Friday Review

The return of the maverick

Muzaffar Ali   | Photo Credit: 07dfr Muzaffar Ali

Talking to Muzaffar Ali is as much an experience as watching his films. Like his films he touches you in so many ways that you feel enriched. As he returns to turnstiles after almost an eternity with “Jaanisaar”, one wants to shake him to ask why but as always he bowls you over with his genteel charm.

Set 20 years after “Umrao Jaan”, it is again a love story between a courtesan and a Raja but this time the nation is at stake. “The main catalyst was to recreate the valuable pages of history where we gave our lives for freedom. That period and the whole beauty of that time have largely gone unrecorded. It was a watershed period. The idea to explore Awadh 20 years after Wajid Ali Shah was dethroned and exiled to Calcutta is to examine the changes that colonisation had brought in. The wounds are still raw but the impact of imperial designs is quite visible. All their Capitalistic policies are coming into force. Their agricultural policy, their so-called agrarian reforms which is being done according to their industrial interests….”

This is also the period when Wajid Ali Shah is still alive and Awadh is missing him. “You have to understand what India’s predicament was at that time. We have to function as a cohesive unit; India cannot afford to be fragmented. It was true then, it is true now. And Wajid Ali Shah is one character in the history of India who somehow naturally, organically and without any design was a protagonist of composite culture. We are not talking about whether he was a good administrator or not. We need more cohesion than administration. If we are fighting or doubting each other what’s the use of an able administrator?” And herein, says Ali, lies the contemporary relevance of the film.

Once again Ali has taken his own sweet time to create his painting on celluloid. “Cinema is a sacred medium for me. I live my films.” He bonded with his old mates Javed Siddiqui and Shama Zaidi for screenplay and dialogues and missed the verse of Shahrayar. “I miss him as a friend but in terms of poetry I have outgrown his concerns. Today my concerns are not migration and the changing village and small town. Today, the whole mashra, the society is on the verge of breakdown.”

Ali has cast popular Pakistani actor Imran Abbas as Raja Ameer Haider, a London-returned prince who falls in love with a courtesan called Noor and his country. The casting suggests that Ali wants to highlight the period when there was no Pakistan. “That is a side story. If somebody wants to read it that way he can do that but I have not done it deliberately. But one thing is certain that we were one country then. In ‘Jaanisaar’ we are not dealing with India and Pakistan. We are dealing with the cause that led to the formation of India and Pakistan. How the British subtly planted the seeds of division into the society….”

Ali’s absence from big screen is also the period when cinematic poetry waned from Hindi cinema. “I am a poetry-driven person. I am not a poet but I write with the passion of a poet. One of the major losses of our society is that India has become a poetry-free country. In films koi bhi gana kahin bhi use ho sakta hai...,” he smiles.

He recalls how Faiz sent a note of praise after watching “Gaman”. “I see there is a lot of synergy between India and Pakistan at the creative level. Now Faiz is too liberated to be called a Pakistani or Abida Parveen, who has rendered a song in ‘Jaanisaar’, is too liberated to be called a Pakistani. We are sitting on big creative pool and our films can bring the best of two countries.”

Questions have been raised about his selection of fashion entrepreneur Pernia Qureshi to play the lead protagonist Noor. “I selected her for her passion towards dance and that she doesn’t come with any baggage. These are very positive things in casting. When you see the film you will realize that only this girl with her level of determination could have done this.” He underlines her dancing skills. But Rekha was not a dancer. It was Kumudini Lakhia who trained and the great Kathak dancer was once again called to choreograph. “With Rekha we had to break the scene into too many shots. It was more like moment to moment. Pernia could give you the whole performance in one take.” As for the depth and the layers that her face can reflect, Ali says it is for the audience to judge but as far the character is concerned it is much more layered than Umrao “With Umrao it was more of an individual conflict. Here watan plays a very important role.”

Cynics might say Ali continues to stick to Awadh, his home ground. “I don’t mind it. It is something that I learnt from Satyajit Ray when I worked with him in an advertising agency. It is he who made me realise how cinema can help you present your culture. How it is not parochial to talk about your roots. I am not comparing myself with Ray but he did inspire me to realise how to use cinema. I realised how creative people from Awadh sold themselves to market forces in Mumbai film industry. When Rahi Masoom Raza watched ‘Gaman’ he said Mujhe lagta hai main apni kalam ki taxi chala raha hoon.”

The similarities with Ray don’t end here. Imran is an architect by education and he says in his college ‘Umrao Jaan’ was screened to study architecture well. Ali says it has something to do with his advertising background and his love for painting. “I sketch every single frame, every nook and corner. Then it becomes easier for me to shoot. Here again I have employed a laidback style in terms of cinematography. It is a very fast moving film but the camera work is very gentle. It is like a painting.”

But Ali has his reservations about ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’, where Ray entered his terrain. “More than his depiction of Awadh my concern was with the premise. Wajid Ali Shah is a very potent subject you can’t burn him out. He is one person who can make you cry. What he stood for and what people thought of him was very interesting. If he were not there, Awadh would not have seen such a potent mutiny. People thought ek masoom ko aapne hata diya.”

Ali also wants to break away from brackets like Muslim social. You don’t call “Ek Chaadar Maili Si” a Sikh social and “Julie” a Christian social. “I am glad ‘Umrao Jaan’ was not seen that way. You don’t see it with a prism like who is Hindu here and who is Muslim. Be it ‘Gaman’, ‘Aagman’ or ‘Anjuman’, I have always tried to break this definition with my films, .”

However, when he researched Kashmiri poet Habba Khatoon for his unfinished project “Zooni”, he discovered that wounds of Kashmiris are deeper than his. “I spent three years in Kashmir and today I can’t bring myself to touch their wounds. ‘Zooni’ became a part of my life and I have not outlived it yet.” The film remains incomplete but it made Ali realise the value of mysticism. “The attack that has happened on us it is essentially an attack on our mysticism. In Kashmir too the attack is on mysticism. Because it is where people meet beyond their socio-religious identity. The thought remains alive but I feel it is dying in the lives of people. We have pushed ourselves into corners.”

No wonder he wants to work on a film on Rumi. “He was the bridge between the East and the West. Pata nahi qismat main kya likha hai…” But with Ali the wait has been worth it!


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Printable version | Nov 23, 2021 8:56:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/muzaffar-ali-on-jaanisaar/article7508429.ece

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