Toronto International Film Festival

CHENNI, India -- The film is yet another look at terror, though this time it is one unleashed by majority Hindus on minority Muslims in the Western Indian State of Gujarat in early 2002.

The official version says 3,000 mostly Muslims were butchered, but the number could well be higher in what the world termed "genocide."  Das and Kothari have written a script that goes beyond the dramatic: it is a terrifying account, fictionalized out of a "1000 true tales." Four stories unfold, and the players if at all connected to one another, it is through an overwhelming sense of loss and fear. A marvelous first effort by Das -- often described as a thinking actress whose oeuvre includes the works of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Deepa Mehta and Jag Mundhra -- the film will with its art-house appeal travel to many festivals, but may not exactly set the box-office on fire.

The opening shot of a Muslim gravedigger and his nephew burying tens of unclaimed bodies takes us into a deeply disturbing scenario. The movie will close with the same digger resting at a temporary camp for all those whose homes were torched, but this time he would be joined by a little lad, Mohsin, (Mohammad Samad), who witnesses the rape and killing of his mother among others.

The horror of bigotry, bordering on viciousness, and the sense of hopelessness stare at us from innumerable frames. Musician Khan Saheb (Naseeruddin Shah), bent with age, rues the futility of the Hindu-Muslim feud when he says that no music can hope to calm this rage and malevolence. His resignation is total. Sameer Shaikh (Sanjay Suri), a well-to-do businessman married to a Hindu, Anuradha Desai (Tisca Chopra), has packed his bags and ready to relocate in New Delhi, where he feels he would be free of fright and panic.

"Yes I have no balls," he tells a family gathering. But autorickshaw-driver, Hanif (Nowaz), whose house has been burnt down, would rather find a gun and shoot the perpetrators of the crime, and his wife, Muneera (Shahana Goswami), is anguished, angry and abusive, but she fears for his life. On the other side of the spectrum is a radical Hindu, Sanjay (Paresh Rawal), whose brutality on his tolerant and caring wife, Arati (Deepti Naval), is matched by his loathing for Muslims. He has no qualms about looting an upmarket store whose partner is a Muslim.

Production values are decent, and most performances top rate, but had the stories been firmly knitted together the film would have made a better impact. A feeling of disjointedness pervades. Though Shah as usual excels, his story is the weakest and appears to be out of sync with the other segments held together, though tenuously, by trepidation.

Production company: Percept Picture Company
Cast:  Naseeruddin Shah, Paresh Rawal, Deepti Naval, Sanjay Suri, Tisca Chopra, Shahana Goswami, Nowaz and Mohammad Samad
Director: Nandita Das
Writers: Nandita Das and Shuchi Kothari
Producer: Shailendra Singh
Director of photography: Ravi K. Chandran
Music: Rajat Dholakia and Piyush Kanojia
Costume designer:  Vaishali Menon
Art director: Gautam Sen
Editor: Sreekar Prasad            
No MPAA rating, 101 minutes