Body politic: Women in the cinema of Partition

By Feryal Ali Gauhar


Jimi Mistry and Kristin Kreuk in Partition (2007) | IMDb


The cinematic experience is a gratifying hoax, predicated on a suspension of disbelief. We are convinced that all the disparate elements contributing to the production of a filmic experience – such as the transition of time and space, sometimes expanded, oftentimes contracted, the sequencing of scenes, the staging of action, the movement or stillness of camera, the scripted, memorised, rehearsed, measured, timed and delivered dialogue, the birth and nurturing of characters, the orchestration of light, the composition of music – are not crafted but, combined with each other, represent a well-spliced, invisibly strung-together reality.

Cinema’s power lies in the illusion it creates, in making us believe that the constructed image, carefully (or carelessly) crafted and structured, is a reality that we are privileged to watch from a safe distance.

The act of watching a film, of being in a darkened space, alone yet surrounded by others who are also alone, is like allowing oneself to enter spaces not visible in the stark light of the day. These are constructed spaces, made to seem alive, throbbing with possibility, enabling the human heart to feel things we would otherwise be guarded about.

Film theorists in the 1970s held that cinema provides its viewers a separation from their own egos or perceptions of reality while at the same time reinforcing those egos and perceptions. Perhaps the power of cinema lies in inducing us to subject our ‘self’ to a momentary and perceived loss of control, sort of like a free-fall experience from a twin-engine plane.

We know that soon enough, perhaps too soon, we shall hit terra firma and all will be well again; that we will no longer have to engage with difficult situations or deal with suppressed emotions; that we will be unfettered by the suffering of the tragic hero who makes us cry and the buffoonery of the comedian who makes a fool of himself or herself for our pleasure.

So why is it then, that, as makers and watchers of films, we return constantly to subjects of human misery and turmoil, to representations of what we consider historical truths, to the scenes of terrible violence, to the destruction of nations, cities, memories, lives?

More importantly, why is it that cinema based on ‘historical fact’ is usually about turbulence and injustice and not about peace and prosperity? Why do we feel the need to revisit the past, along with its unresolved angst and the agony of things that went terribly wrong? Is the purpose of investing large amounts of money in film production to celebrate human suffering?

Why take up stories that reinforce great divisions by memorialising injustice, perceived or real? For there will always be a certain perspective, a certain prism, through which we view those stories, a certain political framework within which we contextualise those narratives, a certain intent or a message, overt or subtle, woven into their subtexts, a certain intellectual response to the splicing and juxtaposition of two separate images to create a third image in the mind.

Five well-known films, selected because their narrative is centred upon the experience of women during the partition of India in 1947, all raise the same question: when is a film an exercise to record, glorify, or condemn a particular view of history and when is it a cinematic unfolding of the human experience, informed by but transcending the politics of the time?

The act of viewing, reviewing and critiquing a film is as much a subjective exercise as an objective one: we contextualise the act within a theoretical and non-personal framework, yet it involves a personal response to the images as they move in front of us on a screen.

It is, therefore, difficult to state how objectively the Partition’s ‘truth’ has been presented by the films under discussion in this essay. It is equally difficult to ascertain whether the various ‘truths’ shown in these films are more valid than the other, contending, versions of human experiences within the material and temporal context of Partition.

It is important to understand that context. Violence around Partition rendered the notion of ‘constructing’ new states, being carved out of an undivided India, secondary to the destruction, annihilation and terror it unleashed. The nationalist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist movement was lost in the mayhem that visited the Indian subcontinent through which a line was drawn with a knife’s edge. Now, it was a question of one community’s right to rule the other or the other community’s perceived loss of power and prestige and its fear of marginalisation.

Aamir Ali Malik and Kirron Kher in *Khamosh Pani* (2003) | IMDb

Aamir Ali Malik and Kirron Kher in Khamosh Pani (2003) | IMDb


It was no longer a much larger issue of freedom from the repressive, exploitative and extractive colonial rule. The violence was not perpetrated by a colonial master bent upon keeping his subjects under his thumb. It was rather caused by a fire within the colonised, whipped up by the flames of religious difference.

A major cinematic concern around Partition is the displacement of 10 million people and the tragic, often brutal, death of around one million men, women and children. The loss of home, friendship, religious and cultural diversity, ways of life and belonging and rootedness, the desperate search for those separated, lost or abducted, the seeking of shelter, the remaking of one’s life and one’s identity — all these have been reflected to a lesser or greater extent in many of the films based on the division of the Subcontinent.

