By Rachit Raj

With Mee Raqsam, director Baba Azmi and producer Shabana Azmi intend to pay a tribute to their father, the great Urdu poet and lyricist Kaifi Azmi. The film is not the story of his life, but a story of a father who stands tall against religious extremism for the sake of his daughter’s happiness, often without realizing the magnitude of his actions. It captures the essence of Azmi – a sense of his ideologies and the political voice and weaves that voice into the narrative, to create a film that is soft, harmless, and for the most part likeable.

The story follows Mariam (Aditi Subedi), a teenage girl who deals with the loss of her mother by pursuing her passion for dancing. Her father, Salim (Danish Husain), a tailor, enrols her in a Bharatnatyam class, triggering a rupture in the social fabric of Mijwan, a small town in U.P., which was also Kaifi Azmi’s hometown. Fanatics from both sides start to accuse Salim of being ignorant and insensitive to his religion. To study Bharatnatyam, which is perceived as a Hindu dance form by the Islamic extremists, is an insult to Islam. With threats of social boycott looming hard, Salim’s love for his daughter is put to test.

At its core, the story of Mee Raqsam is a dramatic one. In places, the drama becomes a little obvious and almost staged, but largely Baba Azmi maintains a sense of restrain in his narrative. Despite a heavy presence of religious fanaticism, the story remains rooted in the relationship of the father and daughter, who fight hate, bias, and isolation together.

Mee Raqsam benefits heavily from the performances that the director gets out of his actor. Danish Husain as the loving, unnerving father is wonderful, especially in scenes where he stands as a pillar of courtesy and hospitality in the face of hate, isolation, and social and professional boycott. His eyes carry a blend of pain and determination. He values his religion, but not the men who have become self-designed voices of Allah; he loves his daughter, and realizes that the only right there is for him is to make his daughter happy. He is a man of simple values, but what makes him extraordinary is his belief in his values, despite the hate around him. As Mariyam, Aditi Subedi is innocent, soft, and palpable enough to come across as convincing.

But it is Naseeruddin Shah in the role of a regressive patron of Islam who shines the most, despite a presence that is credited as a guest appearance. Shah, much like in his previous appearance in Bandish Bandits, does something with a simple narrative and elevates it briefly into something special simply by the gaze of his eyes. It is a privilege seeing him on screen, and despite a well-trimmed role, one wishes to see more of his rage, simply because it is him essaying this role.

Mee Raqsam is a delicate story of a father-daughter duo, that makes some pertinent arguments about an increasing division of art forms into religion, and the need for integration, to realize that Bharatnatyam is as much a part of the Indian culture as ghazals and shayari. The film is an ode to people who stand against such divisive thinking, in the process paying a tribute to the man who rose from Mijwan and became a harsh critic of religious dogmatism, and an advocate of liberalism.

(Now Streaming on Zee5)