“You have the freedom to be yourself. Your true self, here and now. And nothing can stand in your way.”
— Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
In the midst of all the vile and vitriol, rises the tale of the human spirit. Told with poignance and spread over less than two hours, this is a sensitive experience. It talks less, tells more. There is the poetic exuberance in the danseuse and sorrow and determination in a high fluent prose of a father who lives the dream of a daughter and the baggage of a polarised world — brazen, unapologetic, in fact, aggressively postured.
Watch prose and poetry in perfect tandem. A film like few we have seen in recent years. From the heart, to the soul. In fact, it is the naïve, the cultivated or the tutored seem to have not an iota of doubt against the universality of art and are busy drawing of divisive lines separating the holistic spirit of art. If anything, this will help humble us as humans and remind us that we mortals are too small to champion larger than life issues.
For instance, the character in the film says his religion is too powerful to be affected by the art choice his daughter makes!! In an attempt to establish a culture as superior to something/someone else, we end up refracting our inhibitions, our limitations.
The simple storyline is set in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. A little girl Mariam (Aditi Subedi) loses her mother and grows up under the guidance and inspiration of her Dad a poor local Darzi Salim (Danish Hussain). Her relatives including aunt Zehra (Shradha Kaul) and grandmother (Farukh Jaffer) oppose her passion for Bharatanatyam. Uma (Sudeepta Singh) who runs the local dance academy with patron Jayprakash (Rakesh Chaturvedi Om) encourages her to improve her gifted skill sets. The local community headed by Hashim Seth (Naseeruddin Shah) oppose a girl from their community taking to Bharatanatyam. Thus begins the tale of the human spirit, the challenges in a polarised world, social compulsions, economic challenges and emotional pressures.
Plot apart, the story avoids the usual clichés and modules without stretching to replace them with new ones. In fact, you would find the stereotypes all along. What works is that they do not stand out like a sore thumb but get absorbed in a very honest narrative that may reach the pulpit but ensures they do not get stuck there.
The performances in the film take it a few notches up. Everyone from the veteran Naseeruddin to the new guy Kaustubh Shukla live real life for their screen moments. Naseer is back in sublime form. What a performance in a cameo!! Brilliance personified. Every detail is taken care of. For instance, even in a place like Azamgarh the dance teacher is wearing her Kanchi cotton and Chanderi saris with the typical Bharatanatyam style. Do not miss out on the lilting nattuvangam in the background.
As the central character, there is just the right tone and spirit that Aditi Subedi gives Mariam. This, one would believe, is central to the film and with effortless ease she delivers. She does not wear revolt on her sleeve. She hides resolve in her intent. Central to the film is her declaration: ‘Mee Raqsam’ (I am dancing).
However, overtaking even her brilliance is Danish Hussain in arguably one of the most restrained performances known to contemporary Hindi cinema. As the determined father he too stays away from standard expressions and reactions. This, to my mind, is a National Award-winning performance — something people should be talking about along side a Naseer in Sparsh or a Sanjeev in Koshish or even a Balraj Sahani in Kathputli. They are indeed big names and I very daringly put his alongside such power players. He richly deserves it.
I am also a cynic and believe that this film may well go unnoticed to point to the paradox of our art and times. However, as a lover of good cinema I will remain eternally grateful to Baba Azmi who decides to move from the camera to make a film and gift us this wonderful statement loaded in political hues but strictly within the parameters of cinema as a class act.
I guess the Ganga Jamuna Tehzeeb had to be brought in and not left to subtleties not because it was necessary for the film, but for serving a larger purpose. This is, perhaps, the only arguable grey area where the effort seems like an investment. That too is welcome.
To go back to Bach: “Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender. That is strength.” That is under challenge now as never before to those who are willing to read the writing on the wall or hear the subdued song in the backdrop. Hopefully, we will all garner enough to say ‘Mee Raqsam’.
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