Saturday, January 27, 2007

the Dishonesty of Parzania

This post is in some sort a response to Bharadwaj Rangan’s review on his blog. Mine is not a review of Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania. I saw the film more than a year ago in Trivandrum and my recall of the film is not accurate enough to warrant what could be called a review or something that might or might not persuade a reader to watch the film. I am more interested in some questions surrounding the narrative strategies of the film itself.

Rahul Dholakia has based the story of Parzania on real events that happened to the Mody family in Gujarat in March 2002. A Parsi family living in a chawl loses the older son while fleeing from their home. The father is away and the mother, while running down the stairs, manages to keep her daughter by her, but her son, faced by a few members of the mob, cannot follow. Did he manage to escape? Did one of the families that had refused to house them just a little while before, finally take him in? Was he killed? We never find out. Parzan becomes another statistic amongst the thousands who went missing in the Gujarat carnage.

My problems with the film are numerous, but I will set out only a few of them.

The first question that ought to be pretty obvious but which no one seems to have asked is: what kind of a story is this? Is it fiction? If it is based on real events, would it be fair to call it an interpretation? An interpretation of what? A troublesome central character, such as Truman Capote, whose motivations one is trying to understand?

Or is it intended as a representative meta-narrative of events in Gujarat? What, really, is the purpose of narrating the story in this way rather than, say, in a documentary format; after all, this is supposed to be based on ‘real’ events.

Nearly five years after Gujarat (I use the word ‘Gujarat’ advisedly, as a marker of an event rather than as a State) few of the documents that emerged from the events of March 2002 have made their way into the mainstream. One of the few films to emerge from this time, Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution, is a documentary that has consistently run into trouble with the censors. Screenings have been blocked time and again. Dholakia seems to have had less trouble with the censors, getting away with a few minor cuts, considering the volatile nature of story. That should tell us something.

Another related question is, in what form does an artist choose to depict harrowing events and why? In a post-modern sense, a viewer or reader ought to be freed from the intentions of the author, whether the work is a book (such as Fireproof) or a film (such as Parzania), but when a filmmaker makes a statement like the one below, my alarm bells start ringing.

Dholakia says, “One of the most important aims of the film is to help Dara and Rupa Mody find their son Azhar.”

I admit I am reading this astonishing statement of purpose a whole year after having seen the film and disliked it. And even were this quotation only partially true, or taken out of context, it is indicative of a myopia that I think runs like a blind thread through the film.

Let’s take Parzania at face value, as a straight narrative of terrible events in one family from a minority community that has, thus far, not been especially singled out for persecution. This is as focused or narrow an area of experience as one could find, in the large, chaotic canvas of Gujarat. Under the circumstances, I would expect a brilliant, hard light falling on this small area of the canvas, illuminating it so that the characters and events it depicts are unique and whose lives tell us something we either did not know or had not seen in just this way before. Better still, I would expect that it raises at least some questions about the nature of such violence and what it means to live through these events and stand witness to it.

Instead, you get a story that has repeated itself across the face of Gujarat – this time I’m talking about the State – in every mohalla and chawl from Naroda Patia to Gulbarg Society, Chamanpura (where 40 people, including the ex-MP of the Congress, Ahsan Jafri, were burnt alive).

What are Parzania’s formal or intellectual underpinnings? Apart from the naïve and probably throwaway statement I’ve quoted above, Dholakia, in the same news report, has these two rather telling things to say about the film. Both these statements have to do with selling or distributing the film in Gujarat:

“Selling an English film of this kind is difficult ... But I feel language is immaterial as the subject holds universal appeal,” Dholakia said.

“I don't anticipate any trouble if people view it as a story about a family trapped in the riots and looking for their son, which is what the film is about,” said Dholakia.

Statement One: An English film is difficult to sell. Not necessarily a film about the Gujarat riots in Gujarat.

Statement Two: As long as it’s viewed as a small story about one family, it ought to rock no boats.

I did mention myopia earlier on, didn’t I?

So Dholakia wants the audience to come in to the theatre, to see an English film about a minority community that has integrated so well as to be indistinguishable from the majority community (in one early scene, the children are told the story of how the Parsis first came to India; my memory is likely to be inaccurate, but I think the story goes of how the ruling king presented the arriving Parsis with an almost overflowing bowl of milk to indicate that there was no room for them. At which point, the leader of the fleeing Parsis added sugar to the milk, thus indicating integration as well as a sweetening of the of the whole).

Dholakia would have us look at this as a small, intense, personal loss. We are not asked to question, either within the framework of the narrative, or outside of it – in the interviews he gives to the press, for instance – what it means for this story to be told in precisely this way.

I’m taking a short detour here to quote from Zadie Smith’s recent article in the Guardian.
In it, she talks about the cliché:

What is a cliché except language passed down by Das Mann, used and shop-soiled by so many before you, and in no way the correct jumble of language for the intimate part of your vision you meant to express? With a cliché you have pandered to a shared understanding, you have taken a short-cut, you have re-presented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true and strange. It is an aesthetic and an ethical failure: to put it very simply, you have not told the truth.
And a little later,

Fictional truth is a question of perspective, not autobiography. It is what you can't help tell if you write well; it is the watermark of self that runs through everything you do. It is language as the revelation of a consciousness.

