Partitioned lives

Print edition : June 18, 2004

A new film that sensitively portrays the horrors inflicted on women by Partition and religious fundamentalism makes waves in various film festivals across the world.

IN Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters), her spare yet riveting feature film set in Pakistan in the 1970s, director Sabiha Sumar tells the story of a Sikh woman who defies death at Partition, marries a Muslim, practises Islam and settles down to an outwardly contented existence, until her past and present collide in tragedy.

Kirron Kher in her award-winning role as Ayesha in Khamosh Pani.-

Khamosh Pani.

It is a trajectory that will be familiar to millions of families in India and Pakistan whose lives were torn apart at Partition.

The official record of 1947 is largely silent on how women and children experienced the trauma of the time. It was not until the 1990s, when Indian writers such as Urvashi Butalia, Kamla Bhasin and Ritu Menon began to excavate women's experiences in writings that were part memoir, part research and part journalism, that the wrenching stories of women began to come to light. We now know that uncounted numbers of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh women were `martyred' by men in their own families so that they would not be `sullied' by men of the other community. Many of those who evaded this fate were separated from their fleeing families, and assaulted or killed by the enemy. Yet others survived and stayed on in the countries they found themselves in. Soon after Partition, the governments of both nations embarked on a recovery and restoration project to `return' women to their `own' countries forcibly. Although some of those charged with this task - themselves women such as Mridula Sarabhai, Rameshwari Nehru, Sushila Nayyar and Anis Kidwai - acknowledged that this was a second uprooting for the women, they nevertheless sent them on a journey fraught with pain, guilt, shame and rejection.

Even this recovered history is scant on the women who became agents of their own destiny - who refused to accept violent death to preserve the honour of family and religion, opting instead for life and all its frightening alternatives. There are only anecdotal accounts of women who married their abductors, bore children and ran households, sublimating their lifelong sense of loss and longing in the normality of family and stability. Their existence gave the lie to the unbridgeable divide between bitterly antagonistic nations and religions.

Khamosh Pani breaks the silence surrounding these women with the story of Ayesha. Born Veero in a village in what is now Pakistan, she refused to commit suicide at the behest of her father and brothers during Partition. Kidnapped by Muslims, Veero was saved by one of her abductors who married her. Through her son, Salim, Khamosh Pani also traces the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan during the reign of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq.

As Ayesha, National Award-winning actress Kirron Kher (Sardari Begum, Badliwali) is the calm centre of the film, by turn resolute, bewildered and wistful, in an understated portrayal that is as poignant as it is powerful. The film is an accomplished work, quietly eloquent on its large and universal themes of identity and belonging, faith and fundamentalism, and love and loss. And perhaps because it is sensitively directed and written by a Pakistani and an Indian respectively, Khamosh Pani is a far cry from the predictable and one-dimensional portrayal of "Pakistani fundamentalism" that is de jure in Indian cinema and politics today.

Director Sabiha Sumar says the idea for the film grew out of her desire to document women's experiences during Partition, which led her to the records of the Constituent Assembly, oral histories of women in Pakistan and conversations with Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon in Delhi. When she approached Paromita Vohra, a Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker and writer with the story idea, it was a creative meeting of minds. Both women had addressed contemporary questions of gender, identity, custom and culture in their documentaries and short films. Moreover, Paromita Vohra, who is a Punjabi, had grown up listening to stories of how her family left Lahore for Delhi in 1947.

FOR Sabiha Sumar and Paromita Vohra, the dominant theme of Khamosh Pani is the way in which violence, particularly when associated with fundamentalism, plays out in women's lives. "In 1979, extremism was moving to the centre stage in Pakistan; spaces were closing up," says Sabiha Sumar. That was the year the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan; Pakistan, as a frontline state against the intervention, began to see a rise in Islamic fundamentalism tied to its support for the Mujahideen. Ayesha watches in appalled disbelief as her son, Salim, is abruptly transformed from an amiable, irreligious layabout into an unheeding zealot. His inexorable descent into self-righteous religion leaves his doting mother no place in his new world, which is peopled solely with like-minded men bent on gaining `respect and purpose' from an oppressive enforcement of Islam. Nor has he any time for his playful but outspoken girlfriend, Zubeida. Her angry and despairing taunt - "I read the Quran, too, but I also think!" - leaves Salim unmoved.

