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December 29, 1998


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'The power for genocide came from the silent approval of the majority'

Mahesh Bhatt's Zakhm has stirred a controversy, with his critics claiming that he is just raking up dead issues, and the director asserting he is just depicting the truth. In an interview to Communalism Combat magazine, conducted when the merits of the film were still being considered by the censor board, the director discusses his imperatives when making this film which, he says, is more personal than political.

Let's start from where things stand today. You seem to be having problems is getting a certificate for the film....

The film has revealed a lot to me above 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 is 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 that 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 have seen them suffer, gone through the trauma of '92-'93, which left me completely traumatised, humiliated. How helpless I felt.

During the 1992-93 violence?

Yeah. It just traumatised me. It was a humiliating experience that also made you feel helpless. And, you hate your helplessness, the sense of impotent rage, feeling the powerlessness 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 necessity. I was comfortable with my pot-boilers. I had no problems. I didn't aspire to steer Indian cinema to greater heights etc. But this was something compelling me from within, something that 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. 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. Revisiting all that was quite traumatic. But it was only after '92-'93, somewhere in '94-95, that the ideas 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 its medium, in its 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've experienced life. I experienced life hard, rough, coarse. And to give it artistic frills would destroy what I've felt, what I've lived through.

Mahesh Bhatt.
I wanted this film to be replayed with my capacity to look at those human beings trapped in a time frame. To look at the love of my parents who were trapped by biases. You know they were victims of the backgrounds from which they came. My grandmother also 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 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... 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 milieu in which I functioned that it was a film that just had to 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 Bombay 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 family members.

When I stepped inside the grave to turn her face towards Mecca, in the Mazagaon 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 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?

A still from Zakhm. Click for bigger pic!
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 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 the 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 light 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 won't be good."

Who 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 fear.

If a shadow is there over you, 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.

'Zakhm has to reach the people. You know, right out there where hatred is fermented'

The Zakhm review

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