As in all displacements, the experience of the most vulnerable members of displaced communities forms the substance of the most moving and often horrifying stories. These are stories of women and children, stories of lost childhood and loss of ‘honour’ for families whose women were abducted, raped and brutalised.

In the films reviewed for this essay too, it is the female characters that embody the sense of profound loss. The loss of ‘worth’, ‘self’, ‘identity’ and, indeed, the rupturing of the relationship between land and human beings are represented in all but one of these movies by the violation, abduction and rape of women and their forcible removal from the protective sphere of the family.

Seen largely from the lens of the male gaze, regardless of the gender of the film-maker, women portrayed here, therefore, appear as subjects and victims to be pitied, protected and, in some cases, redeemed. The body of a woman, coveted by the feared and, therefore, the hated ‘other’, is shown to be the body of the motherland, contested fiercely by opposing political positions that tear it apart, pulling it limb by limb, dismembering it.

Feminist theorists such as Laura Mulvey believe that film often represents the language of patriarchy by being bound up in the same story of sexual difference that all patriarchy is founded upon. “Woman … stands in the patriarchal order as signifier for the male other … the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning,” she writes.

In Khamosh Pani (a 2003 film directed by Sabiha Sumar and co-written by herself and Paromita Vohra), Ayesha/Veeru (played beautifully by Kirron Kher), silently experiences the trauma of her past. Subsuming herself into the role of the loving mother and caring neighbour, she remains silent even when she is confronted with the growing hostility of her only child, a son. She shows no resistance to the increasing alienation, to the painful distance, separating her from her son as well as from her beloved friends.

To place Ayesha/Veeru in a pivotal position but to deprive her of the will to act in a manner that could break the mould of patriarchy is an intellectual choice made by the writers. We similarly see hardly any emotional resonance when her brother shows up at her door, a pilgrim going to the same area where his sister was separated from her family at the time of the upheavals of 1947.

Not to explore the profound cataclysm of emotion that could most certainly have broken the silence of this long-suffering woman is an artistic choice made by the director. That Ayesha/Veeru chooses to end her life by jumping into the same or a similar well that consumed the lives of countless women at the time of Partition, acting out the will of a patriarch who preferred to see a dead woman instead of a violated one, is a sad and predictable ending, nonetheless a choice made by Sumar and Vohra.

These choices serve to place Ayesha/Veeru in the same position that women have often been relegated to in cinema: a silent witness to their own victimisation, perpetuating their own victimhood.

Perhaps another film-maker would have subverted the positioning of the woman as a silent subject, not letting her wilfully drown herself in silent waters. For what is the purpose of the cinematic art if not to add something to the telling of the tale, something that elevates the story by weaving it with often contradictory, always nuanced but rarely simplistic human emotions? While all writers and directors make choices to tell a particular story, in Khamosh Pani the telling of an excellent story is compromised by the simplistic and sometimes melodramatic treatment of complex human emotions and dynamics.

Consider the character of Rashid (assayed by Sarfaraz Ansari), the bearded fanatic spreading his message amongst the assembled gentlefolk of a fictional village. He is full of contempt for the men of the village as they enjoy an afternoon snack while Sikh pilgrims have begun to arrive at an adjacent place of worship. He snarls and spits out the words: “People sacrificed their blood and you’re concerned about eating!

A poster of *Pinjar* (2003) | IMDb

A poster of Pinjar (2003) | IMDb


Those people abducted our mothers and daughters!” The reference to women, the signifiers of honour, the vessels within which a family’s dignity is vested, is intended to remind the assembled men of their failure to protect their women, historically and in contemporary time.

The rallying cry to fight a jihad against evil gets a powerful impetus when it becomes a call to protect the virtue of the family, enshrined in the body of a woman. Except that it reduces the complex phenomenon of jihad in Pakistan to a simplistic cause that fits well with the theme of the film. Jihadis in our part of the world seldom, if at all, operate because they want to redeem the honour lost during the 1947 division of India.

Partition (directed by Vic Sarin, co-written by him and Patricia Finn and originally released in Canada in 2007) draws on the same theme of division of land symbolised by the tragic splitting of families. In this film, too, a woman is separated from her parents and brothers during the mass migration of 1947.

Sarin paints an idyllic canvas of the British colonial rule in India to set the context for Partition: the Raj’s upper-class beneficiaries are enjoying a game of polo and sipping glasses of chilled nimboo pani (lemonade) even as native and white soldiers go to fight in World War II on the European continent, vowing to defend the King and the Empire.

