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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Journey of Firaaq…continues…

- Nandita Das

The journey of making Firaaq has been a cathartic experience that has pushed my boundaries in more ways than one. For me it is both a personal and a political film. It is a work of fiction, based on a thousand true stories. It was my response to the growing divide that was seeing all around me. That’s why the film is called Firaaq, an Urdu word that means separation. The other meaning of the word is quest, which also resonates with the hopeful aspect of the film. Firaaq explores the impact of violence on people and their relationships. Most films about riots are full of violence that they set out to critique. Instead I wanted to explore the fierce and delicate emotions, like fear, anxiety, prejudice and ambivalence that surfaces in such times.
I don’t remember exactly when the seed of this film was sown. It had to do with waking up to newspapers filled with stories of violence. It had to do with conversations about identity and the notion of the ‘other’ that would soon turn into arguments, polarizing people instantly. It had to do with meeting many victims of violence and even some who perpetrated it. But, most of all it had to do with those who remained willfully silent. The sadness, the anger, the helplessness kept growing and a deep desire to share all those stories with a larger group of people began to take roots. In some ways it became a personal catharsis. I didn’t start out looking for a story that I could direct, instead the stories compelled me to become a director.
The script started with one story but then there were all these other stories that were inside me, rearing to come out, and that’s how an ensemble structure evolved. The process of scripting Firaaq took three years and I found a great collaborator in Shuchi Kothari, a screenplay writer, based in Auckland, who shared similar concerns. The many drafts of the script were written between 2005 and 2008, through our meetings in India, UK and New Zealand, and via every conceivable medium of communication. We are especially indebted to Skype for those long distance sessions that finally shaped the screenplay! As we skyped our way through various drafts, national and world events continued to impact our perceptions and many conversations found their way, directly or indirectly into our writing. The long gestation period was good for the script because it allowed stories to breathe and the characters to grow in a more organic manner.
While writing the script, I would mentally start casting. Although I was not lucky enough to get all of them, the four I did were precious- Naseeruddin Shah, Paresh Rawal, Raghubir Yadav and Deepti Naval. I got to experience a diverse range of talent as I searched for my characters; and finally an incredible cast came together. In addition to the four gems we have Sanjay Suri, Tisca Chopra, Shahana Goswami and Nowaz, and each one of them is no less. But the most challenging casting was for Mohsin, a six-year-old child in the film. I looked at many children in about ten schools and finally found Mohd. Samad. His eyes are full of wonderment, innocence, intelligence and resilience and he makes a perfect Mohsin.
But shooting this film was like doing five short films, one after another. We moved to a new location and had different set of actors every five days, and I myself had to be in a different state of mind each time, to tell that particular story. To do a sync sound film where silence forms a large part of the soundscape, was not easy. In India to find silence in a city on any day at any time is asking for the impossible. On one occasion, when we needed pin drop silence in the middle of the night, there were 10,000 people gathered to watch the shoot, and our production team could not quite keep them at bay. When all failed, I took the mike and reached out to the people, with an impassioned speech. To every one’s surprise, it actually worked! And we shot rest of the night in peace.
The creative aspects seemed to be a fraction of things I had to look into - from securing permits at the local police station, to calling in favours from anybody and everybody that I knew, and answering a hundred different questions posed by ten different departments, at any given time. Guess in my 1st film I learnt more than I needed to! But in the midst of production issues and worrying about many different things, I had to keep my creative sanity intact, and keep the spirits of the cast and crew, high. Working with so many people, especially during the shoot was not easy as one has to deal with different personalities, psyches, different ways of working etc. but at the same time the synergy that emerges because of so many people coming together, is also exciting. So what was most important was to create a sense of equanimity for everyone, including me, so we could do our best best.
While shooting is the most essential part of the film making process, there is lots more after that, which was completely new to me. I personally found editing to be the most exciting part of the whole filmmaking process. For one, after the madness of the shoot, it is a great to be in a quiet room, with just one more person as your collaborator. Second, you feel that things are finally under your control as there is so much you can do in the process of editing. Although I had heard a million times that a film is really made at the editing table, I understood the true meaning of it only when I got into the editing room. And for this I had the best partner I could have ever wished for - Sreekar Prasad, an eminent editor, whose sensitivity and temperament were exactly what I needed.
I have enjoyed every phase of film making, with all its challenges, big and small. While it is a collaborative process, it is also a lonely one. I have never had to make so many decisions, multi task at all times and be responsible for so many different things. With almost 13 years of acting experience in more than 30 films, I expected the transition to not be a difficult one. But making a film entailed much more than what I could have ever imagined. From an actor to a director, is like taking a quantum leap!
But the journey doesn’t end with just that. Taking it to as many audiences as one can, becomes just as important. My festival journey began at the Telluride Film Festival, where the new films of the likes of Danny Boyle (Slumdog....) and Mike Leigh (happy go lucky) were being screened. I was apprehensive how a contextual and local film like Firaaq will resonate with people outside India. Also the bar there was so high that I wasn’t sure if it would live upto the expectations. Due to public demand, Firaaq was one of the three films that had an additional screening on the last day. After that there has been no looking back. Going by the reactions I have got thus far from audiences across board- Toronto, NY, London, Pusan (S. Korea), Thessaloniki (Greece), Singapore, Dubai, Karachi, France....the list continues...I feel far more reassured. I am truly overwhelmed by the amazing responses it continues to get. After every screening people want to engage, share their stories and ask a hundred questions. People of all race, community, age and nationality have had similar responses, so I feel Firaaq connects at a very primordial level. What more could I ask for?! Yes the awards were a bonus and now we are spoilt, as every competition it has entered, it has one at least one award! But what I am most waiting for is the India release, on the 20th of March. For me this film is not an end in itself. The issue of sectarian violence is dividing our pluralist country and I think the dialogue it will trigger will be very important. But I also believe that having good intentions is not enough; the form it adopts in telling the story is just as vital. But I am happy that the intent with which I made Firaaq is being fulfilled and it has been well worth making it, against all odds.
(Firaaq is Nandita Das' directorial debut film. The film, scheduled to be released on 20th March, has already won 7 international awards. Nandita has sent this director's note for New Delhi Film Society.)


  1. Interesting description of a director....conrgrates...certainly I will see it....

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