The land of mystical adventures as described by the film’s protagonist Parzan to his younger sister Dilshad, is a place where the streets know no sorrow. Contrary to this paradise, is the small town of Behrampura in interior Gujarat, where the Pithawalla family resides amidst a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. This devoutly Parsi family seems to live an absolutely simple middle-class life, with Naseeruddin Shah (Cyrus) and Sarika (Shernaz) in the lead roles of father and mother to Parzan Dastur (Parzan) and Pearl Barsiwala (Dilshad). Parzania is based on true events that unfolded in the aftermath of the 2002 Godhra attacks and the subsequent riots, primarily in and around Ahmedabad.
The Pithawalla household is a happy one, with Shernaz lovingly cajoling the children out of bed for their breakfast each morning, as Cyrus gets ready to go to his workplace in a nearby theatre as a film projectionist. Despite being staunch Parsis wearing their religious Sadreh and Kusti every day, they are shown gelling with their Muslim neighbours almost effortlessly, played by Raj Zutshi and Sheeba Chadha. Small heart-warming gestures between the Pithawallas and their friends from other communities can be noted in passing, all pointing towards a very harmonious residential environment. A special mention for the authentic Parsi household that is complete with a small “atash no keblo” and a painting of Lord Zarathushtra behind the kitchen stove, an accurate depiction of an extremely traditional Parsi kitchen.
But things are hardly as hunky dory as they appear initially in the movie. The first 20 minutes, and we already start feeling the discomfort in knowing the ever-increasing divide between the Hindus and the Muslims in Gujarat in the late 90s and early 2000s – all through the lens of this unassuming New Yorker, Allan (Corin Nemec). Allan has traversed all the way to India, particularly Gujarat, to complete his PhD thesis on the life and teachings of Gandhiji. In his introduction scene, he is welcomed by an old neighbour who resembles Gandhiji in more ways than one, however through their conversation, it is evident that Allan is not much of a Gandhian himself. In most instances, he is shown having hooch and smoking up without any hesitation that he is currently residing in “the land where laid the Mahatma”. No points for guessing, he is struggling with his PhD thesis as he internally struggles with accepting the ideologies of Gandhiji.
February 27, 2002 is a date hardly any Gujarat resident would have forgotten. The gruesome attack on the Sabarmati Express in the wee hours of the morning killed nearly a hundred innocent pilgrim travellers, leaving a lot more wounded in the aftermath that followed. It took exactly 24 hours for matters to go out of hand when the Hindu Bajrang Dal (Parishad as referenced in the movie) were shown targeting all major Muslim households. What started as a regular day in Ahmedabad quickly turned into a bloodbath, with blood-hungry, saffron-clad extremists taking to the streets in large mobs. The Muslim society in Behrampura where the Pithawallas resided was unfortunately not spared either, as we see a frazzled Cyrus rushing back home on his vintage Bajaj scooter to ensure his wife and children are safe. A man who is uncertain of his family’s safety is also unaware of how callous the police were towards the mob situation, merely observing like bystanders as houses were burning and people were getting slaughtered. A scene that is riveting to the eye is when Shernaz is blocked in her verandah from both sides by the angry mob as she tries to escape with her two children, when somehow, she loses grip of Parzan’s hand and is forced to jump two storeys down with Dilshad alone. When she looks back up to find her boy, she soon realizes that he was consumed by the mob and if she waited a minute longer, her daughter might also have had to face similar fate. She manages to escape to a nearby field and hide in the bushes with a frightened Dilshad, as she is haunted by the unsightly killings of innocent Muslims all around.
In all this pandemonium, Allan witnesses the brutalities to follow the 2002 Godhra train attacks and the subsequent riots in Gujarat all too closely, to be able to draw parallels between the Hindu Parishad, a pro-religion right wing association, with the Ku Klux Klan back in the United States. As he is recovering from his own injuries, coupled with his personal experience of being subjected to domestic abuse at the hands of his father, he takes to the typewriter to channel all his anguish towards completing his dissertation. A special callout for his monologue in this scene – the relevance of the subject matter to today’s political scenario in India is uncanny yet brilliant. He is seeking answers from the system, from the police, even his Gandhian neighbour – how could this be called The Land of the Mahatma? He provides an effective narrative from a third person’s vantage point, who just like the Parsis, was on a neutral communal ground, yet got inflicted by the riots. Everyone had something to lose that horrid day.
What follows is a family’s unending quest with the local authorities to try and gather information on their missing son. Regular visits to mortuaries became a part of their routine, as they were coping with those ghastly circumstances with unswerving determination. Our heart yearns for a mother, who in the climax courtroom scene, breaks down while narrating her experience over three years of trying to make sense of what really happened to their boy. Sarika deserves all the love and appreciation for her performance, as she takes the audience through her painful recollection of all the counts where her family’s hopes and expectations from the judiciary and police went unheard. A young 10-year boy, who was probably dead by then, was the centre of attention of that courtroom, as a silent judicial bench looks towards the policemen in-charge, with their heads hung in shame. Rahul Dholakia, the director of this movie, has mentioned in many interviews thereafter, that the family is still searching for their missing boy, even if there is little or no hope left of his return today. The end credits feature an image of the real Azhar Mody (Parzan) which reiterates the fact that Parzania might have been a figment of his imagination, but the movie unfortunately was based on real incidents. How we wish it were the other way round!
Disclaimer: The above review solely illustrates the views of the writer.