It happened years ago, but it’s hard to forget. Munzir Naqvi’s Hindi teacher at school upbraided him for saying “mushkil” instead of “kathin” and “insaan” instead of “manushya”. The use of synonyms for difficulty and human, respectively, might have made the vocabulary expansive, but were criticised by the teacher for being part of a “Pakistani language”.

The engineered demonisation of Urdu is the theme of Naqvi’s debut feature. Sehar follows the travails of Mahendra Nath Kaul, an Urdu professor at a college in Lucknow. Kaul grapples with problems within and outside the classroom. Faced with diminishing enrolment, poor funding, and a general belief that a degree in Urdu isn’t suited for the workplace, Kaul struggles to save his course from closure.

Beyond the college walls, deep-rooted prejudice against Urdu and rising Islamophobia ensures that Urdu is seen as the language of “Muslims and Pakistanis”. The Nastaliq script in which Urdu is written, which resembles Arabic, leads to a nasty incident between one of Kaul’s supporters and a mob. Kaul’s advocacy of Urdu as the language of poetry and literature, high-mindedness and love, increasingly fall on deaf ears, and he is accused of being a “Pakistan lover”.

Pankaj Kapur in Sehar (2021). Courtesy Golden Ratio Films.

Apart from the incident from his childhood, Naqvi drew on other memories and personal experiences. The 35-year-old filmmaker was raised in the Kashmiri Mohalla neighbourhood in Lucknow, so known because of the Kashmiri Pandits who settled here decades ago, he said. Here, until recently, Hindus and Muslims alike separated the language from faith without qualms and reservations, he added.

Naqvi’s family includes Urdu writers and litterateurs, such as his great-great-grandfather, Sayed Asghar Hussain Fakhir and satirist Sagar Khayyami. Finally, the film also touches upon the predicament forced upon Muslims in recent times, where every element of their identity – from what they call their parents to how they dress and pray – is under vitriolic attack.

“Some Urdu speakers have become embarrassed with speaking the language, and this has been going on for years,” Naqvi told The government-supported Urdu Academy has been powerless to halt the decline, he added.

Munzir Naqvi.

Sehar was written over a decade ago. In 2015, Naqvi met Pankaj Kapur through the film’s cinematographer, Dharam Gulati. “Pankaj Kapur saab was my first choice for the film – he also happens to speak Urdu very well,” said Naqvi, who has previously worked as an editor with television channels and has directed the short film Dhabba (The Stain). Kapur also starred in another movie titled Sehar (The Morning) from 2005, led by Arshad Warsi.

Finding a producer proved to be the biggest challenge. Finally in 2018, Golden Ratio Films, whose productions include The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir and Bhonsle, stepped in to back Seher. The cast includes Meghna Malik, Raj Zutshi, Suneel Sinha and Sharib Hashmi.

“Kapur saab told my producer, you are doing Urdu a service (khidmat),” Naqvi recalled. The 97-minute movie is now waiting to hear back from film festivals.

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