For the best experience, open
on your mobile browser or Download our App.

'Insides and Outsides': Arbab Ahmad’s Documentary Is a Tender Tale of Bearing Witness

As the title suggests, 'Insides and Outsides' is about two worlds: the household and the country; the family and the society.
Behind the scene from 'Insides and Outsides' shooting. Photo: YouTube video/Arbab Ahmad

It is not easy for a young Muslim in today’s India to make an honest film about their own “Muslim-ness.” It is even harder to make one that foregrounds their own private self and family. It is, generally, also not easy to make a film based on introspective mind-chatter without boring the audience. Arbab Ahmad, through Insides and Outsides, manages to do all three with grace, patience and sensitivity.

Ahmad’s 54-minute documentary, which was his thesis film at Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design and first premiered at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala in August, is an unassuming auto-portrait of an individual and his parents grappling with tectonic shifts around them in their own mundane ways.

Arbab Ahmad, director and producer of the film Insides And Outsides receiving the Kumar Talkies Award for Best Editing in a long documentary from Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Photo: X/@iffklive

As the title suggests, Insides and Outsides is about two worlds: the household and the country; the family and the society. Ahmad finds himself awkwardly lodged between these poles, discovering and rediscovering his own self – and identity – in the process.

What does it mean to be a Muslim in today’s India? The film doesn’t offer a conclusive answer, perhaps because there is none. So, with sombre honesty and humility, it merely attempts to answer that question through personal ethnography.

Nowhere does Insides and Outsides assume that every Muslim person or family in today’s India would feel the same way about the pandemonium around them as Arbab and his parents do. Yet, there is a profound universality in their story that is hard to dismiss.

In the film, Ahmad uses two voices when he talks about himself or his feelings – first and third person. When he uses the latter, he refers to himself by name, as if in an out-of-body experience. One may see this astral projection as a metaphor for the Muslim self in today’s India that often finds itself questioning its own identity, choices and ideologies from a distance. This internal fracturing of the Muslim self is perhaps one of the most severe repercussions of the majoritarian onslaught that the community is being subjected to in India today.

Insides and Outsides is able to effortlessly oscillate between the home and the world, the mundane and the extraordinary, precisely because it doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t – a grand ideological treatise about Muslim-ness in a Hindu majoritarian India. So, it is able to uncompromisingly talk about the politics of majoritarian violence in the country and the nonchalance of daily life in a middle-class Muslim household at the same time. The political and the personal melt into each other without one completely diluting the other.

A key motif in Ahmad’s story is: movement. He consciously dwells on it through the film using the dual pivots of space and time. Muslims in India have always been on the move since the Partition. They continue to be so even today – not because they want to, but because they are forced to.

Ahmad himself is moving houses, as his father retires from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi after 41 years in service as a professor. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has arrived, bringing along even more uncertainty, worry and prejudice.

Everything is restive, nothing is the same anymore – from their house to the world around them.

But, perhaps, the strongest motif in Insides and Outsides is: resilience. Ahmad’s mother talks about sectarian violence, freedom of expression and the steady unravelling of the culture of respect while cooking biryani and admonishing her husband for driving too fast.

In one frame, his father directs his son to move the camera away from him and instead, film the posing peacock in the lawn, and in the next frame, he is seen shuffling through old files to ascertain which of his documents would stand the National Register of Citizens’ (NRC) test. The contradictions chill the spine, but their infectious smiles, visible in nearly every frame, warm the heart.

Ahmad’s ability to seamlessly merge images and sounds is conspicuous throughout the film. In one scene, he is seen reading out the case details of various Muslim individuals who were lynched by Hindu mobs over the last few years for allegedly carrying beef or the COVID-19 pathogen. As he does that, Ahmad’s mother knocks at the door and calls him out – the din growing louder and more frantic by the second.

Also read: ‘Zeherkhurani’: Nirmala Bhuradia’s Latest Novel Holds a Mirror to Our Times Consumed by Hate

The juxtaposition of his factual recitation and his mother’s desperate knocks ends up creating a harrowing sense of anxiety and claustrophobia. It is as if the walls around Ahmad were rapidly closing in on him. In doing so, he ends up conjuring a profound audio-visual metaphor for the plight of an average Indian Muslim in today’s India.

Ahmad is also sharply aware of his own class privileges as a Muslim born into a well-off family, protected by a certain degree of generational security. He understands that Muslims from economically marginalised backgrounds face greater risks in today’s India – a point that becomes clear when he explains to his mother, as they stand on a foot over bridge atop the erstwhile protest site at Shaheen Bagh, why he didn’t interview some of the locals on camera. Shaheen Bagh, in fact, is yet another recurring motif in the film, both as a Muslim ghetto and a site of righteous resistance.

Insides and Outsides is not an ideological manifesto. It is, rather, a deeply personal diary of a pensive, perplexed and perturbed self that today finds itself dangling between two different worlds; a collection, even, of intimate thoughts jotted hurriedly on small pieces of paper; an assortment of, as Ahmad himself says, “drafts on moving”. Yet, it is also a tender story of bearing witness to political tumult, and of seeking refuge in family.

We must thank Ahmad for letting us bear witness alongside him, for generously opening the doors of his home for us, and for telling a story that needed to be told.

Angshuman Choudhury is an associate fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Make a contribution to Independent Journalism
facebook twitter