|‘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…
Is this the first film in which you’ve faced these
During the 1992–1993 violence?
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?
Though it’s a very personal film, it’s also very
political, isn’t it?
Why do you differentiate between the two?
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.
When did you start shooting for Zakhm?
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.
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.
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?
But, he was made to suffer for it! He was humiliated on
account of Sanjay…
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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!
Is that why we don’t like to talk of a lot of things?
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?
With Zakhm, what do you hope for?
‘Is the police asking me to ignore the fact that many officers looked away while blood flowed on the streets of Mumbai?’
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.