Hamid: Unsung Humanist, an hour-long documentary about Muslim social reformer Hamid Dalwai, opened to packed halls during its public shows at the National Film Archives of India in Pune on Sunday.

Directed by Jyoti Subhash and Omkar Achyut Barve, the documentary traces Dalwai’s life, from his birth in an orthodox Muslim family to his journey as a leading reformer in the 1960s and ’70s. The documentary features film and theatre veteran Naseeruddin Shah, Marathi actress Amruta Subhash (Jyoti Subhash’s daughter) and Hamid Dabholkar, the son of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, who was killed on August 20, 2013.

Hamid Dalwai, who died of progressive kidney failure aged 44 in 1977, organised the first-ever march in India against triple talaq, a practice in Islamic law that allows men to divorce their wives after saying “talaq” thrice. The historic April 8, 1966 rally in Mumbai also campaigned against polygamy and nikah halala, a religious law that requires a woman to marry another man and consummate the union if she wants to reconcile with her husband after divorce.

Hamid Dalwai’s efforts paid off in part on August 2017, when the Supreme Court of India declared instant triple talaq to be unconstitutional. The court has also agreed to examine the validity of polygamy and nikah halala.

Subhash, a veteran Marathi stage and film actor, decided to make her directorial debut with a film about Dalwai in 2016, when the reformer was posthumously honoured at an award function. “I was present for the programme. That is when I had started to think what can be done on the life of Dalwai,” she told Scroll.in.

Raised in family of socialists, Subhash said her house was frequented by Dalwai and other pioneering thinkers. Dalwai had also authored several books, including the fiction works, Indhan (Fuel) and Laat (The Wave), and non-fiction works, Muslim Politics in Secular India, Islamche Bhartiya Chitra (Indian Portrait of Islam) and Rashtriya Ekatmata aani Bhartiya Musalman (National Integration and Indian Muslim). Subhash read some of these books during her college years, but immersed herself in all his literature before making the documentary. “I was in awe with his rational thinking and fascinating way of writing, his demand for equality for Muslim women,” she said. “It is all exceptional.”

In the documentary, Shah, Amruta Subhash and Hamid Dhabolkar take viewers to Mirjoli, the village in Ratnagiri where Dalwai was born. The trio trace Dalwai’s early life and work through conversations with people he associated with. Among the interviewees is his brother and Congress party Member of Parliament Husain Dalwai.

Explaining the decision to cast the three, she said, “Naseer himself is a thinker, writer and rationalist. He, like Dalwai, was raised in orthodox Muslim family. His presence has benefited the documentary immensely. Amruta Subhash and Hamid Dabholkar are aware that art is a medium to create social awareness. Moreover, Narendra Dabholkar named his son Hamid after Dalwai.”

Through their conversations, the documentary team got 53 hours of footage about Dalwai, which had to be whittled down to one hour. “Dalwai’s life was so vast that we could not include many voices though we wanted to,” she said.

Did they come across any interesting anecdotes about Dalwai? “Anwar Rajan, a social activist, said that Dalwai was invited for the condolence meeting of MS Golawalkar [he died on June 5, 1973], the second Sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,” she said. “At the meeting, Dalwai criticised the RSS, saying its values are against the Constitution. One of the activists said he was amused that Dalwai died a natural death, given his background and his progressive stand.”

Jyoti Subhash in Hamid: Unsung Humanist (2018).
Jyoti Subhash in Hamid: Unsung Humanist (2018).

This is the first film directed by Subhash, who has acted in several Marathi movies and plays. She has also appeared in the Hindi films Phoonk (2008), Aiyyaa (2012) and Pad Man (2018). Subhash said the journey of making her debut movie was not that difficult, thanks in part to her tech-savvy and young team. “All the socialists and progressive thinkers had supported this project and hence the task was not challenging,” she added.

In 1970, Hamid Dalwai set up the Muslim Satyashodhak Mandal in Pune to carry forward his campaign for religious reform. He was also a proponent of a Uniform Civil Code to replace personal laws. After his passing, his wife Mehrunissa Dalwai, also a leading reformer, spearheaded activities at the Mandal till her death in 2017. “We should be grateful to Mehrunnisa, who, after Dalwai’s death, preserved his writing and his work as she knew that was of great value,” Subhash said.

More than anything, Subhash wants the documentary to take Dalwai’s message to India’s youth. The young generation, whose lifestyle is based on technology and the internet, should understand that there was a man born in an orthodox Muslim family in a village in Konkan who later became a Muslim reformer,” she said. “He was born in 1932 and died early in 1977. Despite that, his work as a writer, thinker and reformist is so great.”

At the public screenings in Pune, Subhash was delighted to see many young people in attendance. “I am glad that the documentary’s public screening even before we go to the censor board received such a tremendous response,” she said. “We want to take the documentary to as many colleges and social organisations as possible. We are already in talks with many.”

Subhash hopes that the documentary helps spread Dalwai’s legacy further. Till now only one of his novel Indhan (Fuel) is translated in English,” she said. “I hope after watching this documentary, people will come forward to translate his [other] work that is applicable in the contemporary time as well.”