Best film on national integration? Mahesh Bhatt's Zakhm will tug at your heartstrings

·Contributor
·7-min read

Zakhm (1998)

Director: Mahesh Bhatt

Producer: Pooja Bhatt Productions

Script: Mahesh Bhatt and Tanuja Chandra

Music: M.M. Keervani (M.M.Kreem)

Lyrics: Anand Bakshi

Dialogue: Girish Dhamija

Cast: Ajay Devgn, Pooja Bhatt, Sonali Bendre, Akshay Anand, Kunal Kemmu and Nagarjuna Akkineni

Kunal Kemmu and Pooja Bhatt in Zakhm
Kunal Kemmu and Pooja Bhatt in Zakhm

STORY:

Ajay. R. Desai (Ajay Devgn), a famed musician, is upset that his wife, Sonia (Sonali Bendre), wants to give birth to their child in England, the city of Mumbai being consumed by riots.

Just then Ajay learns his mother (Pooja Bhatt) has gone missing. He heads out only to find her in hospital, scorched by Muslim rioters, while she was stepping out of a church.

Through a flashback, Ajay recalls the excruciating life and times of his ‘unwed’ mother, who brought up his brother Anand (Akshay Anand) and him singlehandedly. A Muslim, she was in love with Hindu filmmaker Raman Desai (Nagarjuna), who couldn’t officially marry her given her religious identity. She hides her faith fearing social censure, a secret she shares only with her firstborn Ajay.

Ajay’s mother succumbs to the burns. 

However, Ajay is incumbered by politician Subodh Malgaonkar/Subodh Bhai (Ashutosh Rana), his brother’s mentor. Subodh Bhai sees Anand’s supposed ‘Hindu’ mother being killed by a Muslim miscreant as an opportunity for great political mileage…

Against this socio-political backdrop, the film’s pivot is a heartrending journey of a woman and her son, yearning for legitimisation. It also throws light on the dark mind-scape of a child, who’s a traumatised spectator of his mother’s grief.

Reviewing the film through the mother-son bond…

The credits of the film read, “For Nanabhai Bhatt and Shireen who gave me life.” 

Zakhm, reportedly, a semi-autobiographical film, is director Mahesh Bhatt’s attempt to exorcise the demons of his own childhood, where he witnessed his ‘unwed’ mother Shirin suffer (a Gujarati actress) alienation and anguish.

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Zakhm sensitively portrays the symbiotic relationship between a mother (Pooja Bhatt) and son Ajay (child actor Kunal Kemmu), as they crave for acceptance.

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Pooja Bhatt’s character and Naman Desai (Nagarjuna) love each other. Despite his true love for her, he cannot claim her as his wife (though they have got married in a mandir). A weak man, he succumbs to the emotional extortion of his prejudiced mother, who will not sanction his honourable intentions.

Naman provides for the woman he loves but that’s all. He visits the mother-son rarely, never for once removing his shoes, as a metaphor of the sparse time and attention he can afford them.

On her part, Ajay’s mother is a spiritual woman, who respects all faiths – she reveres Hindu gods and rites with as much devotion as she visits the church. She wears a mangalsutra with as much veneration as she chants Islamic verses.

Pooja Bhatt and Nagarjuna
Pooja Bhatt and Nagarjuna

“My mother was a Shia Muslim, while my father (producer Nanabhai Bhatt) was a janoi-clad man. He never pretended to be secular. What’s interesting, both retained their individual faiths. They were madly in love but neither indulged in the farce of wanting to do things the other way. My mother always wore this big tikka and saree, he liked that kind of thing,” Mahesh Bhatt reportedly said (ibtimes.com).

He also mentioned, “People don’t even know the India I come from. Stories of Shiva and Ganesha were told to me by my Muslim mother. She was the custodian of the mythology people want to preserve (indiatimes.com).”

Coming back to Zakhm, Ajay has to deal with the nastiness of schoolmates and their mothers, who dismiss him as illegitimate and his mother of ill-repute. Talking about his parents, Mahesh had reportedly called himself the ‘bastard-child of a single Muslim mother’. 

