Mee Raqsam (I Dance) is based on a beautiful premise: freedom is the essence of all art — freedom from restrictions, from religious and gendered boundaries, class and other social divides. From this basic thread is woven the fabric of this film about a Muslim schoolgirl, daughter of a poor tailor in Azamgarh’s Mijwan village, who wants to learn Bharatanatyam.
Written by Safdar Mir and Husain Mir, Mee Raqsam is conceptualised, produced and directed by Baba Azmi, presented by his superstar sister Shabana and as the opening text on screen tells us, is a tribute to their late father, writer Kaifi Azmi, who hoped for a film to be made some day in his home village. It is fitting that the great Kaifisaab’s children have chosen to fulfill his dream with the saga of a father ensuring that his daughter fulfills hers.
Mee Raqsam is all heart, considerable thought but ordinary execution in terms of characterisation and production.
Every individual in the plot is uni-dimensional — the good Muslim father, the gutsy Muslim daughter, the good Hindu teacher, the regressive Muslim town elders, the manipulative Hindu heavyweight and so on — and not one of them sets a foot outside their designated slot in the screenplay as young Maryam (Aditi Subedi) and her Dad Salim (Danish Husain) are socially ostracised when she pursues her ambition with his blessing.
This is not to suggest that the happenings in the story are improbable, impossible or exaggerated. Not at all. The obduracy of the Muslim community, the resentment of the Hindu community and the open-mindedness of individuals from both qaums as depicted in this film are realistic, accurate and believable. Yes, even that man who keeps addressing Maryam as Sultana because he cannot be bothered enough to remember her name since she never rises above being “a Mohammedan girl” to become just a human being in his eyes. If you are inclined to dismiss this element in the film, do check with the Salmans and Alis of India who routinely get called “Mohammed” by forgetful acquaintances because y’know, “Muslim-Muslim, ek hi toh baat hai” (same thing)” or ask an Anna if she is randomly called Mary and Nancy.
Having come thus far though, Mee Raqsam is unable to take its point much further. The characters in the film are all black and white, and it does not help that apart from the actors listed at the start of this review, most of the rest are stiff as cardboard.
Danish Husain as Salim injects empathy into his performance as does Sudeepta Singh playing Maryam’s dance guru, despite the average writing and direction. Naseeruddin Shah as the conservative and dictatorial Hashim Seth is effective. Aditi Subedi, whose Maryam is the fulcrum of the plot, is good enough in the acting department but as a dancer is efficient, not remarkable. And Farrukh Jafar is wasted in a tiny, not particularly impactful part just weeks after we witnessed her brilliance in full spate as one of the main players in Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo.
Mee Raqsam has a lot to say, but it does not say enough. At one point, a teacher describes devotion and faith as essentials of Bharatanatyam, and the film does explore the possibility of adapting it to faiths other than Hinduism. What is left out though is the question of whether an art form rooted in religious practices cannot be embraced as art for art’s sake alone by the irreligious, the agnostic and the atheist. Obviously it can be and is in the real world, as we know, but Mee Raqsam finds no space for that crucial and tricky discussion.
(Also read: Gunjan Saxena, Thappad, Panga, and the rise of the male ally in Hindi cinema)
Like most films about parents who are ambitious for their daughters, this one too restricts itself to a liberal father. In the recent — and otherwise truly lovely — Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, Pankaj Tripathi played the Dad every girl ought to grow up with while the heroine’s mother vehemently opposed her child’s goal of becoming a pilot. 2015’s Nil Battey Sannata starring Swara Bhasker and Riya Shukla is that rare Hindi film about a mother who is ambitious for her daughter. In Mee Raqsam the mother is killed off within the first few minutes so that Maryam and Salim are left alone to face their intransigent people. In the opening moments, the lady’s enthusiasm for Bharatanatyam is made evident, it is she who introduces Maryam to mudras and at one point Salim describes Maryam as her late Ammi’s “bahadur beti” (brave daughter).
Mee Raqsam would have been so much more than what it is if it had delved into how Mum learnt dance, her goals for herself and where she envisioned her girl going with it. Little purpose is served by getting rid of her in the screenplay and if the aim was to show a single parent, then writing a single father rather than a single mother is a cop-out. The widowered man backing his daughter in this traditionalist setting is far easier to write than a widow supporting her daughter since the latter would have faced much more resistance and aggression than Maryam and Salim do.
That being said, Mee Raqsam does visit an important theme and would have been significant if it weren’t for its average production quality and technical treatment. Considering that it has been directed by cinematographer Baba Azmi whose credits include the iconic Mr. India, it is surprising that even the framing of the Bharatanatyam performance in the finale by DoP Mohsin Khan Pathan is nothing to write home about. The journey from progressive thoughts to good cinema is a long one, and Mee Raqsam, courageous though it is, has not made it.
Mee Raqsam is streaming on ZEE5.
Rating: 1.75 stars