For Ayesha, this is Partition all over again. Once again, Charkhi, the village she has lived in all her life, is cowed by men who assume the role of arbiters and custodians of a society's behaviour and beliefs - agonisingly recalling the ways in which the Sikh men in her own family determined the fate of their women 30 years ago. And once again, women are silenced, thrust into roles of passive conformity, and made to prove their allegiance to the new order. "I wanted to connect the violence of 1947 to what was happening in 1979," says Sabiha Sumar.

A scene from the film.-

FOR all its weighty themes, however, Khamosh Pani is no bleak docu-drama. In fact, its extraordinary appeal flows from the fact that it is simply a good story, unfussy in the telling, and true to its milieu. Paromita Vohra and Sabiha Sumar do not shy away from the adroit use of the Bollywood staples of song, dance, and flashback - Ayesha's past is revealed in fleeting images from submerged memory. And it is often from the casual exchanges at the tea shop and the salon that a picture of the frightening change imminent in the social life of Charkhi emerges. "Do you know why Zia's barber says the word `election' when he cuts his hair?" Mahboob, the barber, jokes with his customers. "Because it makes Zia's hair stand on end and he can cut it better!" Their guffaws subside as they catch sight of Rashid and Mazhar, the fundamentalist leaders from the city who have come talent scouting in Charkhi, glowering silently at them.

"It is not a geography or history lesson; it's a film, it's a story," insists Paromita Vohra. "Whatever you take away from it, about history, about Partition, about women, is great," she says, but she was guided by an artistic impulse more than anything else. Reading Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon helped to create an "emotional landscape" in her mind, and travelling to Pakistan helped her understand, in a way she never had before, the criss-crossing of class and poverty that fuels fundamentalism in that country. But when it came to writing the screenplay, Paromita Vohra wanted most of all to create characters who act with "psychological clarity". "When their motivation is clear, cultural specificity doesn't matter," she says. That is why Khamosh Pani does not have the "explanatory tone that is often inevitable in films that are made in this part of the world but have to play in that part of the world".

In fact, Sabiha Sumar has been struck by the ways in which people understand and relate to the characters of the film - whether in Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland, India or Pakistan. "Women have come up to me and talked about their sons joining the National Front in France or the neo-Nazi movement". And in Pakistan, where she has just taken the film on a road-show across the country, some women say to her: "My son has joined the jehad because the maulvis asked him to, even though I told him it was a political hoax." The film, shot entirely in Wah village, near Peshawar, was made in fits and starts over four years. First, there were problems raising money (until Vidhi Films, Sumar's production company, secured support from France and Germany), and then shooting had to stop after September 11, 2001, when the German crew had to leave Pakistan.

Released last year, Khamosh Pani has won over its audiences wherever it has played. It has picked up a slew of awards (including the Golden Leopard for best picture and the award for best actress during its world premiere at the Locarno International Film Festival, and for best screenplay at the Kara Film Festival in Karachi). It was shown to acclaim at the Mumbai International Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival and, most recently, the New Directors/New Films Series 2004 in New York. Small independent movies rarely get past the film festival circuit to make a dent in the arena of commercial cinema; what is surprising is that no distributor has yet been able to seize upon the new bonhomie between India and Pakistan to pitch this joint venture to reach wider national audiences in both countries.

"I very much believe in the power of art to change the world, to understand humanity, to tell stories," says Paromita Vohra. "But you have to tell a story that rings true and not have a schematic approach.... The story has to be larger than the particular history." It is a tribute to the talent of its creators that Khamosh Pani tells a tale that many will see as a story that touches their lives even as it brings home the troubling history of our times.

Bharati Sadasivam is a writer based in New York.

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