Can cinema be the ultimate healer? Filmistaan asks this question. It's a lovely little film made in 2012 that sadly not enough people saw. It was the debut feature of Nitin Kakkar who went on to direct Mitron, Notebook and more recently Jawaani Jaaneman.
The story, also written by Nitin, features Bollywood, India-Pakistan rivalry, religion, terrorism. Nitin blends these threads skillfully so that grim reality sits alongside magical moments in which cinema softens callous hearts. Filmistaan is about a wannabe actor Sunny who becomes an AD on a documentary film being made by a foreign crew at the border. Jihadis arrive hoping to nab a Westerner but they end up taking Sunny instead. He is then incarcerated in a village in Pakistan.
The title Filmistaan is revealing – cinema allows the audience to momentarily forget whether they are Hindustani or Pakistani
It's a horrific situation but Sunny's inherent good nature won't let him be miserable for long. He is, as he puts it, a born entertainer. And the charms of Bollywood have penetrated even into the ramshackle home where Sunny is being held – the local family, forced at gunpoint to look after Sunny and the Jihadis who guard him, includes the movie pirate Aftaab. Aftaab's business might be selling copies of porn and Bollywood but he dreams of someday becoming a director. Inevitably, Sunny and Aftaab become friends. Sunny is so endearing that the villagers come to see his 'nek dil.' Soon Aftaab is trying to help him escape and Aftaab's father is beseeching the terrorists to spare his life.
This story could have veered into sentimental drama but Nitin keeps it on track by injecting timely doses of comedy. He mines Sunny's awful plight for humor but he doesn't let us forget what the stakes are. So at one point, the Jihadis need Sunny to make a hostage video but they don't know how to use the camera equipment. So Sunny volunteers to direct it himself. He sagely tells his captors: Film chahe jaisi bhi ho, dil se banani chahiye. In another scene, the villagers are watching a pirated print of Maine Pyar Kiya and mid-way, the sound goes off. Sunny sits next to the player and mouths the lines – because of course he knows all the dialogue.
This story could have veered into sentimental drama but Nitin Kakkar keeps it on track by injecting timely doses of comedy
The title Filmistaan is revealing – cinema allows the audience to momentarily forget whether they are Hindustani or Pakistani. They belong to Filmistaan. Through the film, Nitin underlines the tragedy of borders – when Sunny is first kidnapped, he doesn't realize that he's in Pakistan. He says: Ghar khana peena sab same hai pata kaise chalega? Later he dreams of a time when the countries unite and Sachin Tendulkar can play alongside Shahid Afridi because who could defeat that team? He says: Sab ek hi mitti ke toh hain yaar. The dialogue has been written by Sharib Hashmi, who is the soul of the film.
Sharib imbues Sunny with a guileless enthusiasm and generosity. This man has affection for the entire world. But he's no buffoon. There's a heart-breaking scene in which Sunny says to Aftaab that he knows that he's a bad actor but he can't help himself. Sharib does this with such empathy and precision that he makes you want to forgive all the bad actors you have endured. Inaamulhaq brings a similar warmth to Aftaab. There's also Kumud Mishra as the steely terrorist Mehmood and Gopal Dutt as his aide Jawaad.
These are men on opposite sides of faiths, borders and beliefs. Filmistaan isn't coy about what this means – there are guns and deaths. And yet, the film insists, what really matters are the ties that bind. Like Salman Khan and Sunny Deol.
Filmistaan is a celebration of cinema and all that cinema reveals of our shared humanity. You can watch the film on YouTube.