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Arbab Ahmad was that kid growing up — the one whose frame would be hunkered by his camera, shooting constantly what is around him; a third eye that helped temper the world into coherence for the first pair. Ahmad has been shooting footage, composing the world into frames, since he was 14 years old, making those around him more comfortable with the leering, extractive gaze of a camera; they react to it as an extension to him. It seemed logical, then, that for his first feature length documentary, Insides And Outsides, he would turn his camera onto himself and his family, sharpening the conical spotlight on their histories, and splicing together flyaway fragments to tell the story of a world withering away.
The film, which won an award for Best Editing at the recently-concluded 15th edition of the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK), is a shape-shifting exploration of Muslim identity in contemporary India. Sometimes in Urdu, sometimes in English, stitched together with home videos, photographs, archival footage, animation and projections, Insides And Outsides is an explosion of form, trying to outline the history of his parents, Rubina Rahman and SMK Rahman, while giving voice to the dissent that erupted in 2019, with the protests surrounding the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Arbab was studying at the National Institute Of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, “a very divided city, haunted by its own pogroms”, when Shaheen Bagh erupted against the CAA and NRC, with strange, violent incursions clawing into Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Jamia Millia Islamia. He felt “stuck” in Ahmedabad and started shooting local protests without any definite purpose. Eventually, he moved back to Delhi, just as it was time for his father to retire and leave the campus of Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT Delhi). These migrations dot the landscape of the film against the backdrop of the uproar over CAA and NRC. In a phone conversation with Film Companion, Ahmad spoke about three pivotal scenes from Insides and Outsides.
Arbab walks into the frame from the left. There is a mic to the right, and a strong backlight. He sits down, his silhouette becoming like a shadow puppet, and begins narrating a litany of Muslim names and the circumstances of their lynching: Ashfaq Hussain, Mehtab Khan, Zakir Ahmed, Mehboob Ali, Mohammad Akhlaq, Faizan, Mohammad Khaleel Alam Rizvi.
In the background, someone knocks on the door and calls for Arbab. It’s his mother. She bangs on the door, louder and louder. The timbre of the sound becomes more and more shrill as his mother calls out “Arbab”, again and again.
Arbab Ahmad: Emotionally, I conceived this scene as a whole, not as pieces. I was trying to understand what a doom-scroll does to a person. The banging is a separate layer of sound. My mom’s calling is a separate layer. My reading is a separate layer. I, then, constructed it as a crescendo. It was this feeling I felt which I wanted to communicate.
Can you take a personal narrative and shoehorn it into a larger political stand? I get the statement “the personal is the political”, but what are the ramifications of that? Does my personal life, then, become a political landscape for people to look at and comment on? As a Muslim in India I don’t want to only be identified as a Muslim in India, but, then, I don’t have an option.
The Ahmad family is in the midst of their relocation. Arbab follows his father with his camera as the older man walks into the kitchen. “Yeh kya hamara aakhri nashta ban raha hai yahan pe?” Arbab’s question is flung into the scene with all the cheekiness of firecracker. His father says no, that there will be breakfast tomorrow as well. His mother and sister, at work at the stove, laugh. “The stove has to go. The packers leave at 8am tomorrow morning,” Arbab’s sister says, schooling their father. So yes, this is the last breakfast. A short, comically charming interaction regarding a cheese slice ensues, pushing laughter to the surface and letting the wistfulness of farewells that are coming too soon (at least for Arbab’s father) settle below the chatter.
AA: It is not rare for things like this to happen in my house. My family’s dynamics are very much present in the film, and I was just in the mode of shooting, shooting constantly. Things like this kept happening.
My parents have been part of the creative process of this film. I have shown them each cut. They have written lines for the film. There were bits where they felt they were represented poorly or it was coming out weirdly. There were a lot of discussions around that. I enjoyed making the film with them.
Arbab’s parents have moved into the new house. His father and mother are lounging on a bed, looking through photographs. Over the scene is an audio of a conversation, when Arbab, again playing trigger point, asks them why they have not hung a nameplate outside their new house even though they had one in their old house? His father rationalises that the new house is “road-facing” and that it could be marked as a Muslim home by anyone. “Aa bel mujhe maar, na ho,” he says, referring to the Hindi colloquialism that suggests one has effectively asked for it. What is the need of putting the name outside, he asks. The mother disagrees: “Main apni identity chhupana nahin chahti (I don’t want to hide my identity).” Arbab enters the frame, sits with them as they flip through photographs.
AA: The culmination of the film was difficult. The initial ending was very different. It was along the lines of ‘everything will be okay in the end’, ending it with normal footage of a day in their life, in the new house; life goes on; things will be fine. I showed it to my Muslim cousins and friends and they felt my message and my stand fizzled out towards the end. The impetus, then, was to make a more succinct and relevant ending. This frame, of the three of us together, came from that.
It was constructed, definitely, where I asked them to be in this particular posture. I didn’t tell them I would enter the frame. The interview, where I asked them about the name on the house, was something that came in much later. I wanted to bring us back to the reality of the situation, so I could leave the audience with a feeling that I was feeling, so I looked at them, joined them. That is an image I wanted to leave people with.