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 headed for release on May 31.
Imam, who hails from Varanasi, says the cultural fabric of his city has always been secular. “Many Muslim localities in Banaras have their entrances facing the Ganga. Growing up, I have seen men of my community offering namaaz on the ghats,” he recalls. A former journalist, Imam 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, where things are said fearlessly, without twisting words. I am influenced by filmmakers Satyajit Ray and Majid Majidi, who have made great cinema.”
On a visit to his hometown some years back, Imam was inspired to make a documentary on nakkasi (manual metal engraving). However, none of the practicing craftsmen, a majority being Muslims, agreed to sit down for interviews. Several feared persecution or loss of livelihood. 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 about communal issues, I fear they have forgotten inclusivity of their culture,” says the worried filmmaker. He 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.
“During those years, several clips on politicians making inflammatory speeches against minorities were circulated. It created an environment of fear among Muslims who worked at Hindu establishments. A lot of hate and mistrust that was invisible got a visible shape.”With Nakkash, Zaigham hopes to open up conversation on Hindu-Muslim unity. He says artists in India have no reason to lose faith and should pursue their craft fearlessly.