The burden of historical trauma over a collective’s unconscious is rarely ever visible to the naked eye. The traumatic event becomes an imperceptible presence that pervades through the network of meanings that surround us. Perhaps, this erasure ends when a work of art responds to violence. Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s ‘Naseem’ (1995) confronts us with a set of poignant images that seek to remember the days leading up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The film explores the relationship between an ailing grandfather played by Kaifi Azmi with many delightful memories of pre-partition India and his young granddaughter, Naseem who goes about her day in spaces saturated with communal tension. The film also stars Mayuri Kango, Seema Kelkar, Surekha Sikri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Kay Kay Menon.
Naseem begins with an intertitle to the sound of poignant music: “In India, on December 6, 1992, a medieval mosque was brought down by some people who believed it was erected in the exact same spot where Lord Rama was born. The riots, slaughter, savagery, and hate-filled months that followed, no Indian will ever forget. That one act of demolition wrote the epitaph of an age that had passed… perhaps never to return.”
The first sequence takes place on December 4, 1992. It presents Naseem, a sixteen year old girl brushing her hair as she looks into the mirror. Behind her, lies a television set that is ringing with the sound of protestors violently chanting for a Ram Mandir to be built at the spot of the Babri Masjid. The mirror reflects the television screen in the backdrop, along with her tense brother and mother watching the bitter, unfathomable sight. The use of the mirror is fascinating for it acts as a device that objectively contains the two differing realities within the same frame: the gentle one of a carefree adolescent girl and that of two worried adults witnessing a moment of violent tension that will bring upon dire circumstances for them.
The traumatic event becomes an imperceptible presence that pervades through the network of meanings that surround us
Naseem is unconcerned by the sounds as she lovingly brushes her hair. She gets up and the camera follows her as she walks into her grandfather’s room. Her walk drains out the noise of the television as the viewer comes to realise that this room and her grandfather exist in a separate sphere from the immediate reality of fuming tension. She asks her grandfather for the meaning of her name. He charmingly tells her that Naseem signifies the morning breeze, which is beautiful, just like his granddaughter. Mirza frames the sight of tenderness and love by positioning the madness of hatred at the rims, as if on the verge of disrupting this warmth by swallowing it whole.
The film has a lyrical, episodic structure as the immediate events taking place in Naseem’s simple, mischievous life are juxtaposed with her grandfather’s heart-warming stories. The grandfather’s memories act as a tender mode of representation of a sacred historical past, perhaps attempting to draw the contours of “an age that had passed” (as mentioned in the intertitle) for the viewer. Mirza employs memory to resist Hindutva’s fabricated historical narratives, rendering their myths hollow and farcical.
There is a sequence where the film breaks away from Naseem‘s world to images of the Ram Yatra. The camera holds still as an infuriated man waves a saffron flag and marches forward, his rigid display of masculinity offers stark contrast to the gentleness with which the film operates. Perhaps, this gentleness makes the impending demolition of the Babri Masjid traumatic for the viewer.
In a tense moment, as the family watches the news of the growing number of aggressive protestors in Ayodhya, Naseem’s father in a forlorn state asks the television where he ought to go, for he belongs to India. In response, her grandfather asks them to stop watching the television and that its horrendous news. Mushtaq (his grandson) tells him to let them be, to let them listen to the news. Her grandfather persists pointing towards Naseem’s exams.
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Upon hearing this, Mushtaq explodes in a fit of anger, he tells him that he really crosses the limits, how can Naseem’s exams be more important than the horrific news of riots and violence being unleashed against the Muslim community. He stands outside the room, framed in between the narrow, constricted distance of the room’s doors. Mushtaq asks him if he even knows what is going on in the news, and exasperated, he tells him that one day the crowd will come to their own house and say that it is rightfully theirs and what will he and his poet friends do then: No, you will only tell stories, continue telling your stories.
Naseem is angered at the rude manner in which her brother addresses her grandfather but is told to keep quiet. Mushtaq ends his monologue by asking his grandfather why he is reluctant to understand that the age of his stories is long gone. Mirza puts forth the harrowing sight of a troubled man who finds that the tenderness of poetry and its ability to instil compassion within human beings is of no use when surrounded by the unfathomable madness of hatred. Yet the stories allow this old man to remember a simpler time and to engage with the possibility of leading a simple life in the midst of overwhelming toxicity.
The aggressive, tense sequence is followed by a tender moment where Naseem’s father, Sajjad, gently walks into his room, sits by his bed to apologise, and expresses his anxieties relating to Mushtaq and the circumstances. Sajjad then poignantly asks why they stayed in India and did not go to Pakistan after the Partition. Naseem’s grandfather asks him if he remembers the tree in front of their house in Agra, he was very fond of this tree and so was his wife. Sajjad smiles at the response and caresses his father’s arm.
Mirza puts forth the harrowing sight of a troubled man who finds that poetry is of no use when surrounded by the unfathomable madness of hatred.
Throughout the film, we see the world around Naseem crumbling with instances of direct and structural violence that confound her. On her way to school, she greets a loving Hindu woman and her young daughters every day. She is aware that her husband does not like Naseem stopping by their store and is often verbally abusive with his wife. Naseem‘s loving friend is eventually burnt alive by her husband for she could not bear him a son.
Mushtaq‘s friend Zafar (shown to be leaning towards extremism) wonders why the stoves of Hindu brides explode so frequently. Naseem‘s mother responds by saying “Humare liye toh burqa aur talaq hi kafi hai Zafar sahab” (the burqa and divorce is enough for us Muslim women). In an exchange between Zafar and Naseem‘s grandfather, the viewer learns how he wants to respond to the communal tension around by engaging in battle with the Hindus – religious extremism is imbricated with terrifying masculinity. Naseem has a Muslim classmate who enjoys studying but must drop out of school to work as her father has remarried and the family is in need of money. Mirza does not shy away from putting forth how one’s personal identity, as shaped through religion, is political; as patriarchal ideology shapes the way religion operates in one’s day to day life.
Mirza plays with the masculine tensions brimming from the immediacy of the violence and the gentle strength of persistence found in poetry and these stories. Yet, on the day of the demolition, Naseem’s grandfather passes away even as his stories breathe on in Naseem’s consciousness. Naseem lingers in his room, sits on his empty bed, her eyes filled with a tense memory: She remembers sitting by the sea with her grandfather. She asks him why the sky is blue; he tells her that he did not like it yellow so he painted it blue. Naseem laughs as she tells her grandfather how unscientific he is. Gently, he responds: But you smiled, it does not matter whether the sky is blue or yellow, it is important to smile.
Naseem would be Mirza’s last film as he was deeply upset by the loss of poetry in cinema. As explained by Audre Lorde “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so that it can be thought- the farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences from our daily lives.” According to Lorde, “the function of the creative artist is to make the truth as we see it irresistible”. Mirza does exactly that in Naseem, his images make the erasure of historical trauma visible. Perhaps, it is now, more important than ever, that we begin to remember.
Featured Image Credit: Chaosmag