The Miniaturist of Junagadh–Deafening Silences and Blank Canvases

Kaushal Oza’s short film is a gently crafted meditation on grief, identity and art

Garam Hawa, the tour de force of Partition cinema, had Salim Mirza persevering till the end to stay in India despite being driven out of his ancestral “haveli” and the members of his family gradually leaving for Karachi. Mirza also had charges of espionage slapped against him, and his business took a turn for the worse when the banks and moneylenders refused to provide him a loan.  But The Miniaturist of Junagadh, a short film chronicling a vignette from the story of a similarly upper middle class Muslim family during the Partition of India and Pakistan, establishes at the outset that they are packing their bags. 

The tonga driver in Garam Hawa, who takes Salim Mirza to his factory after the latter has seen his elder sister off on a train leaving for Karachi, remarks, “Many flowering trees are being uprooted. They’ll wither in these scorching winds, if they’re not uprooted”. But, there is hope in his statement; he is the one taking people to the station and yet does not plan to leave himself. He is a loquacious man with strong opinions. He quotes shayars and speaks in his distinct rhythmic cadence underscored with a brooding, latent sadness. The tonga driver in the beginning of The Miniaturist of Junagadh, on the other hand, is deprived of words. On top of the vicissitudes of old age, he shoulders an extra burden as an “outsider” in a country where he probably inherited his profession from his ancestors as well. Being paid unfairly for his services by a Hindu man about to buy a leaving Muslim’s “haveli”, is part of his inheritance, too. A deafening silence and a poignant stare are all he’s got when told to keep quiet. His gaze welling with the emptiness of defeat, his mouth pregnant with pauses and all those words which should not be uttered, linger in front of the camera—too excruciating an image to shake off from your memory. The two movies drive towards distinct destinations—Junagadh will have its characters not only withered, but also uprooted. 

The film recounts the Naqqash family’s last day in Junagadh, selling off their ancestral home to Kishorilal (Raj Arjun), an opportunist, whose sole intention is to buy the house with all its belongings — the antique settees and mahogany tables along with other family heirlooms. But when he gets to know that Husyn Naqqash (Naseeruddin Shah) was the chief miniaturist in the erstwhile nawab’s court whose paintings are immensely valuable, his interest in Husyn’s paintings is piqued. The shrewd businessman Kishorilal knows that he can take home an even larger bounty at the same price. Huysn’s wife (Padmavati Rao) and the daughter (Rasika Duggal) are visibly tensed and try to resist him from seeing the miniatures which further fan the flames of his curiosity. Kishorilal ends up becoming privy to a secret the mother-daughter duo have been carefully guarding from Husyn, who has lost his eyesight permanently owing to the intricate nature of his art. However, the miniatures Kishorilal ends up seeing are nothing but blank canvases described earnestly and vividly by Husyn.

Husyn sees the loss of his eyesight as the ultimate veracity of his sublime devotion to this art, the final proof of an incomparable master. His blindness is both literal and metaphorical. First, he is unaware of the fact  that his paintings have been sold off by his family to buy sporadic peace from marauding rioters. Second, Husyn’s loss of vision almost seems to be referring to Salim Mirza’s blind faith in his country, and his refusal to accept the murky nature of reality. Husyn, too, nurtures similar hopes of returning to his homeland, and buying back the “haveli” for which he has already set aside the advance for Kishorilal, a painting which Husyn has not shown to anybody. Paradoxically, this painting is his most cherished work of art, and also the repository of the greatest sin he could ever commit — the sin of sketching the portrait of god. 

Kishorilal, who appears to be nothing more than an unempathetic and transactional Islamophobe, goes through a metamorphosis of sorts as he navigates these unpredictable chain of events. With a quizzical look and a struggle to find an appropriate set of words, he reacts sensitively to Husyn’s enthusiastic display of his miniatures, not outing their secret. When he sees the painting of the Hindu deity Krishna after the artist, who in the twilight of his life, has left in the tonga with his family in the dark of the night, something in Kishorilal clicks. 

Husyn’s unparalleled devotion to his art and the colossal price he ends up paying moves Kishorilal, bringing to the fore the empathy hidden in some obscure corner of his humanity. The director, Kaushal Oza, intends to portray his characters in their fleshed out humanity: there might be a few noble Husyns, but the Kishorilals of this world are not mere villains. Art might just be the vessel bridging barriers. But he also seems to be simultaneously asking, in today’s communally polarised India, how long will the likes of Husyn need to go an extra mile to establish their patriotism and sense of belonging to the nation, to the likes of Kishorilal who would only undergo a change of heart, after it’s too late. The director refrains from displaying the gruesome violence of the Partition, perhaps because the ones blinded by indifference or hatred cannot see the looming threat of it happening in their immediate vicinity.

