The film opens with a truck dumping dozens of corpses at a graveyard site for mass burial. The director Nandita Das makes it clear that her directorial debut, "Firaaq" is not going to be an easy watch. Firaaq is a fictionalised account of true stories set one month after the horrific communal riots of Gujarat in 2002. Firaaq focuses on a handful of ordinary characters whose lives are changed irreparably by the riots.
There's an affluent mixed religion couple Anuradha Desai (Tisca Chopra) and Sameer Arshad Sheikh (Sanjay Suri) who prepare to Delhi because Sameer is afraid of what might happen next. An auto-rickshaw driver whose house is burned down, and his wife Muneera (Shahana Goswami) who suspects her Hindu friend's husband did it. Khan Sahab (Naseeruddin Shah), an elderly Muslim classical singer, who is initially unaware of the events and loses his optimism after becoming aware of the hate floating around. Aarti (Deepti Naval), who is a victim of domestic violence and the wife of a bigoted Hindu who is haunted by guilt for not opening her door to save a woman running from the mob. There's this little Muslim boy Mohsin who is in search of his father, unaware that he's been orphaned in the carnage.
These stories do interconnect occasionally in a manner that makes it clear that victims, perpetrators and silent observers are all connected somehow. Firaaq steers away from political overtones, choosing instead to tell a dramatic story about everyday people and the repercussions of violence. Interestingly, you don't actually see any incidents of violence in Firaaq, but its aftermath can be felt throughout the film, in the fear, anguish, loss and anger felt by those left in its wake.
Firaaq is an important film because Ms. Nandita Das has once again proved it that she wishes to be part of stories that need to be told. She never shies away from showing the ugly side of her characters. I'm reminded of this particularly disturbing scene in the film in which Paresh Rawal gleefully asks his younger brother if he enjoyed a gangrape he'd participated in. Barely moments later, his brother turns to watch a TV news report in which a Muslim woman is seen complaining that they were robbed of their dignity during the riots, to which he spitefully comments that they had little dignity to begin with. It's scenes like these that deliver the full impact of this powerful film, and Nandita assembles a movie with some of the finest actors in Indian cinema who bring her characters to life.
If there's a problem with Firaaq, it's the fact that despite her best intentions, Nandita fails to bridge the gap between the audience and her characters. It's unquestionably sad what happens to these people you know their lives have changed forever, yet there's a certain unexplained distance that never lets you "feel" the pain yourself. Remember, the most compelling films are the ones that transport you to the centre of the drama, and make you a participant in the action. Firaaq is a noble film, an admirable directorial debut, but you don't feel the pain. There is also the issue of the affected English dialogues in the Sanjay Suri--Tisca Chopra track, and the somewhat meandering nature of the Naseeruddin Shah track.
Overlook these flaws, however, and make it a point to watch Firaaq. It's an unsettling film, one that throws up difficult questions and demands urgent responses. It is definitely not a perfect directorial debut, but it's much better than anything else you're likely to have watched recently.