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Life of an ex-dictator: A documentary on Musharraf throws some uncomfortable questions

January 14, 2018

Washington :“Ye Mo saab hain,” former Pakistan prime minister Pervez Musharraf says to his mother Zarin, sipping tea and gesturing towards a 38-year-old at his breakfast table. “I used to call my younger brother Mo. He was mo-ta (fat),” he adds. Both men laugh.

Filmmaker Mohammed Ali Naqvi, or Mo, is known to use his work to explore perilous subjects. His last film, Among the Believers, was about Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi, head of the Lal Masjid mujahideen training base; a Special Emmy-winning project before that was on the international human rights icon and gang-rape survivor Mukhtaran Mai.

For his documentary on Musharraf, Insha’Allah Democracy, Naqvi shadowed the former dictator and Army general for five years, as the man readied for a political comeback while living in Dubai and London.

So you see Musharraf as a stodgy, middle-aged man in black trunks and swimming goggles at his pool. Look over his shoulder as he logs into Facebook every morning, celebrates New Year’s Eve in the Middle-East, breakfasts with his mother.

“I shot the film myself, most of it with a handheld. I wanted my time with Musharraf to feel deeply personal and intimate – as if the audience were voyeurs,” says Naqvi.

He turns the camera on himself too, revealing why this is as much a political as a personal mission. In the 1990s, his uncle, Dr Nadeemul Hasan, was killed in his Karachi home, during a spate of violence against Shias. As an insecure teenager, Musharraf became Naqvi’s idol, a champion of minorities.

He admits that he started on his project in 2010 with a sense of awe. The two men exchanged jokes, hung out at the beach. “Musharraf came into my life at a time when I had a strong sense of disillusionment at the state of affairs in Pakistan. He had helped shaped contemporary history. Now, he was licking his wounds in self-imposed exile, trying to run for election in a country that had still not forgiven him,” Naqvi says.

In the film, there is a dramatic build-up to the scene where Musharraf finally sets foot on Pakistani soil again, and is anti-climactically placed under house arrest, in 2013.

Facing him is a unique election — the first civilian transfer of power in Pakistan. Every head of state before this, all the way back to 1947, has either been assassinated, unseated in a coup, or impeached.

By the time the votes are cast (the winner was Nawaz Sharif, the man Musharaff unseated in his coup in 2001), Naqvi had already lost most of his illusions about the latter. It starts when you see Musharaff claim ignorance about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts during his time as head of state.

“When he talked about militancy as a means of fighting a proxy war with our enemies, I realised that he didn’t think he owed his people the truth. Not on terror, the war on terror, nor his own conduct during his rule. He was still a dictator at heart – a dangerous flaw in a leader,” Naqvi says.

Is democracy possible, Naqvi ends up asking himself, when you have the right to vote but your only options are “an ex-dictator, a Taliban sympathiser and a crook” (his take on Musharraf, Imran Khan and Sharif?).

“Mo’s amazing access to General Musharraf over the years reveals a refreshingly informal man, albeit one afflicted with an inflated ego,” says documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. “My only criticism of the film — it does not examine the double game played by the US in both fomenting and fighting terror. Despite this, for Indians this film is a rare and valuable insight into a political scenario we have so far avoided.”

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