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December 28, 1998


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Hate, love and god

Sharmila Taliculam

A still from Zakhm. Click for bigger pic!
Mahesh Bhatt may have become completely commercial in his recent crop of films, most of which failed to measure up at the box office. But with Zakhm, his heart is clearly in his work, even at the cost of ruling his head.

Zakhm is set against the most painful of the city's experiences, the 1993 communal riots. It is about an unnamed Muslim woman (Pooja Bhatt) who has had two children by a film-maker (Nagarjuna). She keeps hoping her man will marry her, but he ties the knot with another because his mother would never tolerate a union with a Muslim.

The unwed mother has a very strong bond with her elder son Ajay (Ajay Devgan), the only one with whom she shares her humiliation of being an unmarried mother and a closet Muslim. His younger brother (Akshay Anand) is kept in the dark about it though. Later, the younger boy joins a Hindu political group and the mother is burnt alive by a Muslim mob.

The dying woman has one last wish, that she be buried according to Muslim rites since that is the only way she can attain heaven. The elder son strives to fulfil the wish while the younger brother, with help from an ambitious leader of the group, tries to get her cremated the Hindu way.

Mahesh Bhatt tries a little too much, focussing alternately between the politicisation of religion and the angst of an emotionally deracinated woman.

A still from Zakhm. Click for bigger pic!
This, of course, makes the script seem inconsistent, even a little disjointed at times. But, no question, there are bits of it that touch a chord somewhere. You see that this film is more of a personal statement, since it is a tribute to his mother, the woman Mahesh Bhatt has always been obsessed with.

But then, most of his films had at least one character modelled on her, and another on an illegitimate son. But here he also depicts her as a vulnerable woman held up by faith and some stoicism.

There is much unexplained in the film, like why the protagonist sought to hide her religion from her younger son when she could openly visit a church in his presence. It also isn't clear why she was ashamed of her Muslim identity. But perhaps that would call for a deeper understanding of the person Mahesh Bhatt's mother was, for Bhatt himself has not proved himself equal to the task of explaining it.

The character who depicts Bhatt himself in the film also appears to be cringing from the fact of his own illegitimate birth. He does not blame his mother for it, rather holding a grudge against society for her humiliated existence.

Pooja Bhatt, for once, has done a fine job, and is very good as the woman who takes every blow in her stride. Her role is sober and understated and she looks beautiful throughout. Ajay Devgan's eyes do most of the talking in this film.

A still from Zakhm. Click for bigger pic!
He's managed to live beyond his action label, balancing intensity and vulnerability very well indeed. He's particularly good when he coldly tells his younger brother to remove that dirty blood from inside him since he too is half Muslim.

Though the story is set against the backdrop of the communal riots, the film dwells at length on the odd and compelling relationship between the mother and son, where the son is more of a confidant, one who dreams of the day his parents will finally unite. Kunal Khemu, as the young Ajay, has done a fine job. Nowhere in the film has Pooja been shown as an old woman. So thankfully, you don't have to see Ajay Devgan do a scene together with Pooja playing his mother. Pooja might just not have been able to carry it off.

Despite the jarring elements, the changing pace, if you still like the movie, the dramatic end -- that requirement of commercial cinema -- does make you wonder what Mahesh Bhatt was on about.

Mahesh Bhatt fortunately hasn't sensationalised the riots here, and has made no bow to the demands of Romance -- Sonali Bendre is Ajay's wife and that's about all there is to it.

He has already announced that he would retire from direction after Zakhm, that he will be taking to writing. Though as the film lacks conviction in parts and focus overall, it is nevertheless an appealing film. That it flies in the face of most commercial drama, of course, is another thing.

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