Any filmmaker worth his salt will have to engage with the ways in which he presents or re-presents the truth of a narrative. I’d go further and say, he would have to engage with the nature of truth itself, and what role memory has to play in revealing or concealing it. You would have to have the mastery of a Resnais to talk about horrors such as Gujarat. Resnais himself could not bear to make his film Night and Fog [1], on the concentration camps of Germany except as a reconstruction from old photographs and exhibits, and shots of the empty shells of Auschwitz, with a voice over that is nothing if not an examination of the nature of violence.

It is hard to take a film that is as uncritical as Parzania is. It questions nothing and asks that you accept what it offers – which is pitifully little – as a sufficient lens through which to view and understand the events of March 2002. The characters, no matter how well portrayed (which I have reservations about as well, but I’ll let that one go) amount to little more than types picked off the newspaper pages following the carnage.

If the intent is to pull at our heartstrings, that is easily done. But is this enough? We move from one tragedy to another with the restless eagerness of the disaster junkie, and heaven knows, our newspapers and televisions give us enough. I ask again, is this enough?

In my post about Michael Hanecke’s Caché I talked about the devises the director uses to question within the film a ‘truth’ that he had carefully set up just a shot before. With the absence of such formal doubt and questioning, Dholakia’s film comes across as exploitative and fundamentally dishonest.

It is easy to bludgeon an audience into a quiescent stupor. No doubt people will pour out of the theatres with tears in their eyes because they’ve shuddered vicariously at someone else’s disaster and feel safe in the knowledge that, because it has Naseeruddin Shah and Sarika in it, this is only a story, only something to be experienced temporarily and forgotten.

If that is what Dholakia wanted, of course he has succeeded. It is only a pity that our filmmakers ask so little of themselves.

[1] Please read Philip Lopate’s excellent article about Resnais’ film: it sets out some of the other reasons I’ve barely touched upon in this post, for why some other method of narration about Gujarat might be more truthful and effective.


princeparas said...

Just Great.

Jabberwock said...

Thanks for this. Had been meaning to ask you for a detailed clarification of your views on the film, since you'd touched on it once before in conversation...

Won't have time to see it anytime soon but am tempted to now.

swar said...

i haven't watched parzania but i have watched amu. and i thought,"wow, indian filmmakers (of such events) are so nice, so polite, so frigging calm that i wanna throw a pebble and see if they ripple..." and then i said 'whatever'.

Space Bar said...

Princeparas: er...thanks, I suppose.

Jai: You should see it, actually. One reason is, of course, to see how badly we can make our films.

The second reason - something I've been a little concerned about since I wrote this post - is: some would say that I ought not to condemn even a bad film on the subject because to do so would be to play into the hands of those want the film to sink without a trace.

But if a film's bad, it's bad. Go see it anyway!

Swar: Comparisons with Amu are inevitable. That film wasn't as bad as this one because of thr framing narrative of a returning NRI discovering her own past. But I agree; I'd much rather watch Final Solution several times over. Have you seen it?

Zero said...

Excellent set of points. Though I won't go this far in pillorying poor Mr. Dholakia's film, I concur with what you have to say in general and about the presentation of the "truth" in the film.

My biggest "uh-oh!" with the film (uh, apart from the pointless intercuttings employed) was how blatantly it blamed the police and the political parties entirely for the carnage. Now, I really don't have much of an idea about what really happened (and, probably, policemen did have a "major role" in the carnage), but it's extremely naive (and quite common) to think that a bunch of outfits used "common people" as puppets and turned them into "riotous mob"; that is, to not acknowledge the "common man's part" and keep harping that religion is the root cause. Amu, I'd say, was much similar in this respect.

Space Bar said...

Now, I really don't have much of an idea about what really happened (and, probably, policemen did have a "major role" in the carnage), but it's extremely naive (and quite common) to think that a bunch of outfits used "common people" as puppets and turned them into "riotous mob";

Zero: Perhaps part of the film's failure lies in the fact that such an eventuality seems 'naive' and 'common' to you. You might ask yourself why films such as this one, that talk about the police's and the govenment's culpability, find it so hard to find screening venues in Gujarat.

What, exactly, do you mean when you say 'common man's part'?

Zero said...

>>"What, exactly, do you mean when you say 'common man's part'?"

I guess I didn't make myself clear in my previous comment. My point was that there's no real demarcation between the 'common men who succumbed to violence' and 'fundamentalist mob outfits' during such mass hysteria.

As I had mentioned, I really don't know about the politics of Gujarat violence. But, branding everyone involved in such events as belonging to some outfit -- towards the end, in the scene where a commission hears the victims the film offers itself completely to make broad accusations instead of examining such mob hysteria in a more matured way -- seems to entirely blame those political outfits (and their silly ideologies whatsoever) instead of the men who constitute those outfits. As if to suggest that they were just puppets in the larger scheme of things. Yes, based on the way one sees it, they may be puppets, but they did choose to be one.

Zero said...

And, frankly, though I am not actually aware of the politics of the event, I do believe personally that the police and the government were greatly culpable for the carnage.
My point was only about the lack of depth in making skeletal villains out of such hollow organizations or bodies, while in reality, the hatred runs deeper than that.

chitra said...

The film isn't comprehensive or investigative enough to warrant acclaim as a potrayal of 'Gujarat'. But I must say that I was suitably impressed with the director's treatment of the subject - considering the last movie he made was 'Kehta hai dil baar baar'!

Space Bar said...

Zero: yes, the film was full of easily understood stereotypes. This is why I quoted Zadie Smith.

Chitra: No, really? I haven't seen that one, and given the introduction to his work, not sure I want to!