed on debut comes to his aid here again, ensuring that despite the bloodshed in the background, we are not offended when DTD induces tears and laughter in equal measure.
How can a film about riots be funny, you may well ask? Well it can be, just like a film set in a concentration camp could be a comedy? Khan displays the same directorial sleight of hand that made Roberto Benigni’s La vita é bella (Life Is Beautiful) such a hard-hitting commentary on Hitler’s Holocaust. Dekh Tamasha Dekh takes a swipe at hollow religious leaders on both sides who don’t give a damn about the people, but are happy to use them to further a dubious cause. It subtly slams the media through the character of a traitorous, chameleon-like journalist. As a hapless judge is asked to decide whether a body is Hindu or Muslim, whether that body must be cremated or buried, it gives us one of the most preposterous, most hilarious courtroom scenes ever seen in a Hindi film.
“Did you care about Kishan all those years ago when he was struggling for a living and desperately needed help?” the Hindu leader is asked. He has no credible answer and doesn’t care to search for one either. That the majority community’s bigots are hateful not just towards the minorities but also towards its own moderates is evidenced by the harassment of the gentlemanly, scholarly Professor Shastri (Satish Alekar) early in the film. Elsewhere, a moderate Muslim leader is summarily brushed aside by the more rabid elements of his biraadari, once the situation heats up. We are never shown exactly who started the riots, who lit that first fire, the point being that it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter.
Somewhere in between is an inter-community love story destroyed by the bloodshed. Most of all though, the film renders a resounding slap in the face of self-appointed guardians of “Indian culture” who assume that this country comprises one homogeneous mass of people, ignoring the vast differences in rituals and social practices across India, within states, and even within the same caste or religious community.
Some scenes are deliberately stage-like, in particular the ones involving the late Hamid’s daughter Shabbo and her boyfriend Prashant, further underlining the absurdity of the goings-on around them. This boy, who refuses to believe in a world of “them” and “us”, seems to live forever in a trance-like state, inhabiting a parallel universe far removed from his fellow citizens’ ludicrous antics that lead to tragic results.
The camera never rests for too long on any one character. Make no mistake about this though: this is a solid cast drawing on Shafaat Khan’s disturbingly incisive writing and the director’s clarity of vision. The performances are all uniformly fitting in a film with no heroes or heroines, only real people. It’s particularly heartening to see little Apoorva Arora from that 2011 gem Bubble Gum, all grown-up and playing Shabbo.
DTD is particularly resonant because of its timing, coming as it does in the middle of one of India’s most significant and polarising elections so far. It compels us to ask ourselves how political leaders can claim that a riot was not their fault if it lasted for more than a few hours under their watch. It holds up a mirror to every section of society that causes or permits communal violence to happen, either due to apathy or by actively sparking a flame. The silent secularist, the opportunist and the bigot are all to blame. The old man who takes off his hearing aid to find his peace, the editor who headlines a rumour to increase his newspaper’s circulation and save his job, the policeman who stays equidistant for a while for fear of being accused of bias, the sword-wielding rioter…in one way or the other, each one is to blame. Take one of these elements away from the mix, and the madness can end.
I laughed and cried through Dekh Tamasha Dekh because I was embarrassed and ashamed of the fact that every bit of stupidity and cruelty and insensitivity portrayed in it is true of today’s India. This is a film that should be compulsory viewing in social science classes across the country.
Rating (out of five stars): ****
CBFC Rating (India):
Poster and trailer courtesy: Everymedia PR
Trailer 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPlgyRzE3Ug
Trailer 2 (“Is every Indian a Hindu?”: