December 1998
Cover Story

‘Zakhm is a cry for peace’

 —   Mahesh Bhatt

Let’s start from where things stand today. You seem to be having problems in getting a certificate for the film… 
The film has revealed a lot to me about people seated in power, people who are supposed to be above biases. These people are so frightened. I think one of the basest of all things is fear. Fear erodes the individual. Fear erodes the Nation, the spine of the Nation. But you see this very fear flowing in the veins of the Nation. People are frightened. The bureaucrat who’s frightened to take action. I can get angry with this kind of person for some days, but then I can also see that there is some sort of shadow looming over his or her head that is preventing him/her from acting. When I speak plainly, I see dread in the eyes of people there in Delhi. 

Is this the first film in which you’ve faced these obstacles? 
Yeah, this is the first film which has run into this sort of problem. I mean I’ve had problems with the censors, but most of the times we agree with the kind of cuts that they ask for. And they’re not very major ones. But, this, when you make a film like this, which is genuinely built on one’s perceptions, painfully arrived at having gone through the fires of living day–to–day life, having been scorched with the biases that have haunted my childhood… I lived with my mother, I’ve lived with my father and seen them suffer. Gone through the trauma of ’92–’93, which left me completely traumatised, humiliated. How helpless I felt. 

During the 1992–1993 violence?
Yeah. It just traumatised me. It was a humiliating experience which also made you feel very helpless. And, you hate your helplessness. The sense of impotent rage. Feeling the powerless–ness of the powerful. You perceive yourself as being powerful, but what are you really powerful in? 

The residue of all that has remained with me. It’s not something that I was actively planning; this film is made out of a necessity. I was completely comfortable with my pot–boilers, I had no problems. I didn’t aspire to steer Indian cinema into greater heights, etc.   But this was something compelling me from within, something which was crying within me to come out. 

You mean Zakhm forced itself out of you?
It was quite painful for me to revisit my childhood and live through my helplessness. I can cope with rage. But, helplessness is an emotion that a man brought up in this kind of an environment, especially with a single mother, doesn’t want to own up to. Revisiting all that was quite traumatic. But it was only after  ’92–’93, somewhere in ’94–’95, that the idea was born. It took me a while to leave my desk with all the other things, the clutter, and work on this film. For me it was looking back at my 50 years. Up very close. And arriving at no answers. Zakhm has no political agenda. But, it certainly says things as they are. 

 Though it’s a very personal film, it’s also very political, isn’t it?
Yeah, I don’t need anybody’s confirmation. The wounds are mine. I’ve experienced them first hand. This is how it is. This is how I’ve lived. This is what I’ve lived through in my own house, what I’ve seen in my backyard. 
I also felt I must talk to my nation in it’s medium, in it’s own language. I don’t want to refine it, I don’t want to polish it, and I don’t want to take off the rough edges. Because that’s how I experienced life. I experienced life hard, rough, coarse. And to give it some kind of artistic frills would destroy what I felt, what I lived through. 
So, I wanted this film to be re-played with my capacity to look at those human beings, trapped in a time frame. To look at the love of my parents trapped by biases. You know they were victims of the backgrounds from where they came. My grandmother was also a person who had biases. I can understand that.  But, when politicians get into that the act of playing on these biases, that’s when the danger comes in. 

Why do you differentiate between the two?
You see, I can understand the individual who is driven by the biases. I can sit with him across the table and can talk to him, deal with him. But bias in the man whom we put in the seat of power and who decides to play on it, with it? That man will destroy the very fabric of the Nation. 

Worse still, after we decided to make this film it was very difficult to convince the environment in which I functioned that it was a film that just must be made. That’s because we work in an industry in which we only pretend to be artists. But it’s business, businessmen who make movies and pretend to be artistes. 
To tell them to make a film like this in Mumbai during these times, with the Centre having the kind of government that it has, was in itself an act of audacity. 

When did you start shooting for Zakhm?
I started it in April this year. 
Quick work?
Yeah, it was very quick. It was germinating within since ’94–’95. But before I could start the film my mother died — on April 19 this year. And that revitalised everything inside me. Suddenly, the whole thing, everything was revitalised within me — the urgency, the immediacy, the need to make the film. 
When she died, I had to cope, once again, with the problem of burying her, because there were people in my family who were against her being buried. 

To me it was like a therapy, to be able to fulfil the promise that I had made to my mother — that I would bury her as she had wished. My proclaiming publicly that I gave her a Muslim burial was a matter of some embarrassment for my other family members. 

When I stepped inside the grave to turn her face towards Mecca, in the Mazgaon grave, for the first time I heard her actual name mentioned in public — Shireen Mohammed Ali — I felt such a surge of pride. 
I felt that it was a privilege that I came from such a rich background. I had the best of both worlds. My mother was a Shia Muslim, while my father was a janoi–clad man. He never pretended to be secular. What’s very interesting, both (father and mother) retained their individual faiths. They were madly in love, but neither indulged in the farce of wanting to do things the other way. 

My mother always wore this big tikka, and saree, she liked that kind of thing. But, at the same time, I could see that there was something she was hiding. She felt that her minority status would perhaps interfere with our day–to–day lives. She was a little embarrassed when I flaunted my Muslim roots. 
Was this in recent years?

When I came to know about it, yes, she was a little embarrassed about it. She was worried about me during the communal riots in 1992. She was worried when we named my little girls — because my second wife liked those names — Shaheen and Alia. Both are Muslim names. Everybody was worried in 1992. What was going to happen? 

But, what really tore me apart was not so much the violence in the street, but you know, ordinary, normal, sensitive people who for the first time revealed to me their naked faces. I saw glimpses up front here, in people I would have never even imagined and then I discovered where the power for that genocide came from. It came from the silent approval of the majority of people. So, I think a film like Zakhm would make a majority of people feel guilty, want to own up what they were party to. 

I remember a terrible moment in my life. Just after the riots, we started shooting for a film of mine, at Nataraj Studios. We were shooting and I was at the unit on the phone, trying to reach help to one of my workers, a lights’ boy, who was stuck at Behrampada. A letter was brought to me, it came from one of my workers. It read: ‘Tell Bhatt Saheb not to cry for the Muslims’ suffering so much, otherwise it wouldn’t be good’.

Who had sent you this letter?
My own company. People within my own unit sent me this anonymous letter. I freaked out. I asked, ‘Who has had the impertinence to send me this letter?’ They were all quiet. I asked them: ‘If tomorrow you’re in bloody trouble, if I try to help you and someone stops me from helping you, should I listen to him?’ 
That’s when it hit me. The realisation of how deep it all ran. Our unit was like the Nation. The biases were there, everywhere. There were a handful of people who had the moral authority, and who had the courage — I think Sunil Dutt was one of those very few people, one of those rare people who displayed that courage, a quiet courage to challenge things.

But, he was made to suffer for it! He was humiliated on account of Sanjay…
Oh yeah. I feel you require that quiet strength. Perhaps, you can prevent the world from descending into complete chaos. But, now, it’s too late to turn the clock back. It’s a part of me, December ’92–January ’93.
It’s like me, how can you, or I,  separate my Muslim DNA from my Hindu DNA! You’d have to kill me! Or call me an aberration and put me into quarantine. 

It’s so sad, when we make films like this, which are nothing but human documents of great affection and concern for the social environment, we have to run to politicians and bureaucrats. It makes you feel like a leper, having made something that you have experienced. It’s your experience, and I don’t give a tinker’s damn what people say. This is what I have experienced. And the job of a writer and a film–maker is to present the truth as he or she has felt it, without a fear. If a shadow is there, it’s a totalitarian regime.  It’s something that they should be embarrassed of, not me. I am going to fight the feeling of fear and subversion as long as I can. The basest of all things is to terrify your people.

