In the winter of 1947, as the princely state of Junagadh was moving back and forth between India and Pakistan in the wake of Partition, Husyn (Naseeruddin Shah), an old, blind Muslim man and his family – his wife, Sakina (Padmavati Rao) and daughter, Noor (Rasika Dugal) – are preparing to leave the home that has been in their family for generations and move to Pakistan. In the midst of their packing, they are visted by Kishorilal (Raj Arjun), the Hindu businessman who has purchased their home – and, more importantly, its precious contents. Kishorilal wants to make sure that the deal is going according to plans, and has brought the legal papers to be signed. He reminds Sakina that the documents he’s brought only state what they have already agreed upon – that the sale is for the house and everything in it. “Without my permission,” he reminds her, “you can take nothing with you.”
Sakina leaves to take a moment to examine the papers, and Kishorilal is drawn by the music played by a gramophone in an adjecent room, where he finds Husyn listening to music and smoking a hookah, which he offers to share with the stiff and uncomfortable Kishorilal. Husyn assumes Kishorilal has been drawn in by the music, though we know he’s more interested in the gramophone itself, and, perhaps, what it will fetch in his shop. But when Sakina returns with the papers for Husyn to sign, he suggests that perhaps Kishorilal would also appreciate “mussawari” – the illuminated miniatures for which Husyn was famous as the most well-known painter – the Head Miniaturist – in the Nawab of Junagadh’s court. Sakina reveals that Husyn has become blind because of his devotion to the perfection of his art.
When Husyn offers to show Kishorilal his precious miniatures, the latter is immediately interested, no doubt relishing the thought of making sure they remain in the house as part of the sale. Sakina, flustered, knocks over the inkwell, spoiling the sale documents that Husyn has just signed. Kishorilal is annoyed, but they arrange for him to return with freshly typed ones which will be signed just before the family departs.
When Kishorilal returns that evening, Noor lets him into the house. She wishes to take the papers to her father to have them signed; Kishorilal insists on doing it himself. Implicit in this is Kishorilal’s claim on the miniatures as stated in the agreement that he is buying everything valuable in the house, including the gramophone, which Noor indicates they are leaving for him; but also, Husyn’s paintings as well. A troubled Noor tells Kishorilal that none of her father’s paintings are going to be of any value to him, but when Kishorilal insists he must see them and judge for himself, Noor reveals the secret she and her mother have been hiding: only one of her father’s miniatures is left, the one that was most precious to him. The others were all sold to try to buy off the mobs threatening their home. Blank pieces of paper were inserted in the folios to replace the paintings, the women confident that Husyn would not touch them for fear of spoiling them. It is left to Kishorilal – decidedly dour, uncompassionate to the circumstances the family finds themselves in – to decide if he will keep their secret.
In The Miniaturist of Junagadh, director Kaushal Oza builds on his inspiration (the Stefan Zweig short story entitled “The Invisible Collection”, set in post-WW1 Germany) and gives us a short film that is a perfect reflection of one of the master painter’s miniatures – impeccably shot (Kumar Saurabh’s cinematography is lush and gorgeous), with exquisite sound design, a fine attention to the small details, and characters played to perfection by the film’s actors. Husyn is an artist, a refined man whose very existence is poetic. When his daughter, Noor, brings two cups of tea for them to drink, Husyn tells her not to drink it all at once, to make sure she leaves at least a sip in the cup, reminding her of the saying, “One who leaves the last sip in the cup, shall one day return to Junagarh for another slurp.” When we see a cup with tea left in it as the family leaves, we immediately understand that Husyn’s intention is to be able to return to his home one day.
Kishorilal is revealed to be a devout Hindu with just a few brushstrokes: his unwillingness to care for the family cat which only eats fish; his discomfort at touching the glass of sharbat he is offered, wiping his hands quickly as he puts it down again, without drinking. And the two women, Sakina and Noor, selling the miniatures to buy safety, but also gently and fiercely protecting their Husyn’s precious memory of his art, and his pride as well: Husyn does not see his blindness as something he’s lost; rather, it’s something he’s earned, something that marks him as a master of his art.
Oza’s exquisite film is measured and poetic – the dialogues (by Aslam Parvez) are intricate and detailed, Husyn’s voice is warm and intimate, and the house is filled with the sounds of a crackling fire and chirping birds — but none of this is distracting. Instead, everything adds details and layers to a film as perfectly etched and precious as an illuminated miniature.