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Husain’s Meenaxi uncut gets snapped up at Cannes

Cannes, May 20: M.F. Husain’s controversial film Meenaxi: Tale of 3 Cities, which the artist pulled from cinemas in India after objections from Islamic “fundamentalists” who took exception to some of the lyrics, was shown uncut in Cannes last night.

The film was introduced by Husain’s son, Owais, who stuck up loyally for his father.

The relatively small size of the audience perhaps had more to do with a mix-up over the screening time, when it was postponed without warning yesterday from 1.30 pm to 5.30 pm.

But in the audience was a distributor, Frank Mannion, of Swipe Films, who was impressed with what he saw. “This film will have a niche market in Europe,” Mannion told Owais, the film’s co-director and co-writer. “It needs careful handling.”

Asked whether he was interested in buying the film for UK and west Europe distribution, an increasingly crucial market for Indian films, Mannion enthusiastically told The Telegraph: “I am not thinking of buying it, I am going to buy it.”

Husain withdrew the film in a huff after a number of Islamic groups in India objected to the phrase, “Noor-un-ala-Noor”, which occurs in the Quran clearly in a divine context but which is used in the movie in a quwaali. The phrase literally means “light upon light”.

It was reported that among those who demanded a ban on the film was the All India Ulema Council, which was quoted as saying: “The song, picturised on Tabu (the female lead), contains words that are directly lifted from the Quran. In the Quran, these words are used to define the persona of the Prophet. But in Husain’s film, they are being used to depict the physical beauty of the heroine.”

It was also claimed that the Ulema Council had allegedly received backing from the Milli Council, the All India Muslim Council, the Raza Academy, the Jamait-ul-Ulema-e-Hind and the Jamat-e-Islami.

The film, which tells of a writer’s dreamy encounter with a woman called Meenaxi, a figment of his fevered imagination, has music by A.R. Rahman and cinematography by Santosh Sivan. Set in Hyderabad, Jaisalmer and, incongruously, in Prague (which has an excellent orchestra happy to do Bollywood numbers), the film is intriguing, obscure, inaccessible and confusing enough to appeal to a certain kind of art house movie fan in the West.

If it becomes a question of artistic freedom in Britain, where some Muslim groups are quick to take offence, the movie could become mired in further controversy. The question whether the words objected to refer to the heroine’s physical beauty or something more lyrical and mystical could be the subject of debate.

Husain has said: “I was in Chennai. Rahman was composing the quwaali but wasn’t satisfied with the words that had been written. He felt that the word ishq had been overused. I said I would write the words instead. Some days later I was in hospital for an ailment, I was lying on the bed before the break of morning, when the words came to me which expresses the kindness of the Lord whose glow and presence is within us all. The quwaali is exultant about the presence of the light and what a light it is! It is a Sufi thought, a thought that keeps us going even when there is pitch darkness.”

Husain was due to come but he moves in mysterious ways and didn’t. As he toyed with a soft drink on the Croisette after last night’s screening, Owais Husain was defiant. He said the film “had nothing to do with religion” and investigations by the police in India had proved Muslim groups in India had not objected to the film, as had been reported.

He denied the words found offending were in praise of Tabu, saying they were intended at a higher, more ethereal level. There had been no intention to give offence, he stressed.

The market in Cannes has a reputation for screening films that someone, somewhere has sought to ban. Owais, who is flying to London shortly with the film, said: “I brought this to Cannes to see what a neutral, unbiased audience would make of it.”

He and his father were determined that the film would not be shown with the words removed. “The song is an essential part of the film — you can’t simply remove the words,” he argued.

One Indian producer said unkindly that Husain withd- rew the film not because of objections from Muslim groups, but “because the film was bombing”.

His son rejected this and said: “It has had some very good reviews.”

One thing he did reveal was that he and his father did not see eye to eye at many points during the shooting. “He would get up in the morning and have a strange idea about what to film that day but this conflict was good. I am myself a painter and not a film maker.”

Many would claim this also holds true for his father.

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