So, you’re not going to give in?
No. I’m not going to give in. I am going to stand by my film. And see that it gets its due. I’m certain there are people around who stand opposed to it, but there are an equal number of people who support it. This is not optimism; I’ve seen evidence of that. In Delhi, I saw people, the likes of Neeraj Kumar, a CBI officer. After seeing the film, he said, “The film leaves you breathless, there is not one frame that you should cut. It’s not a one–sided film”. 

The film begins with the woman being burnt by a Muslim mob. There was a mob and the mob killed this mother, and unfortunately for that stupid mob, they did not know that they’d burnt a Muslim woman. 
See, I can deal with complete fascism; then at least I know what I’m dealing with. Then I have a choice — commit suicide, do something to throw them out or live under the regime. There are no other choices. 
But when you keep telling me that this is my country, that I’m a free man, who makes a simple film which is but a pale reflection of the atrocities that actually happened, why are you creating these obstacles?

It is a Hindi film. If you were to even dare develop a film from the real life accounts of what actually happened, the accounts that we’ve heard, how would they even think of passing that? The actions of the authorities, the executive, whatever they do with my film is their real face. What they say and what they do are two different things.

You said earlier that on the one hand this film was something dying to be made but on the other hand difficult to make...

It’s not always easy to confess to one’s deeply felt emotions. You don’t like to face your deeply felt emotions. You don’t feel comfortable. The attempt is to escape from that. So I say it was a film that was dying to be made. The riots only triggered it off. 
 I asked myself, “Who am I? If I were caught up in a riot, what the hell would I do?  I mean I am absolutely apolitical, I am not ritualistic, I do not believe in any divine force, but the fact is that I have an upbringing, my consciousness is a mixed consciousness. What am I to do? 

That really put the mirror to my face. That’s when it started fermenting in me. It took some while getting down to doing it. I would talk about it to escape from it. You’d find me making excuses saying that I felt I didn’t have that poise in film direction, I had to turn to writing. But, then I realised I just had to make this film. I have to leave with this film behind me.

For me it was complete purge. To reconcile myself to my mother’s death also. She was intensely a part of my consciousness. It was a physical feeling, it was like fire in my belly. That’s it, this is the way it is. 
You mentioned that a lot of prejudices spring from our childhood…

Yes.  For example, vivid memories come to me from the time when I was in Don Bosco High School, in Matunga. It’s run by Christian missionaries. We used to have lunch together. One day I found that my Hindu friends who were sitting down next to me, suddenly moved away and went to another table. Only the Parsee boys continued sitting there. My Hindu friends had come to know that my mother was a Muslim. So, I’d felt this isolation as a child.

I can understand that they perceived me as the son of a Muslim woman, who is the mistress of a Hindu Brahmin film–maker. That was perhaps what the perception was.  But the biases that were there were more religious. And, all this was happening right under the nose of Jesus Christ. (Laughs). I got this feeling of being ostracised. I had this feeling and I felt it very deeply.

Zakhm shows a lot of anger but no bitterness towards the father. Any comments?
I can see my father as a person who dared to love my mother and be dedicated to her all her life. He may not have given her what may be perceived by the world as a very fair deal, but I think they were fair people. They found their own balance. 

And she never, never played the card of a suffering woman. She never used her status of being a lone woman to reap emotional dividends. In fact, whenever we aired our anger against our father, she would say, “Don’t talk about my man. Don’t talk about him”.  It was frightening, this kind of love story, it was unimaginable. One of my angers with her was that I could never be to her what my father was. 

What about the rest of your family?
The family? I knew that my father had another house and they had nothing to do with us.  They were different people. So, in a way I’m a little frightened by the orthodox Gujarati set–up. There is this fear. Ironically, I’m more comfortable with the Maharashtrians of Shivaji Park. Because they are babus, clerks, teachers and all that. I was comfortable there. 