The film-maker paints the character of a Sikh soldier, Gian Singh (played by Jimi Mistry), in multiple shades of goodness: bravery, courage, nobility, loyalty. He returns from the war to an India being torn apart by what the film’s opening titles state to be “ancient animosities”. He laments that he returned from war looking for peace but instead has found hatred everywhere.

The conflict in the main plot of Partition is over the forced parting of Singh and Naseem (Kristin Kreuk), a Muslim woman he rescues from the carnage by hiding her in his home. Despite the tumult that surrounds his village, Singh carries on the business of caring for his fields as if all is well and peace prevails on Earth.

All the while he is sheltering Naseem who was separated from her family while crossing the border dividing Punjab. A frightened, lost and traumatised young woman, Naseem finds herself seducing her saviour within the first few scenes of the film, her trauma and possible assault conveniently forgotten at the altar of desire. The couple marries as the village comes to terms with the “enemy” amidst them.

Singh’s mother (a role performed by Madhur Jaffrey) becomes Naseem’s protector within a flash and the young Muslim girl wins the hearts of the rest of the village with her kind and caring disposition. All this happens with the speed of lightening, as does the conception and birth of a son to the star-crossed couple who sing and dance in lush fields while all around them people carry deep scars of Partition.

An English newspaper man turned hotelier, Walter Hankins (John Light), and his could-be beloved, Margaret Stilwell (Neve Campbell), also exist somewhere on the margins of the narrative, working as game-changers in an otherwise hackneyed story. They turn up at moments when holes in the plot need to be filled.

Of course, through these two characters, the larger question of belonging, even for the British in India, is evoked with some pathos but they are never fully fleshed out, serving no purpose other than to nudge the story of the unfortunate couple along, nodding condescendingly at the struggles of the natives now that the British are on their way out.

Sarin’s notion of what it means to be a woman at a turbulent time is as bereft of layering as are his insipid scenes of mass migration. Muslim men are depicted wearing white knitted caps and neatly pressed shalwar kameez. Some of them are even in smart pantsuits and others in sherwanis.

Muslim women are shown in black satin burqas, a marker of the urban middle class in large cities, not the customary clothing of rural women who made up the bulk of female migrants at the time. What is worse is the sartorial transformation of Naseem as soon as she is reunited with her family that is living in the small Punjabi town of Kasur. Here we see her suddenly don a Farshi gharara associated with the women of Uttar Pradesh’s Muslim families.

Nandita Das and Aamir Khan in a scene from *Earth* (1998) | Courtesy Hamilton-Mehta Productions

Nandita Das and Aamir Khan in a scene from Earth (1998) | Courtesy Hamilton-Mehta Productions


Upon returning to her family, Naseem is immediately cloistered by her brothers who insist that she can never return to her Sikh husband because Sikh marauders murdered their father when their kafilah, posse, had come under attack. Her brothers threaten to kill Singh when he comes seeking his wife and beat him too within an inch of his life.

Eventually, after much heartache, she manages to reunite with her husband and saviour but loses him to a fatal fall from a pedestrian crossing at a railway station. Once again we see the grieving woman, betrayed by those who she thought were her own and abandoned by the one she had made her own.

Partition may simply be the universal tale of forbidden love but it disappoints when it is set against the background of one of the largest forcible migrations of people in recorded history. It falls short of evoking the struggle women had to make to cope with the deep fissures of the Partition that divided not just the landscape but also split families, relegating abducted women to the status of being at once living and dead.

Pinjar (a 2003 Hindi film directed by Chandra Prakash Dwivedi) treats the subject of female abduction during Partition in a far stronger way. It takes its title from the Punjabi/Hindi word for ‘skeleton’ or ‘cage’.

Based on a novel of the same name by writer Amrita Pritam, the screenplay diverges to some extent from the original story, the core of which is based on the concerns that Pritam raised in her elegy Aj Aakhan Waris Shah Nu, beseeching the 18th century Sufi poet to arise from his grave and record the travesty that was visited upon the daughters of Punjab at the time of Partition. While the poem does not seek to apportion responsibility to a single community for the violence wreaked upon women, Pinjar unfortunately presents only Muslim men as predatory, vengeful, dour and primitive.

