Frontline
December 1998
Cover Story

ĎThey canít say, donít tell the truth   
 ó   Pooja Bhatt: 

How did the daughter in real life become the mother in Zakhm? 
 Ever since he began talking    of making this film, Dad kept telling me that I would have to play this role, that this would be the role for me to play. But I was frightened. I was completely unsure. I didnít know what I was capable of. 

First of all, the pressure of having to play the role of somebody whoís been an important part of my own life. Then, knowing that this film is really so close to his (Mahesh Bhattís) heart. Itís a film about a part of his life and I didnít know whether I wanted to even get into it, would or could do justice to it. 

So, I kept refusing, delaying, saying, no, no, not me. Take somebody else, postpone the shooting. But, he had decided that it had to be me. He told me once, I want you to play my mother. I donít want any one else to play my mother. So that was that. But I was extremely frightened. 

How close were you to your grandmother?
I was quite close. I mean, I hadnít lived with her for the last so many years. But until I was seven, we lived in the same house. I didnít see her very often, but I did not need to either. She was not the kind of woman who you had to go and see every week, to prove that you loved her, or whatever. She was crazy about seeing my name on the billboards or my photographs in magazines, on a film poster, on a cassette, whatever. No matter how bad my film was, she wanted me to organise a screening for her!  She would also always call me on my birthdays and other important occasions. She always remembered, I donít know how.

How old was she when she passed away?
She passed away on April 19th this year when she was around 73. Sheíd had a full life. In recent years, she was not keeping very good health but she was a tough, stubborn lady.

What do you remember most of her?
She was the one who taught me to cross the road! I used to live in Mahim, near Shivaji Park My mother would not let me cross the road alone but grandmother would go stand across the road and say, ďNow runĒ. I would run half the way, then sheíd look around and say, ďOK, now run againĒ. It used to give me a great sense of accomplishment that Iíd crossed the road on my own, darted across the main Mahim road on my own. I also used to be the one who would be taken with her to all the religious places she visited. 

Was she a very devout woman?
Yeah, she was a great believer in everything. I mean, Good Friday, Navinas, Ganpati, and her namaaz of course. I remember, every morning I used to see her on the kitchen thalla. She would be sitting on top of the thalla, her hair covered and saying her namaaz ó early in the morning. 

Do you see the film as being particularly significant at this juncture in India?
I think this film is important because itís got a certain amount of honesty about peopleís lives, I think itís important because itís taking you into someoneís life that must be shared and shared openly. I think itís very special in that way. 

My father has had the privilege of growing up in very special circumstances in terms of who his parents were and what these circumstances have turned him into. He wouldnít have been Mahesh Bhatt if his mother were a normal Hindu or a normal Muslim woman. 

If we didnít have this cacophony of religion, none of us would be who we are today. I wouldnít have been this way either. My mother is an AngloĖIndian, I grew up in the Shivaji Park area with my father who didnít believe in God, while my grandmother kept dragging me from church, to mandir, to mosque! 

My mother used to take me to the Byculla church every Sunday, where there was a distinctive Christian atmosphere. We would drink wine and it was OK. Then the Bandra fair used to happen and weíd be there. So, I grew up watching all this, taking all this in. And, probably getting the best out of each and every religion. Most importantly, I was allowed to choose who I wanted to be. 

You pray?
Yeah, I pray. Sometimes. 

Where, church, templeÖ
No. I could be sitting right here saying a prayer in my head. I donít think itís important for me to go to a religious place to show that I love God more. Maybe Iím completely wrong, but my parents have brought me up to believe that you donít have to go to a mosque, or a temple or a church to prove that you are a devout believer. Theyíve taught me that, you know, if you have your God and if youíve got whatever that gives you solace, you are entitled to your own beliefs and others have to respect that. 

So, whenever I go past the Siddhi Vinayak temple, or the Haji Ali dargah or the Mount Mary Church, my hand just happens to move in different ways (Gesticulates). Whichever gesture I make, this or that, I donít do it consciously. It just happens like an acknowledgement: OK, Iím going past your home, so, I must acknowledge you.  And, I do pray to you occasionally! 

Has the role you played in Zakhm affected you in any way?
I understand so much more of my fatherís life, my grandmotherís life and life in general, after I did Zakhm. One tends to look at life in terms of black and white, and all our ideas, especially about love in the 90s are different. In terms of what weíve been brought up on, weíre so used to quitting if something doesnít work out in a relationship. But, now I know this woman, my grandmother, and think about her: just staying on, and having faith. I mean, just the fact that her lifeís agenda was this man whom she loved so dearly. And, she was willing to do whatever for that love but at no time behaving like a martyr, seeking sympathy: ďSee how Iím suffering!Ē. She just did it.

I think that is something that really made me look at her with wider eyes, and I said, ďOK, so sheís been through this, you knowĒ.

