By Subhash K . Jha
Starring: Neelima Azim, Danish Hussain, Saud Mansuri
Written & Directed by: Zaigham Imam
Varanasi is a city of the holy waters and unholy bloodshed. The deep divide between the Hindu and Muslims is never crossed. It takes guts for a filmmaker to cross over from one restricted area into another to take a long hard look at a life lived at the fringes of both the communities.
Alif addresses itself to the very sensitive and relevant issue of the isolation of the Indian Muslim. It neither resorts to the stereotypes of the ‘Muslim Social’ nor does it look at the community as persecuted and injured by self-inflicted welters of radicalism. This small film with big aspirations look at the economically challenged existence hovering stubbornly at the fringe of self-destruction, trying its utmost to remain beyond the ‘isms’ and the cataclysms that threaten to annihilate the community from mainstream existence in our country.
Alif is sometimes too eager to pack in an excess of ideas. However the narrative is not bogged down by its own aspirations. Rather, writer-director Zaigham Imam’s fortitude of conviction and sincerity of expression gives the jumpy uneven film a pattern of serene motions even when the characters’ motivations and behaviour get choppy and unacceptable.
There are some glaring flaws in the narrative, too glaring to be even mentioned. And some performances are awkward and embarrassing. But what remains with us is the earnestness of a storyteller whose heart bleeds for a community that’s being bled to death by its own stubborn adherence to rules of living which are not in sync with the goals of a progressive India.
Alif is the story of a young boy named Ali(played with endearing sincerity by SaudMansuri) whose father is a hakeem. When Alif’s aunt Zahara(Neelima Azim, rousing in her impassioned dramatics) visits Varanasi from Pakistan she wants changes,radical changes in her brother’s family. In a heartwarming moment of family togetherness, the father lying inert in his deathbed is pulled out for a bath in the courtyard. The boy Ali whom Zahara soon gets to dote on( a la Farida Jalal in Khalid Mohamed’s Mammo) must stop going to theMadarsa and start attending a proper angrezi school.
No one dares say no.
It is here that the narrative chooses to get discernibly frank in its dissection of the discrepancy of the educational standards in the traditional madarsa and the conventional schools. Alif’s brutal humiliation in the new environment , his lack of basic schooled knowledge, are depicted in harrowingly broad strokes which, regrettably, don’t work in other section of the film.
A budding rooftop romance between a radical Muslim educationist and the girl nextdoor is nipped in the bud when he confesses he loves only God.
“How can you love God when you can’t love someone who standing in front of you?” she screams.The performances in such sequences are caricatural. But the heart is in the right place.
This thwarted romance and many other plot manoeuvres in this loftily intended melodrama echo M S Sathyu’s classic on the isolation of the Indian Muslim Garam Hawa.It is a tragic commentary on our social order that the situation described by Sathyu three decades ago remains largely unchanged for the community that continues to suffer in isolation.
Alif doesn’t wallow in self-pitying anger. Although there are some unfortunate attempts to demonize the other community, the characters remain largely compassionate and non-judgmental. What I took away from Alif was the warmth of a closely-knit family and specially the kinship that develops between the little boy and his aunt from Pakistan.Sadly there isn’t enough of this bonding in the plot which runs helter-skelter in pursuit of diverse strands in the cultural and religious contradictions that today threaten to erode the credibility of an entire community.
The film’s politics is, at best, unobjectionable. It’s such a pleasure to watch Neelima Azimportray the domineering matriarch in the burqa. She presides over the proceedings in her truncated role like Shaukat Azmi and Farida Jalal in their most memorable films. At one point she scolds a wretchedly mean Hindu teacher for harassing the film’s little boy-hero.
“Just because he waved a Pakistani flag on Republic Day you branded him a terrorist?” she asks with an innocence that completely abnegates irony.
This innocence of an apolitical entity in an environment of throbbing politics is refreshing. For all its faults Alif must be seen for its strong message on the importance of formal education for every child ,even if it means offending some who would rather have the young imprisoned in ignorance. Light, says the film, is life.For this message alone Alif deserves a round of applause.