Director: Kaushal Oza
Writers: Kaushal Oza, Aslam Parvez, Babar Imam, Ashish Pandey
Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Rasika Dugal, Raj Arjun, Padmavati Rao, Uday Chandra
Cinematographer: Kumar Saurabh
Editor: Amit Malhotra
Streaming on: Royal Stag Barrel Select Large Short Films (Youtube)
I have great affection for the Naseeruddin Shah we see on screens today. There's an antiquity and artfulness to his advancing age, a bit like Anthony Hopkins, almost as if growing old is not the fading of life so much as the souvenir of living. The roles they do reflect this blurred line between performing and being, actor and person. Watching them often reveals that preserving time is a part of feeling it pass. In Kaushal Oza's 29-minute short, The Miniaturist of Junagadh, Naseeruddin Shah pulls on this elite oldness to play an artist stranded at the intersection of history and humanity. It is 1947, the Partition of India and Pakistan, and his Muslim character, Husyn Naqqash, must relinquish his family home in the princely state of Junagadh – an accumulation of a lifetime of moments – to a hard-hearted Hindu man, Kishorilal (Raj Arjun), and leave for Karachi. At the twilight of his life, he is being forced into a dusk that imitates a dawn.
Husyn has long lost his eyesight. Yet, he wears his blindness as a badge of honour, and a 'reward' for expending all his vision on art. A lover of language, music and, of course, painting, the retired miniaturist from the Nawab's palace once made brushstrokes out of the past – his canvas captured the milestones of the Mughal rule – but now stands at the brink of becoming history himself. Kishorilal is not just buying the house; he is inheriting everything in it, including Husyn's beloved gramophone and priceless collection of paintings. The film is about Husyn's last day in his house – his museum of memories – with his wife Sakina (Padmavati Rao) and daughter Nurhayat (Rasika Dugal), even as Kishorilal arrives with the documents that will make him the owner, and bulldozer, of their cemented roots. What follows is a tender little dance between the old and the new, the personal and political, loss and nostalgia, and most of all, identity and culture. Adapted from Stefal Zweig's short story, Die Unsichtbare Sammlung, The Miniaturist of Junagadh is a portrait of the chasm between the India that was and the India we failed to become. In a way, the period short puts into perspective the deconstructive surgery that extracted both the heart from the home and the home from the heart.
Some of the details stand out. For instance, the use of mirrors in the lived-in, green-walled house is extensive, not just as a religious mirror-image metaphor, but also as a visual depiction of a home's immeasurable space and depth. One of my favourite shots of the year so far features a mirror-ception of sorts: Kishorilal admires himself in a mirror while waiting, and he catches a glimpse of the old man in the mirror as a reflection in another mirror behind him – which is to say, Husyn is tottering around the room in front of him. It's the first time the two men meet. This is not a showy shot, because it ties into the inextricable relationship between Husyn and the contours of his home. It could well be the perfect poster for the film.
Then there's also the 'sensory' language. All five senses are woven into the texture of the film. It opens with Husyn not seeing but smelling and tasting his wife's tea, which he feels is the consequence of where they live rather than who they are. He loves hearing music on his old gramophone, and one of the best moments of the film is rooted in Husyn's ability to identify his miniatures by touch alone. The score, too, is a perfect rendition of melancholy and missing. Not everything works, though. Raj Arjun has been typecast as a one-note Cruel Man (Islamophobe in this case), and his character is established after he tells a tongawala to go to Pakistan. Sounds familiar, but looks lazy. I didn't buy into the device of the wife, Sakina, dropping ink on the documents only so that Kishorilal returns at night – which is when the house looks more cinematic with candlelight and voiceovers.
These false notes notwithstanding, the cast does a fine job of embodying a time that's at once small and big – the family is a microcosm of a nation that's at the cusp of both birth and death. Some of the Urdu dialogue lays on the lyricism a bit too thick, but it also lends a sense of identity to a film with characters struggling to retain theirs. Husyn speaks in a way that makes it seem as if the sound of his own Urdu is the only thing he might soon have left. It is his dissent, without him knowing it. He moves in a way that conveys the drying of ink on new maps. He climbs onto the tonga in a way that suggests he is expecting to return and buy back his home once, in his words, the leaders finish playing their politics. Little did he know that, 75 years on, he is still being asked to leave.