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December 29, 1998


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

Mahesh Bhatt

So, you're not going to give in?

No. I'm not going to give in. I am going to stand by my film. And see that it gets its due. I'm certain there are people around who stand opposed to it, but there are an equal number of people who support it. This is not optimism; I've seen evidence of that. In Delhi, I saw people, the likes of Neeraj Kumar, a CBI officer. After seeing the film, he said, "The film leaves you breathless, there is not one frame that you should cut. It's not a one-sided film".

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.

See, I can deal with complete fascism; then at least I know what I'm dealing with. Then I have a choice -- commit suicide, do something to throw them out or live under the regime. There are no other choices.

But when you keep telling me that this is my country, that I'm a free man, when I make a simple film which is but a pale reflection of the atrocities that actually happened, why are you raising these obstacles?

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 them. 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.

I asked myself, "Who am I? If I were caught up in a riot, what the hell would I do? I mean I am absolutely apolitical, I'm not ritualistic, I don't believe in any divine force. But the fact is that I have an upbringing, my consciousness is a mixed consciousness. What am I to do?

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 a complete purge. Also an effort to reconcile myself to my mother's death. 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.

You mentioned that a lot of prejudices spring from our childhood...

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've 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 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 felt it very deeply.

Zakhm shows a lot of anger but no bitterness towards the father. Any comments?

I can see my father as a person who dared to live my mother and be dedicated to her all her life. He may not have given her what may be perceived by the world as a very fair deal, but I think they were fair people. They found their own balance.

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?

The family? I knew that my father had another house and they had nothing to do with us. They were different people. So, in a way I'm a little frightened by the orthodox Gujarati set-up. There is this fear. Ironically, I'm more comfortable with the Maharashtrians of Shivaji Park. Because they are babus, clerks, teachers and all that. I was comfortable there.

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.

A still from Zakhm. Click for bigger pic!
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; if I speak out, then I'm an exhibitionist!

I personally believe that if you bring these things into the sunlight of life, they die. If you keep them down, hidden, they fester, remain.

Is that why we don't like to talk of a lot of things?

Yeah, that's why you need to stir it up and bring it up. It's those who believe in the lord, the Koran Sharief, or the Gita -- they are also the ones who spread communal hatred. I mean, Islam means "peace". There's no religious fundamentalism in Hinduism, either. Hindus have for centuries put up with all kinds of diverse thoughts. This country has produced sages who indulged in deep introspection but today's version, Hindutva, is a gross violation.

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! 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 Muslim 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 Sudhakar Rao 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 cliches -- "Insaan mar rah hai." I said, "Insaan kahan mar raha hai bhaiyya? Hindu maar raha hai, Mussalman 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 burkha, 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 burkha -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?

Yeah. Well, my mother was my driving force. You know, there's one person you hitch you work to and that reference point for me was my mother. Now that she's gone, that's it.

Moreover, I would like to write now actually. I think I can deal with my growing up, my childhood and the film industry, in a more real way in a book. I think if I write about '92-'93, and what really happened, in a book, I would be freer. The horrifying things I was subjected to, and the things I saw, people becoming absolute monsters.

With Zakhm, what do you hope for?

I don't know if it will be allowed to reach the people. But I am going to fight it out. Zakhm has to reach the people. You know, right out there where hatred is fermented. I want to take it there. Zakhm is a cry for peace.


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

The Zakhm review

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