Asian cinema has treated the subject very differently to its western counterpart—and produced a wealth of artistic delights in the process. But as memories of partition fade, will the genre decline?by Burhan Wazir / July 31, 2017 / Leave a comment
The world’s largest democracy was born in the full glare of the cameras. Approaching midnight on 14th August, 1947, India’s first Prime Minister Jawahrlal Nehru’s famous “Tryst with destiny” speech in parliament was captured by Agence France-Presse and Reuters. The speech was also recorded by local film producing bodies Wadia Movietone and Motwane Company.
In the 70 years since Indian and Pakistani independence, the end of nearly two centuries of colonial rule has been a recurrent theme in feature films: like westerns or thrillers, partition films have become a genre of their own. Yet while British directors have often marked the events of 1947 with nostalgia for the end of empire, Indian and Pakistani cinema treats the period as a chapter of morbid violence which would eventually lead to rebirth and renewal.
The narrative difference between western and Asian cinema about 1947 has been as divergent as their views on the legacy of empire. British films have usually fallen into two distinct categories: grand political biopics featuring the era’s leading protagonists, like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) or Gurinder Chada’s recent Viceroy’s House, about Lord Mountbatten. Other films characterise India as a humid land of betrayal and intrigue, like Bhowani Junction, a romantic adventure released in 1956, starring Stewart Granger and Ava Gardner.
India is often presented as an exotic backdrop where colonialists can enjoy year-round polo, English cuisine in the sun and the domestic help is abundant. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs are either ungrateful savages hell-bent on usurping empire, or willing accomplices in a noble British experiment to civilise 350 million people.
Indian and Pakistani films about partition have usually avoided depictions of leading political figures like Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammed Ali Jinnah. The legacies of the men who defied British rule have been claimed by competing nativist and liberal audiences. While Gandhi remains an international symbol of peace—his image has surfaced at Black Lives Matter protests in the US—in India, his views have been distorted by movements like the right-wing nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.