Refugee (2000)


Refugee (2000)
Cast: Jackie Shroff, Sunil Shetty, Abhishek Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor.
Director: J.P.Dutta
Nutshell: J.P. Dutta, king of the sprawling Epic does it again….Abhishek Bachchan debuts.


The film opens with a voice-over telling the viewer of the immigration of Muslims from Bihar to what was East Pakistan at the time of partition.

Not accepted in East Pakistan, these Muslims ended up in camps, living in the hope of repatriation to what was West Pakistan. Some followed a path of taking the route through India to the border with Pakistan in the hope of smuggling their families to Pakistan. With this prelude, the film opens with two families having left Bangladesh and made their way across to a village on the border waiting to be ferried across to Pakistan.

Through Jan Mohammad (Anupam Kher), their journey across to Pakistan is arranged and they are lead there by “Refugee” (Abhishek Bachchan) whose business it is to ferry people across to Pakistan and vice versa. He is nameless, stateless and could be either Hindu, Muslim or a Christian. Amongst the party migrating to Pakistan is Naaz (Kareena Kapoor). Inevitably, love blossoms on their trip across and during “Refugee’s” stay in Pakistan. But the path of love is never smooth and there follows the usual cliché misunderstandings and the advent of a more socially desirable and acceptable partner in the shape of a Pakistani, Mohammad Ashraf (Sunil Shetty) adding the third angle to the triangle.

Refugee is a much awaited film, primarily because it marks the debut of Abhishek Bachchan and Kareena Kapoor. The film is directed by J.P. Dutta and expectations of the film are sky high. The film played to a packed audience and Abhishek’s entry marked catcalls and whistles; clearly the audience was behind him because of his immaculate pedigree. He also has the impossible task of having to live up to his famous name and will have the inevitable comparisons made with his father and to a lesser extent, to the current star son Hrithik Roshan. To view him as an individual is not a difficult task but certainly, there is a sense of some expectation that one has of him because of his illustrious parents.

I am trying to understand my sense of disappointment with Abhishek’s debut and wonder whether I am also afflicted by the sense of expectation that I had of him; perhaps I am incapable of judging his performance as a simple newcomer. For me, he seemed to lack the intensity, the fire that one felt should have gone with the character. One hoped that he would speak through his eyes…he did not. He left me cold, unmoved most of the time. We did not understand his character, why he felt stateless, why he empathised with those wanting to migrate to Pakistan…what was it that made him nameless, what was the pain within. This pain was alleviated when he meets Naaz, as is obvious from his clothing…he starts off in sombre black and graduates to uplifting white.

It is his first film and on that basis, there is much to hope for. But if I was to be honest, I came away unmoved by him. On the other hand, Kareena Kapoor is utterly natural and effortless in her role of Naaz. The film is most alive and vibrant when she is on screen and she does not put a foot wrong. This is a stunning debut.

Sunil Shetty in the role of a Pakistani policeman has an excellent role and considering his limitations as an actor, he gives a sincere performance. Sadly, despite his enthusiasm, he is unconvincing in his role. Jackie Shroff in a small role performs in his customary gung ho manner.

Anu Malik’s music has never been better and it will be some time before he is able to surpass this score. “Mere Humsafar”, “Panchi Nadiyan”, and “aisa lagta hai” are all classics beautifully sung by Sonu Nigam and Alka Yagnik. It has already found appreciation with the masses. Panchi nadiyan’s picturisation with soaring flamingoes above the water remains in memory long after the film.

As with all of Dutta’s films, Refugee is well directed and beautifully photographed. However, at over 3 hours, it is excessively long and needs to be trimmed. Also, one is let down by Abhishek’s characterisation and this is where there are holes in the script. Perhaps one is judging Dutta too harshly and one should simply see Refugee as a symbol of all those who are rootless. But by not knowing anything of his background, it detracts from being able to empathise with his character.

There are further holes not least when “Refugee” is being beaten up by Pakistani policeman who abuse him and his country to which we see an outburst in which “Refugee” talks of his “dharti”…this from a man who claimed to be stateless and without a home! And now that one is pulling Dutta up, he should know that “vishwas” is not an Urdu word and any Pakistani would be able to tell that the other was not a Pakistani if they used that word, as Refugee does when he is being interrogated by the police in Pakistan. A small slip up but obvious to any urdu speaking person.

Nevertheless, the film has much to commend it, not least the fact that it sets out to propagate tolerance and acceptance between Pakistan and India. The film is J.P Dutta’s dream and he has made it with sincerity and believing in his own convictions. For that in itself, it is worth seeing. His message is one of peace and although this is put across on a rather basic level and rather crudely, this was probably necessary so as to appeal to the masses in the villages and smaller centres of India.

The message is that we all speak the same language, we all eat the same food, we look the same, then why is there this dreadful enmity between our nations. His reasoning that it is the politicians and the army that force our nations into this position may be somewhat naïve and obvious but there is truth in this. Perhaps this film will not make an impression, perhaps it will be dismissed for all its flaws but you must commend J.P Dutta for trying…his heart is certainly in the right place.

I think that I was a little disappointed as I was expecting a film with greater dramatic content and less of the clichés one sees in every other film. I fear that it will not achieve the success that its stars and its director would hope for.