The Partition (more appropriately, the Creation) of India and Pakistan has caught the imagination of many people on both sides of the borders over the last 6 decades in both, the literary and the cinematic circles. Authors and poets like Khushwant Singh, Kartar Singh Duggal and Amrita Pritam have, through their writings, created an enduring image of the partition that will perhaps serve future generations better than many historical accounts. Movies on the partition, on the other hand, have been a mixed bag. Most movies tend to focus on the massacres, get buried under clichés or worse, try to pin the blame on one group or the other. However, few have sought to rationalise the experiences and its effects. As I recently saw some movies on the issue, to my mind, there are three great films I found that offer three very different perspectives of the time and its effects.
The first is Deepa Mehta’s Earth. Based on the novel by Bapsi Sidhwa, the film provides the most immediate experiences of the Partition. Seen through the innocent eyes of Lenny, a young Parsi girl living in Lahore in 1947, it is a disturbing tale about personal transformation and the choices people make in the face of rapidly changing social settings. It’s unique in that, while it looks at 1947 in the most direct way, looking at the brutalities committed, it also examines some themes which have been largely ignored by film makers: the transforming personal relationships between the people of different religious groups, the experiences of fringe minorities like Parsis who were too few to have an opinion and were forced to be silent spectators of the atrocities. Unrelenting in its depiction of violence, the scene when the Ice Candy Man (Aamir Khan) finds the massacred remains of his sisters on the train from Amritsar is perhaps the most harrowing moment of the film. Embellished with superlative performances (including, without a doubt, Aamir Khan’s best), Earth works beautifully in conveying its universal themes as it chooses to look at the events through the innocent eyes of Lenny. It lays bare that the violence that ensued was not an assertion of identity, but of inhumanity. Deepa Mehta does well by likening the bloodlust of the masses to the lust that the ice-candy man has for Lenny’s Hindu maid. There really is not much of a difference. All this and more make Earth a deeply unsettling film about the cracks that were formed by the Partition and the price a civilisation paid, and as will be seen, is still paying for it.
If Earth (and most other Partition themed movies) speak about the violence that people on both sides faced, Garm Hava is perhaps the only film that shows a different side of the Partition. All films on the Partition take the exodus itself as a given; that people of different religious communities actually wanted to go to “their land”. However, what it fails to explain is what prompted the exodus, not just in Amritsar which was close to the border, but also far off areas like Uttar Pradesh, Bengal and others. Garm Hava is perhaps the only film about the partition that does a magnificent job of providing an answer.
Written by Kaifi Azmi, Garm Hava (Scorching Winds) tells the story of Salim Mirza (Balraj Sahani in the performance of a lifetime) and his family in Agra in the immediate aftermath of the Partition. Gandhi has been killed and violence has ebbed. Nevertheless, the mass exodus of Muslims from India continues. In this tense climate, Salim Mirza runs a shoe factory with his elder son while his elder brother Halim is a politician. The movie looks at the discrimination that Muslims faced during the days. More than the violence, it was the economic oppression and deprivation forced many Muslims to leave their homes and migrate to Pakistan. It also shows the problems that the government’s policies for accommodating migrants created for the Muslims living in the country. As Mirza struggles to keep his factory solvent and stands to lose his house after his brother’s migration, you see a whole different aspect of the Partition; one where the politico-economic climate made it impossible for Muslims to live in India. And as Mirza loses his family and friends one after the other in the migration, it takes a toll on the human relationships; his relationship with his elder son, his daughter’s relationship with her beau and others. It’s when you sit back and see the effects of these changes on the whole, that a darker, sadder, more painful and (I think) accurate picture of the Partition emerges. As a stoic old man, Salim Mirza’s character represents, I believe, the struggle of many Muslims to assert or even find their identity in post-independence India. For these reasons, I think that Garm Hava is the finest film on the Partition that we have made; one that tries to understand and make us understand the events that led to one of the biggest migrations in the history of mankind.
The third film I want to talk about is of a slightly different kind. One may even find the choice odd considering the period it is set in. The film is Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters), a film set in a village in Punjab in 1979 at a time when Pakistan saw a military coup and General Zia ul-Haq came to occupy the seat of power. It tells the story of the rise of fundamentalism in Pakistan as seen through the eyes of Ayesha (Kirron Kher), loved by all in her quaint little village, who sees that transformation in her son. At the same time, a Sikh man from India comes on pilgrimage to the village looking for his sister, Veero, who was left behind in 1947 leading to bitter revelations and forcing Ayesha to face the fast changing realities and the questions to her sense of identity and belonging. There are two important things that the film demonstrates: one is the issue of the treatment of women during the partition, not only by the people of a different religious community but also by their own families. Looking at the events from a gendered perspective, it shows that women were perhaps, the single-most oppressed group and not any religious community. In the name of honour and tradition, women faced persecution from all sides and were the worst victims of the Partition. Moreover, in the subcontinent, the woman was (and unfortunately, to a great extent, still is) defined by the men in her life; her father, brothers, husband and sons. When these people start to question her actions, her identity, her pain is beautifully encapsulated by director Sabiha Sumar in her realisation of the character of Ayesha.
Secondly, and perhaps on a more macro scale, Khamosh Pani shows the repercussions of the Partition. It beautifully shows on celluloid how it was a contradiction of sorts to try and create a secular Pakistan. The rationale for the Partition was religion and the cultural differences resulting from it. The real reason of course was political power and greed. Once those motives were served, leaders sought to create a modern, secular state out of Pakistan. However, the real reason could not be forgotten. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before someone like General Zia would play the religion card once again to consolidate his power. In showing this, director Sabiha Sumar makes it clear that the Partition is hardly an event left for historians to consider and debate about. The spectre of the Partition and what it stood for continues to haunt us to date.
This has become a rather long post. In the end, all I can say is that these three films are very different from each, both in terms of tone as well as approach towards the Partition. They offer three distinct perspectives of the same realities. I think, of the movies on the Partition, these are the three best that I have seen and together, captures the widest range of experiences of the Partition on celluloid. They speak of the many mistakes that were (and still often are) committed. If we do not learn from this history, we are doomed to repeat it.