The destruction of the Babri Masjid, a mosque dating back to the sixteenth century, in December 1992 by Hindu extremists triggered the 1993 “Bombay riots” in Mumbai (Bombay), India, which led to more than 1500 deaths among the clashing groups, Muslims and Hindus. Using this recent national tragedy as backdrop, Khalid Mohamed’s Fiza, a Bollywood production populated mostly by Hindu actors playing Muslims, centers on a Muslim family, a widow (warmly played by Jaya Bhaduri), her son, Amaan, and her daughter, Fiza. One night, Amaan joins friends in the street and participates in a riot; caught up in the frenzy, he kills a Hindu and vanishes. His mother and sister patiently await his return, but, when he still hasn’t shown up six years later, Fiza begins searching him out. Part of a terrorist group now, the boy she finds is not quite the same one she recalls, and great difficulties befall the family once she has brought him home. Eventually, Amaan’s mother commits suicide, as does Amaan, by proxy, with Fiza herself pulling the trigger.
This is a typical Bollywood film, although during its nearly three-hour length characters burst into song and dance a little less frequently than in other Hindu films. It scarcely matters. Fiza trivializes civil strife in India as relentlessly as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) trivializes the Holocaust. Mohamed has written (along with Javed Siddiqui) and directed a glossy entertainment that converts genuine human misery into soap opera. Like most sentimental films, it is extraordinarily unfeeling. Now and then a significant detail crops up (such as the later Amaan’s wearing a leather jacket, implying that his passage into Islamic terrorism has, ironically, separated him from his faith and its mores), but nothing once lit upon is sounded out and explored. The result is far more superficial than even Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming et al., 1939).
There is something else, just below the surface—the one thing in the film that is below the surface. Although the script is careful to give Fiza a loyal boyfriend, her obsession with her brother sparkles with an air of incest whose only resolution, it appears, arrives when, at his behest as authorities close in on him, she turns on him his phallic gun. There is nothing wrong with brother-sister incest in cinema; it is Fiza’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of these currents (or undercurrents) that becomes ridiculous after a while. Mohamed should have been at least so honest as to clarify that Amaan’s flight from home, along with his plunge into political struggle, may have been partly motivated by his desire to ensure that no incest was consummated between himself and Fiza. As it is, with all this familial sexual stuff hanging in the air, the tone of the film accumulates into a smirk. One wonders whether its implicit slander on the Muslim family is conscious or unconscious on Mohamed’s part—or, as a third alternative, something he simply unwittingly backed into. It should be noted that the siblings are played by two sexy, glamorous young stars, Hrithik Roshan and Karisma Kapoor—actors from whom Indian audiences would normally expect a rush of romance between their characters.
Like most Bollywood films, this one entertains. So what? Certainly we go to the cinema to see works that do more—much more—than that.