By SOMINI SENGUPTA, NY Times , February 20, 2007
MUMBAI — Rahul Dholakia, an Indian filmmaker and a native of the western Indian state of Gujarat, set out five years ago to make a movie about a friend who lost his son during the Gujarat riots of 2002.
This film, “Parzania,” is based on the true story of Azhar Mody, or Parzan, as he is called in the film, a 13-year-old boy who disappeared during the riots, which began after 59 Hindus died in a train fire for which a Muslim mob was initially blamed. The cause of the train fire is still unknown, though a number of politically competing investigations are looking into it. But there is little mystery in what it inspired: a Hindu-led pogrom against the Muslims of Gujarat, in which 1,100 people were killed, some by immolation, and many women were raped.
The film is now being shown in nine Indian cities, and it has received a fair amount of critical acclaim, particularly for the performance of its two leading actors, Naseeruddin Shah, who plays the father, and Sarika, who plays the mother. Time Out Mumbai credited Mr. Dholakia for having managed to “remind viewers of what really happened in 2002, and why it’s important not to forget.”
But in Gujarat, the director’s home state, theater owners have said it is too controversial and have refused to show it.
“Parzania” is hardly alone; India maintains a storied and constantly replenished dustbin of cannot-be-seen movies. Among the best known are “Black Friday,” Anurag Kashyap’s film about the 1993 terror attacks on Mumbai, in which Islamist militants were blamed. Its release was held up for over two years by the Central Board of Film Certification, which must clear all films, after those on trial for the crime argued in court that the film could prejudice potential jurors.
Another was Anand Patwardhan’s 2001 anti-nuclear documentary, “War and Peace,” which was released only in 2005, after a protracted court battle. And Mahesh Bhatt’s movie of Hindu-Muslim strife, called “Zakhm,” meaning wound in Hindi, was released in 1998, but only after the director agreed to alter scenes with headbands and flags in saffron, the color of the Hindu right, by making the headbands and flags gray. Plenty of books and plays have been banned too. The government generally contends that it is for the sake of protecting public order.
“Parzania” stands out, though, because theater owners are refusing to screen the film even after it was approved by the censor board. In late January, as Mr. Dholakia prepared to send three prints to Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, the multiplex owners’ association called to say they could screen it only if the head of a radical Hindu group called Bajrang Dal, known for rowdy protests, gave his blessings.
“I said, ‘Are you mad?’ ” Mr. Dholakia recalled. “ ‘What’s he got to do with it?’ ”
Manubhai Patel, the chairman of the Gujarat Multiplex Owners Association, said the film could inflame tensions among Hindus and Muslims by resurrecting recent history. “They have shown the Gujarat riots,” he said by telephone of the movie, which he also said he had not seen. “By now the public has settled down and is living peacefully and engaged in their regular work. We fear that after watching the movie, their sentiments might get hurt, and there might be an uprising again.”
“Parzania” is set in Ahmedabad, the adopted hometown of Mohandas K. Gandhi and the center of much of the terror. The film offers an unflattering portrait of Gujarat’s leaders and police officials. The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was widely accused of turning a blind eye to the assaults on Muslims and then, 10 months later, resoundingly re-elected in state elections. “Parzania” chillingly renders a savage mob attack.
For Mr. Dholakia, 40, the riots were an eye-opener. He was at home in Corona, a small town east of Los Angeles where he lives most of the year, when news broke of the fire and the mob violence that followed. There, in placid Corona, he sat and watched the horror unfold on Indian satellite television.
From members of his own family, Hindus who live in Gujarat, he heard satisfaction over the carnage. “Whatever happened, we taught these Muslims a lesson,” he recalled being told. One of his relatives, a 9-year-old boy, said he wished all the Muslims had been killed.
On the third day of the violence, Mr. Dholakia heard about Azhar, the son of his friend Dara Mody, whom he had met years before when Mr. Mody worked as a projectionist at an Indian movie theater in New Jersey. A Hindu mob had attacked the housing complex where the Modys lived. The Modys are Zoroastrians, not Muslims, but the attackers weren’t particularly discriminating, and in the confusion the boy became separated from his family and disappeared.
News of his friend’s loss turned Mr. Dholakia’s artistic attention to the brutality that had swallowed his state, an unlikely transformation for a self-described apolitical man who for 15 years has produced a celebrity-studded Bollywood-style annual dance contest in New Jersey. He was a co-writer of the screenplay for “Parzania” and shot it, mostly in Gujarat, in 2004. The $700,000 needed to make the film came largely from two Indian friends in the United States.
The film was cleared by the censor board in August 2005, but after meeting with a number of reluctant distributors, Mr. Dholakia, who has been commuting between Corona and Mumbai, took on that job as well.
Mr. Dholakia said he now planned to organize private screenings of “Parzania” in Gujarat, partly out of a faint hope that they would help Azhar Mody’s parents learn what happened to their son. The film ends with a photograph of Azhar and an appeal for information.
“His parents are still waiting for him,” the message reads, and offers an e-mail address to which tips can be sent: [email protected]