My father was a Nagar Brahmin. And my mother, while bathing me used to mutter, “You’re the son of a Nagar Brahmin, your father’s  Gotra, you’re a Bhargava Gotra!’ It’s all drilled into my head. But, I felt uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable in the mandir because of what it had meant to me. Being kept out.

That discomfort comes through in the movie. There is that very powerful scene where your grandmother (in reel life) starts screeching when you and your mother enter to pay the last respects to your father’s corpse after he dies in a road accident… 

You know, my father, he’s 85 now, he’s blind and can’t see. He called me the other day. He said, ‘I believe your film is good, but you’ve made my mother into some kind of monster or something.’  I said, ‘No I didn’t quite succeed in doing that.  But, she was not all that good a lady’. He didn’t argue with me.

You know, there’s no way I could have pushed out those scenes in the film that depict the times when my mother would ask me to call up that house, my father’s house. These are all burnt into me, they’re life burns which are replaying themselves. 

Calling up my father’s place...You don’t know who’s going to pick up the phone, you don’t know what’s going to happen then. The sense of being unclean. You feel leprous, as if there’s something wrong with you.  So, maybe my entire personality is a reaction to that, that I’m going to let it all hang out. This is what I’m going to do. And what do I get for this attitude? If I’m silent you say I’m dishonest and if I speak out, then I’m an exhibitionist!
I personally believe that if you bring these things into the sunlight of life, they die. If you keep them down, hidden, they fester, remain.

Is that why we don’t like to talk of a lot of things?
Yeah, that’s why you need to stir it up and bring it up. It’s those who believe in the Lord, the Quran Sharief, or the Gita, they are also the ones who spread communal hatred. I mean, Islam means ‘peace’, there’s no religious fundamentalism in Hinduism, either. Hindus have for centuries put up with all kinds of diverse thoughts. This country has produced sages who have had deep introspection but today’s version, Hindutva, is a gross violation.

In Germany today, under law, it’s a crime to deny the existence of the holocaust. They’ve passed a law. And, here, you’re spending up to six years, saying that it never happened!  Bombay December 1992–93 never happened? Such denial is dangerous. It’s going to result in dangerous eruptions, in so many ways. I went to Madanpura the other day, and I found these young kids, Muslim young men still talking about ’92–’93. They have not forgotten. How can they?

I remember in 1992 when it all started I was in Delhi at the film festival.  ‘Stop it’, some of us were saying, ‘Bombay is burning.’ And, I remember, while speaking to Sudhakarrao Naik, people were saying, ‘Hindu mar raha hai, mussalman bhi mar raha hai’. I said, ‘Let’s stop bullshitting, let’s at least honestly identify who the victim is. But they would only talk in clichés — Insaan mar raha hai.  I said, ‘Insaan kahan mar raha hai, bhaiyya? Hindu maar raha hai, Mussalmaan mar raha hai. Woh kaho, seedha kaho’.

You know, there’s one image I have not been able to get over. The riots had just stopped, the curfew was relaxed and I was driving towards Bandra. I saw a woman in a burqa, a baby in her arms, walking down the street carrying an Indian flag, a small paper flag as a kind of a shield. It was so painful. I thought why does a Muslim woman have to carry a flag to give evidence of being a nationalist? Why doesn’t a woman in a sari, or a bindi, why doesn’t she feel the need? Why does the burqa–clad woman need extra protection?

I feel disgusted, I feel ashamed. For the first time people are openly talking about who is superior, a minority–less India. You know, youngsters, young Muslims clad in jeans they have felt a sense of catharsis after seeing the film. Do you know what they have told me? ‘We enter a room and hear someone abusing a Muslim and pretend we have not heard it. That’s how alienated we feel’.