“Despite my pent-up anger, I recognised that there was a bond between my parents which had legitimacy in the heart,” he was quoted saying (indiatimes.com).

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Several scenes in the film linger like ambers of pain…

Touching is the scene when young Ajay visits his father’s office and ‘shows off’ his filmmaker dad’s ‘five lakh’ camera to his friend.

Equally affecting is the frame when he smashes the same camera learning that his father has got married to someone else.

Excruciating is the moment when Ajay calls up to check on his father and it’s picked up by his Dadi (grandmother) instead. She abuses him calling him, ‘Rakhel (mistress) ki aulad… ganda khoon’.

Compelling also is the sequence when his father, after a benevolent visit, gifts him a Ganpati idol – Ajay being extremely fond of the elephant deity.

Zakhm
Zakhm

Equally heart-breaking is the part when a disillusioned Ajay immerses it in the sea after his father fails to keep up his promise of moving in with them. “I used to sleep with a little Ganesha under my pillow as a child, he was my favourite deity. Just like Ganesha’s father, my father was a stranger to me. He was absent,” once reminisced Bhatt (hindustantimes.com).

What could be dubbed as the watershed moment is when it’s left to young Ajay to call and inform his father that his mother has given birth to his baby brother. Tragically, Naman meets with an accident on the way to the hospital.

When his mother takes Ajay along with the new-born to seek their late father’s blessings, they’re cursed by the grandmother. In a state of shock, his mother instinctively begins chanting ‘Ya Ali madad!’ and verses from Islamic scriptures. That moment Ajay realises his mother is a Muslim.

Pooja Bhatt gives an authentic performance as a woman, who lives by her heart. Inspired by her real-life grandmother, the actor once reminisced about Zakhm on Twitter mentioning, “A film where I had the privilege of playing my grandmother, Shirin Nanabhai Bhatt - a Muslim woman, who took me to Siddhivinayak temple every Tuesday & to church every Wednesday & Friday. That is the true spirit of India (sic).”

If a major portion of the film is about life’s iniquitousness towards an earnest woman, it’s even more about the injustice meted out to a fragile mind. Robbed of his childhood, Ajay’s drawn into an adult world, forced to deal with harsh emotions of humiliation and hate. Kunal Kemmu played out this cusp between child and adult with admirable restraint, winning the National Award.

The song Maa ne kaha captures his dysfunctional reality particularly the lines…

Na chand na phool hoon

Raaste ki main dhool hoon...

Ye kaisa jeevan mila

Mujhko khairaat mein…

Through this ‘riot’ of human relationships, the church bells ringing, a faint azaan from a distant mosque, chants in Sanskrit… conjure up the ambience of India where faith runs high – at times a boon, at times blasphemous.

AJAY DEVGN AS AJAY

Ajay Devgn as the adult Ajay picks up from where his child avatar leaves, his eyes carrying forward the residue of festering emotions. A musician of stature and repute, his character however is tempered with reason.

Ajay’s upset when his wife tells him, “I don’t want our child to take his first breath in a country where people kill over faith.” He counters saying, “Maa aur mulk badle nahin jaate.”

Even when his mother has faced such severity, his is the voice of sanity against his high-strung brother Anand. He tells Anand that he’s a mere pawn in the game of power. “Jab tak rakshak (protector) khud bhakshak (predator) bana rahega rashtra tarakki nahin karega,” he proclaims.

Zakhm
Zakhm

Ensnared in the nexus between law makers and law keepers, Anand finally sees the truth when his mother’s dead body is disrespected. Aided by good Samaritans, Inspector Pawar (Sharat Saxena), Muslim friend Isa (Avtar Gill), Sikh neighbour Gurdayal Singh (Saurabh Shukla) and journalist Anwar Hashmi (Madan Jain), Ajay and Anand finally give their mother an honourable burial.

In the last scene, Ajay is seen immersing his mother’s mangalsutra in the sea… thereby letting go of the sacred memories associated with it. 

Perhaps, in that he finds closure.

While Ajay Devgn won the National Award for his performance, the film won the Nargis Dutt award for Best Feature Film on National Integration.

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