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Documentary review: Begamon ka Bhopal

Remembering The film is a stellar tribute to huzun.  

In July 2018, Zeenat Manzil, one of Bhopal’s crown jewels, was reduced to rubble. The structure, an indelible part of Bhopal’s heritage, had been neglected for years by the local authorities. Fearing an imminent collapse, they finally decided to do something about it — erase it.

According to reports, Zeenat Manzil, where Jawaharlal Nehru gave his first speech in Bhopal after Independence, was demolished for a mere ₹1,000, without the supervision of any experts or conservationists. A couple of years ago, Shaukat Mahal, a palace that once housed Nawabs, was demolished as well. Other buildings in the city await a similar fate.

Sections of Shaukat Mahal are featured in Rachita Gorowala’s poignant ode to Bhopal’s past, Begamon ka Bhopal. In about 26 minutes, Gorowala’s mesmerising documentary pays tribute to a past that is being painfully erased by time (ably aided by the apathy of local authorities).

Four Nawab begums

Even as its regal past recedes, Bhopal clings on to fragments of history that once made it unique. For over a hundred years from 1819, Bhopal was ruled by four Nawab begums, each of whom made distinct contributions to the city and to the country. Consider this: the fourth begum was the first Chancellor of Aligarh University. (In what can only be called the irony of life, the University banned women from its library in 2014.)

According to Gorowala, the documentary tries to delve into the thoughts and feelings that emerge when one encounters dilapidated spaces. “These spaces are symbols and parts of our collective memories of Bhopal,” she says.

The past is explored through four principal characters: two royal descendants, Firoza Khan and Meeno Ali; the diary of a writer, Manzoor Ahtesham; a former royal attendant; and old reels belonging to the grandfather of Gorowala’s family friend. “This idea,” Gorowala says, “began with me looking at Bhopal in the light of matriarchy, and not the gas tragedy. I thought I would win brownie points for it. Thankfully, these thoughts were soon replaced by something deeper and this film evolved into a much more personal venture.”

Unlike a conventional documentary, in Begamon ka Bhopal, there is poetry in the depiction of the characters. The images are pieced together like fragments of memory. There are glimpses of buildings and rituals.

Faces are seen and then they disappear, unsteady hands roll paan in exquisite silverware, light filters through cracks in ancient buildings where the homeless live. There are also sounds that seep in and inhabit the images: of water lapping against a boat, the singing of an old lady, chanting of prayer, shuffling feet.

And threading these disparate pieces together is a remarkable poetic narration, based on the private writings of Ahtesham. The Bhopal of the begums is conjured up in a dreamscape. The story is felt, not told.

Gorowala says she met several hundred people before scripting. “I started delving deeper by researching the material at hand. I was drawn to information that was in sync with my thoughts,” she says.

What lingers

Ask Gorowala about the uses of nostalgia and she’s thoughtfully non-committal. Is it pointless to rail against the erosion of memory, and cruel erasure of what was once loved? For her, the beauty of nostalgia lies in its ambiguity. “It lingers, it lets you be. The experiences that one can gather of a city have to remain eclectic. There’s no fun in sameness.”

Ultimately, the film is a stellar tribute to huzun, a feeling of nostalgia that finds its roots in Arabic. One cannot help but recall Agha Shahid Ali’s immortal words for his beloved Kashmir: “If only somehow you could have been mine, what would not have been possible in the world?”

The writer is photographer and founder of The Indiestani Project.

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 3:06:19 AM |

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