People fighting on social media have forgotten about inclusivity: Director Zaigham Imam
A Muslim craftsman struggles to save a decades-old tradition in Zaigham Imam's new film, Nakkash
Director Zaigham Imam’s new film, Nakkash, looks at the life of Muslim craftsmen working at Hindu temples in Varanasi. The film, which stars Inaamulhaq in the lead role, contrasts the cultural diversity of Varanasi with the communal tensions in the city. Kumud Mishra plays the forward-thinking trustee of a centuries-old temple, while Rajesh Sharma portrays a local policeman. The film was screened at the 71st Cannes Film Festival last year and is set for release on Friday.
Zaigham, who hails from Varanasi, says the cultural fabric of his city has always been secular. “There are many Muslim localities in Benaras that have their entrances face towards the Ganga. Growing up, I have seen men of my community offering namaaz on the ghats,” he recalls.
A former journalist, Zaigham has previously authored two books and directed the films, Dozakh in Search of Heaven (2015) and Alif (2016). Religious identity and communal harmony have emerged as key themes in his work, a preoccupation he traces back to his journalistic career. “I like to think of my films as an extension of journalism. They say things directly and fearlessly, without twisting words. I am hugely influenced by filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Majid Majidi who have made great social cinema.”
On a visit to his hometown some years back, the director was inspired to make a documentary on nakkasi (manual metal engraving). However, none of the practising craftsmen, a majority of them Muslim, agreed to sit down for interviews. Several of them feared persecution or loss of livelihood, Zaigham notes. As such, he decided to extend the idea into a feature film and use it comment on the changing political landscape of India. “When I see people on social media fighting on communal issues, I fear they have forgotten the inclusivity of their culture," he says.
The filmmaker contends that religious tensions in Varanasi, as well as the rest of Uttar Pradesh, are politically motivated, and can be traced back to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the early 90s. “I remember during those years, several clips would be circulated of politicians making inflammatory speeches against minorities. It created an environment of fear among Muslims who worked at Hindu establishments. A lot of hate and mistrust that was invisible got visible shape.”
With Nakkash, Zaigham hopes to open up a conversation on Hindu-Muslim unity. He says artists in India have no reason to lose faith and should pursue their craft fearlessly. “We released the trailer in the middle of elections. The censor board did not raise objections. I had a smooth run shooting the film as well. It just goes to show that things aren’t as bad as they are made out to be. Art and dissent survived in Japan even after World War II. How can it not survive in the India of today?”