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.
“Prior to its release in 1973, Garam Hawa was held up by censors at the Central Board of Film Certification for nearly a year”
One interesting exception is Jamil Dehlavi’s sensitive but flawed Jinnah (1998), which stars Christopher Lee as the first prime minister of Pakistan. Dehlavi’s film begins with Jinnah on his deathbed, but then resumes the story of Partition through his spirit as he awaits judgement and revisits the events of the previous 40 years, guided by a celestial bureaucrat (Shashi Kapoor). Jinnah is both magisterial and baffling, often at the same time.
Much Indian and Pakistani cinema has instead concentrated its attention on the communal and familial experience of independence: the events of 1947 lit inter-religious fires which saw an estimated one million people die and uprooted another 15 million. One landmark Indian film, Garam Hawa (Scorching Winds), released in 1974, tells the story of the difficulties experienced by a North Indian Muslim business owner in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, as Hindu associates and neighbours lean towards nationalism in the months after August, 1947.
The film shows how the Muslim business owner, Salim Mirza, has his family home reclaimed by the newly formed Indian government. Mirza incurs losses to his shoe-making business when credit dries up. He contemplates moving to Pakistan like his brother Halim, who believes Muslims no longer have a future in India. While rational voices in Garam Hawa call for moderation, the film reveals how the departure of the British fanned new religious tensions between mostly tolerant Muslim and Hindu communities.
Prior to its release in 1973, Garam Hawa was held up by censors at the Central Board of Film Certification for nearly a year, as its members contemplated where it would provoke inter-ethnic reprisals. “The film was very controversial at the time,” said one of its co-writers, Shama Zaidi. “In the end, no one touched the film, but everyone was a little nervous about what kind of reaction people would have.”
The number of Indian films produced about the events of 1947 peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s, after the release of Gandhi. Govind Nihalini, who was Attenborough’s second unit cameraperson—and shot many of the film’s riot scenes—directed a six-part TV series about post-Partition Sikh and Hindu migration called Tamas (Darkness) in 1988. The series starred Om Puri, Dina Pathak and Saeed Jaffrey. Another TV series about the aftermath of independence, Buniyaad (Foundation), unfolded over 105 episodes on state television in 1986. Two years later, director Shyam Benegal directed a 53- episode TV adaptation of Nehru’s sprawling 1946 book about Indian philosophy and nationhood, Bharat Ek Khoj (The Discovery of India).
Historical interest in Partition was also compounded across India in the wake of the assassination of Indira Gandhi—the country’s first and only female prime minister—by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. According to official figures, around 2,800 Sikhs were killed in the inter-religious violence which followed, of which 2,000 were murdered in Delhi. When asked about the riots, her son Rajiv Gandhi, who had been sworn in as Prime Minister, said, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.”
“This was a really important period for films about Partition,” said Bhaskar Sarkar, Associate Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, and the author of a history of Indian cinema called Mourning the Nation: Indian Cinema in the wake of Partition. “Indians hadn’t seen this kind of communal violence since Partition, so it sparked a new wave of interest.”
The period also coincided with the emergence of a new feminist movement. Two prominent writers, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon, had launched the publishing imprint Kali for Women in 1984. Bhaskar said: “There was a new generation looking at the period of independence. As someone who had grown up in India, I was also hearing these stories for the first time.” The female director Deepa Mehta produced the understated Earth in 1998, an an adaptation of Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel, Cracking India.
“There is a worry that a younger, more globalised Indian and Pakistani generation feels independence has no relevance”
One of the finer examples of Indian independence drama is 1998’s Train to Pakistan, an adaptation of Khushwant Singh’s highly regarded 1956 novel of the same name. Train to Pakistan tells the story of inter-ethnic violence in a small village in Punjab. It is unflinching in its honesty of the brutality which erupted when large swathes of India’s population found themselves politically and economically trapped on the wrong side of the newly created borders.
In neighbouring Pakistan, the subject of Partition has proven to be tough for directors: the country’s film industry is dwarfed both in output and budget by its neighbour. But two low budget films have examined Partition: Khak Aur Khoon (Ash or Blood), released in 1979, and 1999’s Jannat Ki Talash (In Search of Heaven). Due to fears over censorship and politically or religiously motivated violence, Pakistani cinema has evaded the subject in favour of films which look at internal issues like Islamisation in 2003’s Khamosh Pani (Still Water), or illegal immigration, examined in the award-winning Zinda Bhaag (Alive Park), which was released in 2013 and starred Naseeruddin Shah.
Mehreen Jabbar, the Pakistani director of Ramchand Pakistani, a 2008 film about the relationship between India and Pakistan, said filmmakers from both countries have failed to adequately narrate the story of Partition. “I think the films reflect the government of the day in both countries. A large majority of people are unaware of how complex Partition was. We get stuck in our vision of what it meant and do not want to upset the general public.”
While both Indian and Pakistani cinema have wrestled with the ghosts of Partition, both countries have been more reluctant to address Bangladeshi independence in 1971. A number of Bangladeshi directors have addressed the war of liberation, most notably Tareque Masud in Matir Moina (The Clay Bird) in 2002. “Pakistan and India have avoided looking at the controversial subjects of Bangladesh,” said Jabbar. “The memory of the war is too recent.”
As both countries prepare for their 70th anniversaries, and the number of survivors who lived through Partition dwindle, fading memories and not the war of words which often characterises diplomatic relations between both nations may prove to be the greatest barrier to preserving the era on film. “There is a worry that a younger, more globalised Indian and Pakistani generation feels independence has no relevance,” said Gayatri Chatterjee, a film scholar and author, based in Pune. “Both countries have seen dramatic changes in the last few decades. The trauma of Partition could seem a distant memory.”
While the primary role of Hindi and Urdu cinema is to provide escapism, Indian and Pakistani films are also the only access to history and education for poor, excluded and illiterate citizens in both countries. As both countries battle with extremism, moderate politics are the exception and the tolerant nation states envisioned by Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah remain out of grasp. The lessons of 1947 have yet to be fully realised.