Both Garam Hawa and The Miniaturist of Junagadh have remarkable introductory scenes with prescient audio tracks which set the tone for the rest of the movie. We see the train leaving and Salim waving farewell, but we only hear the resounding noise of the train hurtling towards its destination, indicating departure  as a recurrent motif in the movie. The ground for the central conflict in the movie is thus made plain — will Salim Mirza also leave despite his tenacity? Junagadh, on the other hand, begins with tranquil music playing on a gramophone—almost like the ominous silence before the ensuing storm, or the scorching wind in the tradition of Garam Hawa. The uncanny silence accentuates the heaviness of the air, lacerated with memories and the pain of leaving one’s home behind. Instead of graphic depictions of killings, gory riots and loud rancorous speeches in a partition movie, the plight of the Naqqash family is only narrated and left to the viewer’s imagination. Silence, then, seems to be the blank canvas the movie offers to its viewers. We are left to render it in our own chosen hues of ruthlessness and senselessness of it all, that we’ve lived or heard about. 

Junagadh has Huysn’s daughter bringing him tea. The director seems to be ushering us in as guests in this museum of memories, gently greeting us with the mellow notes of music being played right inside the house on a magnificent gramophone. Husyn’s remark, “one who leaves the last sip in the cup, shall one day return to Junagadh, for another slurp”, reminds us how we are welcome to come back again but we might only be received by memories. In contrast, Kishorilal is led inside the house as an intruder, someone who loudly must knock on doors for them to be opened for him. He is also offered beverages, more a  social gesture than honest geniality. He gets to listen to the music and admire it, but he peeks inside the room where the gramophone rests, on his own, almost barging in.

Even though Oza, gives us generous views of the house, letting us feast on the beauty of its architecture, taking it in in the soft glow of the the chandelier which the mother and the daughter are lighting manually, he restricts us to the drawing room and Naqqash’s room, a private space where the artist resides and where eventually all action takes place. We do not get to see the more intimate spaces like the kitchen, or the place where the box with the miniatures–the treasure chest of the household–might have been kept, or the daughter’s room. Boundaries are established, even the most heartily welcomed guests are denied access to certain spaces. Husyn’s ironic remark to his wife, “Am I the British government that I draw meaningless lines wherever I please?”, when she tries to hide the miniatures from Kishorilal by saying that they are just meaningless crisscrosses of his brush strokes, is clever writing. 

The tender thoughtfulness with which the director portrays the house — an equal agent of meaning making— is rooted in a very personal place of loss and nostalgia since his ancestral home in Mumbai is going to be pulled down. His anguish is well captured, “Do you think all these years of our lives can be packed in a few trunks?” A wistful Sakina says to Kishorilal, establishing that the film concerns itself as much with the nuanced nature of material memory. In an interview, Oza says that he was initially looking for something which could be filmed in the house.  But when he began researching, he came across Stefal Zweig’s short story, Die Unsichtbare Sammlung, which he then planned to adapt and the movie was no longer primarily about the house, the heart of it lay somewhere else. But when he finished filming it, he realised it was still mostly about the house.

The visual language of the movie accentuates the agony of displacement. There are numerous mirror shots which are more than just stylistic devices. The shots frame the house in its aesthetic elegance, suffusing it with greater depth. In the very beginning, when Husyn and Noor sit to have tea, we witness the reflection of the scene in the mirror before the camera moves to show us the actual scene, establishing that soon only the memories captured in the mirror will survive. Not long after, Kishorilal is shown looking at himself in a mirror, and in the adjacent mirror he sees the reflection of Husyn playing music on the gramophone, before seeing him in person. Perhaps seeing his future self playing music on the gramophone he would come to own. In another splendid scene, Noor is recounting the tale of how the family came to lose all the miniatures. While extinguishing the candles in the chandelier, she says, “We doused their torches by selling yet another of Abbu’s precious paintings.” When Husyn asks Noor about the departure time of the steamer leaving for Porbandar, all the candles and the soft clouds of smoke are snuffed out, clouding into in the air. The time to leave has finally come.  

This finely crafted tale of grief, memory, identity and art is just the timely reminder we as a society seem to need. The only solace that the viewer is left with at the end is that the cat, which does not cross the border with its owners, will not be subjected to the pathos, the maddening torment of statelessness, the dizzying test of allegiance that was meted to a dog in one of Manto’s partition stories.