You learnt this about your grandmother for the first time in the process of the film?
Yeah, and, I think Iíve also come closer to my father. When I was doing those scenes, especially with that little boy, I looked at him and realised that this is my Dad. My Dad has done this, done that, felt all those scenes that Iím now enacting. I thought about how lonely he must have been while growing up, you know. You canít grow up with parents like that, circumstances like that, and be a normal kid. I can understand that also because all my life Iíve also felt like a loner. Not lonely, but a loner. Thatís come from my background, from my relationship with my parents, with what I saw my Dad go through with his parents, the whole family. 

So, Iíve come closer to my family. I understand their lives better. I understand myself more. I have different priorities today. I look at love, life, religion, motherhood differently. 

Apart from your father and yourself, how have other members of your family responded to the film?
Well, when my grandmotherís sisters, who are Muslim, saw the first round of the film and saw their sister being identified by her real name, Shireen Mohammed Ali, in the tributes, they went up in arms: ďMat dalo naam, let her be Shireen Bhatt.Ē 

ďWhyĒ? my father asked. 
ďWhy unnecessarily rake this thing up now?Ē they said. 
So, today in 1999, this is how some of my own family members are talkingÖ.So why talk about the outside world? 

What about relations on your fatherís side?
When we buried my grandmother, my dadís eldest sisterís husband said, ďShuddhi karvao (perform the purification rituals!)Ē. Thatís how we got that shuddhi ka scene in the film. So, in a sense we thank him. We got that scene, again out of real life, and put it into the film. All this is happening in our own family, right now, in the 

Bhatt family. So what can we say or speak of the world out there? 
Why did they want shuddhikaran?
They told my Dad, ďYou cheated us. I married your sister, I did not know that your mother was a Muslim. And, now youíll have unleashed this thing on the whole world. You have conned me, so, shuddhi karvaoĒ.

How did you react to this?
I find it completely ridiculous, because youíre going on about this woman, who I saw doing all these things ó worshipping the Cross, her Ganpati, doing namaaz. OK, sheís a Muslim, but she could have been anything else. She never forced any of us to believe in her God or to believe in any God. When she used to take me to wherever, she never said, now do this or do that, fast or whatever. Itís crazy.

 I mean, why must you force anyone to believe in anything you believe in? Why donít we let people decide whether they want to believe or donít want to believe. I think itís a matter of personal choice, I donít think that anyone is in a position to say that my God is better than yours, or you must believe, otherwise you donít fit in. 

 Is that the filmís message for everyone? 
My Dad told somebody, ďWhat are you talking about?  Iíve lived this life, donít teach me about secularism. I mean, I was born to a mother who was this and a father who was this and they never tried to convert each other. My granddad didnít try to embrace Islam at any point. He was a Nagar Brahmin, and he did what he had to do. But she had her God and she had her means of praying and she did that. There was no question of meeting anyone halfway. 

I remember, before the funeral, he (grandfather) walked in with his first wife, reciting these Hindu prayers, rudraksh around his neck. His first wife put a tulsi leaf in my grandmotherís mouth and there she was, lying with a Quran under her head, and a Cross on her chest. 

So, who am I? What is my religion? It was never an issue for me. But, itís an issue for everybody else, somehow. 
Some people seem to have problems with Zakhm?

Well, I think anyone who wants to stop this film is completely idiotic because this film will not make you come out of the theatre and want to kill a Muslim, a Hindu, a Catholic or whoever. It makes you want to come out and love people more. It makes you kind of come out of the show and say, hello, let me call my mom, first thing. If anything, it just makes you want to love more. 

I donít think itís the kind of film that will have Bombay or any other city break out into a riot tomorrow. But people are imagining things or wanting to somehow impose their fears. 

The film does show up certain leaders, some policemen, a certain mindset, in a bad light?
Yeah, some people wonít like this, some people are going to be threatened by the film. But, what do they not like? Are we telling lies?  No, weíre not telling lies, and they canít say, donít tell the truth.

What if the truth hurts?
Well, thatís what freedom is about, isnít it? Itís when you can say something that someone else does not want to hear. If I donít have that freedom, what are we talking about?
Isnít it ironic that a film based on the personal, lived experience of someone can be so politically threatening to others?

Because itís so personal, itís more dangerous, you see.  Because, youíre talking of your own life, what you experienced, what you felt. No one can tell you, you were wrong in feeling the way you did, or this didnít happen, because youíve actually gone through it.  Thatís what makes it so much more dangerous Öyou know that line in the film, when Ajay Devgan, the main character slaps the other guy and  says, ďTere baap ka Mulk hai, kya!Ē, that is basically what my Dadís personality is. To be able to speak and say what you feel, no matter what the consequences are. 
I think, thatís the enduring quality of Zakhm.  Itís a very honest film. Itís not trying to be smart. Itís not trying to be artistic. Itís quite Ďcrudeí in a way. But it speaks the truth. Mahesh Bhattís lived, experienced version of it. 
.    .


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