Does art have a religion exclusive to any one faith? Or, is it open to everyone and anyone interested in training in a certain school of art? This question has been explored, analysed and critiqued in Mee Raqsam (I Dance), which marks the directorial debut of ace cinematographer Baba Azmi as a tribute to his late father Kaifi Azmi. The film is presented by his sister, the well-known actress, Shabana Azmi.
The story of Mee Raqsam is simple and straightforward. Maryam (Aditi Subedi), a school student, is passionate about learning Bharatanatyam, a desire planted in her by her mother who had the rare talent of picking up tough classical steps of Bharatanatyam directly from television programmes. Maryam’s father, Salim (Danish Hussain), a tailor, admits her to a noted Bharatanatyam institution run by Uma Devi (Sudeepa Singh). Maryam excels and her guru is more than happy with her progress. But the Muslim leaders in Mijwan in Azamgarh District, are not pleased at all. They first ask Salim to stop Maryam’s training on the grounds that her training in Bharatanatyam goes against the principles of Islam! When Salim refuses to do so, they rob him of his clients, which paralyses his business on the eve of Eid. They also refuse him permission to pray collectively at the mosque till a disheartened Maryam decides to give up her training. A sudden attack engineered by the Muslim leaders shakes her decision and she determinedly goes back to her dance training for the Bharatanatyam National Competition.
The opening frames with the mother training Maryam in Bharatanatyam on the terrace set the tone of the film. This is repeated in flashback giving us more space to Maryam’s nostalgia. However, Mee Raqsam is not just about a Muslim girl’s struggles to learn Bharatanatyam, which is not very popular among Muslims the way Kathak is. Dance is used as the subject around which a fake controversy is highlighted and can create havoc in the life of a young girl who tries to break the stereotype by venturing into pastures her faith does not support. It is about feudal mindsets among both Hindus and Muslims who refuse to accept or welcome change. It is about how determination and the will to overcome every struggle – by the father as well as the daughter who fight together and win in the end. It also sheds light on the so-called ‘educated’ mindset of Hindu and Muslim leaders who do not feel the urge to open their minds to more progressive ways of thinking.
Azmi gives democratic space to the ostracism by showing that the leading trustee (Rakesh Chaturvedi Om) of the dance academy, a very feudal-minded Hindu, creating every kind of obstacle to stop Maryam from going ahead with her competition. His daughter, a friend of Maryam, has an open mind and encourages Maryam to go on with her dance. He humiliates the young girl by calling her Sultana though her name is Maryam on a public platform and takes ‘credit’ for being open-minded enough to allow a girl from a different faith to learn and perform a predominantly Bharatiya art. He also callously adds to her backstory when he says that she belongs to Mijwan in Azamgarh known for backwardness among women, for poverty and for crime and violence. Maryam takes all this quietly but retaliates silently in her own way.
While the story is layered, the characters are divided far too sharply between the white and the black. Still, Naseeruddin Shah as the tremendously rigid and dictatorial Muslim leader offers an extremely effective cameo while Danish Hussain as Maryam’s father is very good. He demonstrates great dignity in standing by what he believes in and not bending down to the tremendous pressure on his social, financial and religious standing. However, the father-daughter relationship is perhaps a bit too sweet and syrupy and could have been dotted with some conflict as well, which would have been natural. The very critical aunt (Shraddha Kaul) and the grandmother, who land for the funeral, offer fine representations of conventional Muslim mindsets. Above all, Aditi Sunedi, debuting as Maryam, is a wonderful find. Her Maryam is natural, sweet and graceful and also knows to put her feet firmly down when she needs to.
The editing is crisp while the cinematography lucidly offers a glimpse of the lanes, by lanes, religious places, local crowds, and shops of Mijwan, often scanning the terraces of the middle-class homes, offering an alternative space different from the glitz and the glamour of metro cities we are used to. Ripul Sharma’s music and lyrics add to the subdued charm of the story and the film. It is low-key and the lyrics are telling if you listen carefully. The dialogue is sharp and significant, using irony in the right place at the right time. “You will have to answer at the time of your departure.” says the leader to Salim and his quiet response is, “Everyone will have to explain at the time.” as he walks away quietly.
All in all, Mee Raqsam is a fine film that pulls at your heartstrings where it matters the most and pushes you to watch it a second time. That is it’s biggest success.
Postscript: While researching this story, this writer chanced upon the real life story of a Muslim girl, Mansiya, from Kerala’s Malappuram district who excelled time and again in classical dance forms, but often saw her classmates, teachers, and the community members turn their heads the other way. “Never in our lives have any of our teachers at school or any others from the community praised us for our achievements. I remember how teachers at school would congratulate a student who came third in the dance competition, but walk away without even glancing at me, who secured the first place,” Mansiya said in an interview to The News Minute.
“Religion is no barrier to learning any dance form and what our parents taught us was that all religions are the same. We were not sent to the Madrassa for any religious studies, but to get a perspective of what Quran says. At home, we had already read Hindu and Christian religious texts. At the Madrassa, my sister and I would at times contradict the Ustad and question their reading of the Quran. This only worsened their attitude towards us. After some years, we quit going to the Madrassa,” Mansiya sums up, who topped the Madras University course in Bharatanatyam some years ago and is now poised to do her doctoral studies in this subject.
Hindi, Drama, Color