The Best Father in the World award that was bestowed on Pankaj Tripathi in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl now has to be handed over to Danish Husain for Mee Raqsam.
In Gunjan Saxena, Tripathi’s character Anup Saxena encourages his daughter to chase her dream of becoming a pilot. In Mee Raqsam, Danish Husain’s Salim goes further: he stands up against his family and community to allow his daughter to become a Bharatanatyam dancer. Accusations of blasphemy are followed by a social boycott and yet, Salim stands by his only child Maryam.
The relationship between Salim and Maryam (Aditi Subedi) is the big beating heart of cinematographer Baba Azmi’s directorial debut. Mee Raqsam (I Dance) is set in Mijwan village in Uttar Pradesh’s Zamagarh district. The production is a tribute to the filmmaker’s father, the renowned Progressive poet and lyricist Kaifi Azmi, who was born here in 1919. Mee Raqsam is dedicated to Kaifi Azmi’s vision of tolerance and social justice, which remains unfulfilled. But, as Salim often demonstrates, it is worth chasing.
Maryam’s love for dance, inculcated by her beloved late mother, shocks her relatives, dismays religious leader Hashim (Naseeruddin Shah), and brings out the anti-Muslim bigot in a patron of her dance institute. Even as the stakes are escalated, Salim remains resolute – a prince among men, found mostly in fairy tales and perfectly at home in an old-fashioned script that wants to put its characters through a series of trials before taking them to the happy ending they deserve.
The gentle tone and lack of hysteria, while welcome in a movie with heavy themes, do not quite give a full picture of the opposition faced by Salim. A dance contest, that reliable crutch used in movies to signal acceptance and legitimacy, becomes a simplistic device to solve Maryam’s problem.
The screenplay, by Safdar Mir and Husain Mir, is better with the small touches – the tender connection between father and daughter that is expressed through everyday actions and shared secrets; the ability of unprejudiced adolescents to get along better than their elders; the Bharatanatyam teacher Uma (Sudeepta Singh) who is encouraging as well as understanding of Maryam’s faith.
Baba Azmi directs his cast with ease and brings out their foibles without reducing them to caricatures. Danish Husain is in top form as this movie’s stand-in for Kaifi Azmi. Husain movingly portrays Salim’s ruffled charm as well as his inner strength when Hashim turns the screws on him. Aditi Subedi delivers a confident and sensitive performance as the teenage trailblazer Maryam. Naseeruddin Shah, cast against type as a tyrant, communicates Hashim’s pettiness through subtle changes in expression and tone.
Among the well-etched minor characters is Ashfaque (Kaustubh Shukla), a broad-minded rickshaw driver. Ashfaque has a business idea that will be a hit in the real world: sunglasses for canines, or “Goggies for Doggies”.
Also by Ashfaque: if we stop dreaming, life will be colourless. The 95-minute Mee Raqsam flirts with nightmares but settles for optimism and hope. The rebellion against intolerance is ultimately lightweight, but the relationship between Salim and Maryam runs deep and lingers long after the sound of anklets has faded.