This bleak portrayal is set against the sunny, cheerful and celebratory atmosphere of a Hindu home where Puro (Urmila Matondkar) is being betrothed by her loving but stern father Mohanlal (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) to a scholarly Ramchand (Sanjay Suri), a musician and an aesthete who is translating Valmiki’s Ramayana into Urdu and Diwan-e-Ghalib into Sanskrit.

The symbol of ‘pinjar’ is underscored by references to the flight of a bird, ghoogi (dove), that desires to seek her mate but has to leave her family in doing so. There are references to Sita and her consort Ram, as well as to the scathing tests of Sita’s virtue after her abduction by Ravana, all leading up to Puro’s abduction just before her wedding. That her abductor, Rashid Sheikh, is a Muslim is to be expected. That the character is so poignantly portrayed by Manoj Bajpayee is a refreshing and welcome surprise.

Rashid is conflicted, torn between the need to seek revenge for an earlier injustice involving the abduction and rape of a daughter of his family and his burgeoning love for his victim, Puro. His guilt at having kidnapped her is offset by his refusal to “violate her modesty”, in the same fashion as the mythical Ravana does not force himself upon Sita, leaving her pure and honourable for her one true love, Ram.

The opportunity for the characters to seek redemption makes the story richer than in other Partition films, though at times the saccharine quality of such earnestness appears to be indigestible. It is Rashid who enables Puro to look for Lajjo (Sandali Sinha), the pregnant wife of her beloved brother Trilok (Priyanshu Chatterjee), after she is abducted during the migration.

This redemption, however, barely manages to balance the reactionary “othering” of the Muslim community, seen constantly as either conspiring against Hindus and Sikhs or actively engaged in merciless, gruesome and relentless violence. That Bajpayee delivers a stellar performance redeems his character but his constantly bowed head and contrite demeanour make him look like the representative of a guilt-ridden community solely responsible for the carnage of Partition.

That this film was made after the rise of Hindutva in India could be one of the reasons why it received the National Film Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration, for only in a time of deep and deliberate fracturing manipulated by the state itself can the politics of divisiveness be rewarded.

If only Dwivedi could have inserted such irony into his reading of Pritam’s otherwise progressive novel. Perhaps then we could have seen that the suffering of women during the Partition had little to do with their faiths but with the fact that they were women and that their bodies became the symbol for the contestation of a historically shared and politically shattered land.

A scene from *Garam Hava* (1974) | IMDBb

A scene from Garam Hava (1974) | IMDBb


That contestation is extremely apparent in the 1998 film Earth (directed by Deepa Mehta and based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Ice Candy Man that was later renamed Cracking India). The perspective employed in the film is that of a 10-year-old polio-stricken girl, Lenny Sethna (played seamlessly by Maia Sethna), from a wealthy Parsi family living in Lahore.

The use of the child’s perspective, uncluttered and not mired by prejudice, elevates the film above pedantic efforts to put across a particular message emanating from the turbulent time of Partition. The beautifully woven narrative comprises a coming of age story for Lenny and a tragic splitting of five ‘companions’, four of whom are employed by her family in different capacities, as the symbolic ‘tearing apart’ of India.

All of this is embodied in the competing affections of two men for Lenny’s attractive Hindu ayah Shanta (played by Nandita Das), a woman whose blouse is cut low enough for her bosom to be tantalisingly visible to her male admirers who flock around her like moths fatally circling a lit candle.

The film is heavy on symbolism: when Lenny sees a man being tied to two vehicles and torn apart, she comes home and pulls apart the limbs of her doll. When the five companions – Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim – spend a lazy afternoon in a park, the shadow of Empress Victoria looms up against the sky: a white woman ruling the lives of hapless Indians who would soon be at each other’s throats.

When the ice candy man, Dil Navaz (played by Aamir Khan), implores Shanta to marry him so that he can “contain the rage for revenge within him”, it is in response to the fact that his sisters have been killed in a train coming to Lahore from across the border. Here, the exchange of a woman for other women suggests that settling of scores was the only way for grief to be assuaged, for honour to be restored, even at that time of total upheaval.

Sidhwa seems to underscore that equation in the closing lines of her book, read out in the film by the adult Lenny (played by Sidhwa herself) but in the voice of Indian actor Shabana Azmi: “That day in 1947, when I lost Ayah, I lost a part of myself.” For in the desperate search for the restoration of some semblance of normalcy, it was women who paid the price, either as the locus of violence and possession, or as exchangeable commodities and repositories of male honour, their bodies being of more consequence than their spirit.


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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.

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