Zakhm is your last film?
Yeah. Well, my mother was my driving force. I was driven by her. You know there’s one person you pitch your work to and that reference point for me was my mother. Now that she’s gone, that’s it. 
Moreover, I would like to write now, actually. I think I can deal with my growing up, my childhood and the film industry in a more real way in a book. I think if I write about ’92–’93, and what really happened, in a book, I would be freer. The horrifying things I was subjected to, and the things I saw, people becoming absolute monsters. 

With Zakhm, what do you hope for? 
I don’t know if it will be allowed to reach the people. But I am going to fight it out. Zakhm has to reach the people. You know, right out there where the hatred is fermented. I want to reach it there. Zakhm is a cry for peace.            n
.    .

Cover Box

‘Is the police asking me to ignore the fact that many officers looked away while blood flowed on the streets of Mumbai?’

Mahesh Bhatt 

I feel that I owe it tothe film industry to talk plainly. If I listened to  my advisors, I would  probably keep quiet. But I am not (to put it mildly!), by nature, the kind of guy who keeps quiet. There are too many others who do that. So, I might as well speak out.

Questioning authority can hardly be called our national past–time. We even make a philosophy out of fear. Fatalism, destiny, karma….are the favourite cultural holes we hide in when authority flogs us. And that’s our tragedy. We have brilliantly learned to cope with our fears. They don’t shake and jiggle us out of the spiritual coma that we seem to have sunk into. We’re so frightened to even acknowledge to ourselves that we’re frightened.

 “Now cops want a say in censoring films,” announced a headline in The Indian Express on November 20. Mumbai’s commissioner of police, R. Mendonca, requested the Censor Board chairperson, Asha Parekh, to allow a clearance of films by the Maharashtra police before the Board gives them the censor certificate. She, in turn, has responded positively to this proposal by the police. The writing is there on the wall. We could be entering a phase of ‘Cultural Emergency’.

Never in my 25 years in the film industry have I felt the shadow of the police loom this large over my creative expression. Not even during the Emergency in 1975, which was said to be the darkest phase of democratic India. Is the police now going to white–wash the Hindi movie portrayal of its conduct during different phases of history? Has no crime ever been committed by the police in this country?

We all know that Hindi cinema dare not actually translate onto celluloid even a pale reflection of the events that really take place in our lives. Will we, as a nation, spend a lifetime looking away from the hideous truth about what we are really capable of doing? When will we face our own personal involvement in the 1993 riots which resulted in the deaths of several hundred Muslims, snowballing into the March 12 bomb blasts that killed several hundred Hindus? Is the police asking me to ignore the heart–breaking fact that many officers looked away while blood flowed on the streets of Mumbai? There’s a law in Germany which makes it a crime to deny the existence of the Holocaust. Will we ever have a similar courage to bring the atrocities we commit out into the sunlight? Or will we hide, and lie, and let old wounds fester till they devour us completely?

Men who create power make an indispensable contribution to a nation’s greatness. But, men who question power, make a contribution just as indispensable. I question this move by the police force that would like the film industry to play the role of its PR department. Hindi films can hardly be blamed for the recent breakdown of law and order in our city. The police force is simply joining in the party to flog that favourite dead horse — the film industry —, blaming movies for its own failure to contain rising crime. As a person who appreciates and applauds the efforts of the police to protect people, I sincerely want to ask them: will a pretty, but false picture of the police in movies really contribute to altering the harsh reality of our daily lives? Won’t the local boy of Madanpura know that the difference between the police on screen and the police in his everyday life is the difference between fiction and fact? Any way you look at it, movies are twice removed from real life, so why censor even that?

If the story–teller is to nourish the roots of his culture, society must set him free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. The American President, John F. Kennedy had said, “In a democratic society, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and let the chips fall where they may. Today, at the age of fifty, I, like Rabindranath Tagore, have outgrown the teaching that blind worship of one’s nation is more important than reverence for humanity. I believe that, at times, if some of us are almost too critical of our society, it’s because our sensitivity and our concern for justice makes us aware that our nation falls terribly short of its highest potential.


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