When you first watch Nagesh Kukunoor’s impressively shot Dor, you want to simply applaud it as good cinema. (I even sent him a text message that I loved the film and its performances.)
Playing a traumatised Rajasthani widow whose caring husband has been murdered somewhere in Saudi Arabia, Mumbai girl Ayesha Takia has just a dull, dark shawl — and no trace of makeup — as her wardrobe for a major portion of the film. Yet she goes from bashful wife to lonely widow to rebellious woman without missing a beat, so fine is her performance. Meanwhile, the Iqbal hero, Shreyas Talpade, leaps expertly into an over-the-top extrovert’s role without going overboard.
Whether it’s Ayesha’s award-worthy performance or Shreyas’ amusing moments, the credit marks pile up in favour of the director who has made engaging cinema out of a story inspired by the Malayalam film Perumazhakalam.
However, once you stop the gush of compliments and ponder over the film, you realise that Nagesh Kukunoor (along with his 24/7 partner Elahe Heptoolah) has a definite agenda other than just entertaining his audience. He did it very subtly in Iqbal where he set the deaf and dumb aspiring cricketer smack in an agrarian Muslim family. It was done so casually, it could have been any other normal Indian family with its cricket-loving mother and sister, and a hard working farmer-father opposed to the game. There were no Allahs, subhanallahs or mashallahs punctuating every sentence. Except for one scene taken outside a mosque, there were no namaaz versus cricket practice debates either. In short, other than introducing the lovable little family, Nagesh never reminded you that this was a Muslim family. On hindsight, one understands that his agenda was to show a Muslim as no different from someone from the mainstream. So far, pretty fair.
But after watching Dor, one suspects Nagesh was only testing the waters with Iqbal. In Dor he goes further and draws a stark contrast between the ‘progressive’ minority community and the ‘regressive’ Rajasthanis (read that as Hindu). Nagesh’s Muslim family has a lively, spirited heroine called Zeenat (played by Gul Panag whose voice had to be dubbed by Elahe Heptoolah). Her in-laws are won over by her compassion and independence — she hands over to them all the money sent by her husband, their son in Saudi Arabia, explaining that her own salary is enough for her. When her husband is accused of murdering his Rajasthani colleague and sentenced to death, Zeenat sets off for Rajasthan without even an address, determined to get a maafinama signed by the dead man’s widow. Her in-laws are so supportive of this adventure into the unknown that they arrange for a Sardar truck driver to drop her off midway and also proudly declare, “If anybody can pull off this mission impossible, it is Zeenat”.
Very sweet, very innocuous. Except when you move to Rajasthan and contrast Zeenat with Meera, the widow whose signature must be got on that pardon-nama. It is here that Nagesh’s determined agenda to show the Muslim as progressive, independent-spirited and far-from-marching-backwards-into-the-dark-ages, moves into top gear. Zeenat befriends Meera without revealing who she is or what she wants from her. If you think about it, it’s actually a con, winning the unsuspecting widow’s confidence when there is an ulterior motive behind the hand of friendship. But Nagesh strives to ensure that you don’t lose your sympathy for Zeenat. And then, he has Meera go through all the humiliation that a traditional Hindu setup gives its widows. Most of it is unfortunately true, for widows do get treated like sub-humans in the land of sati, dowry and female infanticide. However, Nagesh cleverly chooses this backward-thinking traditional family as a contrast, even going so far as to have Meera’s father-in-law, otherwise a proud man, strike a pimplike business deal where the payment is his widowed daughter-in-law’s youthful body! Sure, that happens too, but it looks a trifle mischievous to take the worst elements of this (Hindu) society only to paint a glorious picture of the (Muslim) other.
Go ahead with your agenda Mr Kukunoor, we applaud any story of a normal progressive Muslim family. But must it be at the expense of bashing another community thus'
* Two months ago, Sanjay Dutt was all macho and heat on the front pages of the dailies, supporting Zidane’s headbutting. Of course, said Dutt, the only way to retaliate to an insult is to hit back. Today, with the TADA case verdict hanging over his head, he’s peddling Gandhigiri and turn-the-other-cheek philosophy all over the place. Will the real Sanjay Dutt stand up please'
Bharathi S. Pradhan is managing editor of Movie Mag International