“In Harf-i-Nishat Awar Mi Guyam wa Mi Raqsam/Az-Eshq Dil Asayad ba Inhame Bitabi” (I sing these joy-inspiring words/I dance with delight/It is Love that is a balm to the heart.) — Iqbal
The pride which we have in the secularism of our country is giving way to a sense of shame. Will the dominant religion completely comprehend the implications of majoritarianism? Who can believe that a tattoo, a sign of commitment, on one’s hand, can cause so much disappointment that the hand itself has to be cut off from the body? When she prepares her husband’s office lunch, do thoughts about a potential threat to life cross the mind of a woman from the majority community? Nevertheless, minorities have paid for perceived “offences” with their lives, including carrying non-vegetarian food on a train, carrying their own livestock, wearing a skull cap, even while being forced to sing “Jai Shri Ram.”
At a time of dismantling democratic values, the timely film of the Azmi siblings, Mee Raqsam (I Dance), rekindles hope. Bharatanatyam delights Maryam, the teenage heroine. Nevertheless, the expectations of society, rooted in the fragile mind of the oppressed, lead to self-censorship and a denial of their passion. Bharatanatyam is the visual yet subtle metaphor of director Baba Azmi, challenging the unreasonable mentality within the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb about the possession of our living traditions. It is a sincere reiteration of the principle that ours is a pluralistic country, where religion is personal, while culture belongs to the public space, the arts, festivals or clothes.
Despite the inevitable ruffling of feathers both within and amongst cultures, Maryam’s only surviving father, Salim, a tailor, decides he will cultivate her talent. Together, the manufactured laws of society that seek to shatter a common composite history are battled by daughter and father. Their confidence is founded on the belief that it would surely take more than an ancient dance form to weaken bonds between peoples or break-up a neighbourhood, much less a nation.
The chosen theme of culturally-demarcated identities, explored by author Ali Husain Mir, poses concerns that are terribly true. In 2016, actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, on charges of not being a Hindu, was forced to abandon his role in the Ramleela midway through ongoing performances in Bihar. Will a time come when laws and patents will decide who may recite Sanskrit shlokas, Sufi scriptures, or chants of Buddhism? How does one build a dam bifurcating the waters of the Yamuna Ganga, an inter-mingled Tehzeeb? Should we slice the rivers apart?
Mee Raqsam’s forthright story-telling retains its focus — the complexities of society’s deeply-entrenched hierarchies, based on faith and class. The lines between feature and documentary genres blur: Rural landscapes in Kaifi Azmi’s hometown of Mijwan, UP, Muslim bastis, characters primarily comprised of those who live the realities, not emote them, captured in a cinema verite style. There are no mandatory nods to Muslim stereotypes such as an obligatory Sufi song, qawwali, or azaan.
The daughter-father duo exhibits human frailties when isolated and excommunicated even by themselves. Salim’s entry into a mosque is blocked by a local cleric as he is now considered to be a kaafir. The tailor’s once busy sewing machine is compelled, even during Eid, to sit idle beside him. His books, if not the words inside them, must be sold by weight. No sher-o-shayari is layered as a background score to accentuate his condition when Salim visits the grave of his wife, where he can recreate memories of better times and regain power. The idea of qabristans and cemeteries, with minimal hassle, as concrete physical holy places to give gratitude, are known as healing sites.
Says Shabana Azmi, who presents the film in commemoration of progressive poet Kaifi Azmi’s birth centenary: “Kaifi Azmi’s values and principles quietly pervade and inspire us. It is time we redefine the toxic masculinity. Why can’t men be portrayed as nurturers?”
An example is when Maryam, in preparation for her first show, sits crouched in an effort to add alta to her feet. A helping hand is extended by her father. For a male parent, it is a gesture so spontaneous and non-traditional. He asks about her withdrawal, “Ammi ko mana karti?” (Wouldn’t you owe your mother permission?). A refreshing tribute to single parenting is this startlingly clear comparison and the indulgent delivery of the performer. Dual-parenting roles are played by screen mothers; the involvement of a father is normally limited to the breadwinner. The gentle parental gesture is also a throwback to a time when, while her mother was away at work, Kaifi Azmi dressed his daughter for work.
It is the subtle presence of three personas that permeates the film. Three identities blur, three types of art merge: the individual to whom this film pays homage, Kaifi Azmi, the filmmaker Baba Azmi, and his actor, Danish Husain. Each one interacts in his own chosen creative medium, strengthening contemporary reality. The message remains the same. Kaifi Azmi uses verse as his language to bring dignity to the common citizen. Baba salutes the town’s tailor who offers solitary resistance. A third reiteration of respect for the worker comes from Salim, who enacts his portrayal with an intrinsic tameez, a trait typical of UP.
Making the struggles worthwhile, the new generation, expressed by young Maryam, imbibes this sense of self-worth of the working class. Now a known dancer in the small town, she publicly declares, “Darzi hain, mere Abbu.” In her tone, there is a quiet confidence, not shrill defiance. With a presentation to a medley of musical genres, she follows this disclosure; now metre and melody in the praise of Shiva, now to the chants of Ali.
No, the waters of the rivers will not be separated.
Mee Raqsam is a rare gift of 2020. It’s also the Azmi siblings response to their father’s final alvida to them, a reminder from his hospital bed: “Kar chale ham fida jaan-o-tan saathiyon/Ab tumhaare hawale watan saathiyon.”