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Chhor aaye hum who galiyaan: Representations of women displaced by Partition in popular cinema

By Sudeshna Chakravorty

In A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, Julian Barnes presents an interesting discourse on the relationship between catastrophe and art:

How do you turn catastrophe into art?

… We have to understand it, of course, this catastrophe; to understand it, we have to imagine it, so we need the imaginative arts. But we also need to justify it and forgive it, this catastrophe, however minimally. Why did it happen… this crazed human moment? Well, at least it produced art (125).

One of the first steps in addressing a problem, of trying to understand a “crazed human moment” is to recognise that it exists, and documenting it as authentically as possible, not just as statistics in government registers and history books, but also as human stories, where the visceral emotions are portrayed and allowed a catharsis. And that is where art – literature, music, films – play a very important role.

Film criticism has a value for literary studies for it allows us to view the same social reality through a different medium. The underlying power structures, the frames which melt into each other, the repetitive narrative patterns, the dialogues which use myth and history, are interesting tools of negotiating human behaviour, and the very visual nature of the medium often lends a pulsating immediacy to a historical moment from the past.

In this essay, I intend to dissect how the popular pan-Indian cinematic medium has depicted the forced, violent displacement and related problems faced by women in the wake of Partition. Contingent to this, the essay will also focus on the gender stereotypes that women caught in such situations were forced to encounter, fight or accept, in addition to the host of gender-neutral problems that forced displacement entails.

Armed conflict – between two nations or between disagreeing factions residing within the same country – is an unfortunate reality of human existence. And the displacement of populations is one of its gravest consequences. One of the overriding ironies of this phenomenon is that though the overwhelming majority of wars and riots are started, organized, and led by men, women represent a large proportion of its victims. Currently, women account for around half of the world’s 33.2 million ‘Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDPs) (Global Trends 33; Global Overview 2014). The UN Platform for Action (1995) describes how girls and women are especially affected by armed conflict because of their unequal status in society and their sex. Among the specific effects experienced by women of all ages are displacement, loss of home and property, loss of close relatives, poverty and family separation and disintegration, victimization through acts of murder, terrorism, torture, involuntary disappearance, sexual slavery, rape, and sexual abuse. If one intends to destroy a culture, women are tactical targets of special significance because of their important roles within the family structure (Seifert, 1993).

During an armed conflict, civilians not participating in the hostilities are often forced to flee their homes to avoid being caught up in violence. In the ensuing panic and chaos, many women, brutally uprooted from what they thought of as their safe havens, find themselves alone or with children they now need to look after single-handedly. Displaced women often have to travel long distances to find water, food, firewood, medicines, and other essentials. In so doing, they are exposed to increased risk of sexual violence, abuse and injury. The burden of family responsibility coupled with the anguish of sudden loss, also takes a huge toll on the women’s health. Forcefully and unwillingly displaced women of conservative cultures (like South-East Asia or the Middle- East), who generally are expected/used to travel with male relatives, are also often found to lack the necessary identification documents to cross checkpoints or international boarders, or the funds to pay for transport, when they attempt to flee hostilities, resulting in further harassment.

A camp or an ‘Internally Displaced People’ (IDP) community may offer displaced women relative safety but does not end their plight. Conventionally, most of these women would probably have relied on family and kin for food and resource sharing. Abrupt separation from their families deprives them of this support. There is also the danger of their having to exchange sexual favours for food or other essentials. The trauma of their experience, conflict-related injury, sexual violence, and unplanned pregnancy inevitably increases women’s need for healthcare. But in most cases, displacement hinders their access to quality healthcare at a time when they need it most.

In the context of the Indian subcontinent, the biggest population displacement till date has been in the wake of India’s Partition into India and Pakistan and the bloody communal riots that shook the country (especially Punjab and Bengal) as its aftermath. Now whether as refugees who have crossed borders, or as internally displaced camp residents, the problems faced by women in such situations of armed violence are quite similar and need documenting as well as sensitive handling.

Gender-based violence can obviously affect boys as well. Such violence (against men and boys) is in fact harder to address as it is often hidden, and relevant statistics are harder to find. Men and boys in conflict settings are vulnerable to forced recruitment (into gangs or armed forces), illegal detention, and torture. But in any war or war-like situation, apart from the ways already listed above in which women face violence and trauma, is the additional burden of their having to protect the family ‘honour’ even in such desperate times. Rape is used by militia groups and soldiers as a weapon of terror that destroys not only individuals but whole communities. So often, women and girls are raped, mutilated, and kept as sex slaves, and then they are turned away from their families and left without hope for their future. The more conservative the society (like what still exists in the Indian sub-continent), the more severe is the plight of such hapless women; and nowhere was it more blatantly illustrated than during the Partition, when women not only faced the horrific prospect of rape or mutilation by the so-called enemies, but were often killed, abetted towards suicide or abandoned by their own family members, if they were unfortunate enough to have lost their ‘honour’ by not being able to prevent getting raped.

Films, as mentioned above, are important social documents, not only because they capture real events behind the veneer of fiction. Films are made with a commercial interest and hence need to keep the pulse of the target audience in mind. Hence even the most exaggerated pot-boiler, for all its hyper-reality, often reveals much about what ideals, aspirations and, of course, gender-constructs the film’s audience holds dear at the time. Since the reach of the Hindi film industry is the broadest in the sub-continent, I have restricted my study to three popular Hindi films, though several extremely sensitive handlings of the same theme can be found in the vernacular mediums as well. The first film dealing with the treatment of post-Partition displaced women that I would like to put under the scanner is the 1960 classic, Chhalia, starring Raj Kapoor, Nutan, and Pran and directed by Manmohan Desai.

The real protagonist of Chhalia is Shanti (Nutan), who is married off to Kewal (Rehman) on the eve of Partition. While the two families move away to Delhi from Lahore, she inadvertently is left behind, and is forced to share roof with Abdul Rehman (Pran), who has a sister of Shanti’s age in India. When she returns to India five years later with her son, she is first welcomed by the husband with open arms but disowned when the child identifies himself as Anwar, and his father as Abdul Rehman. Even her own father refuses to give her shelter, though in the years she had lived with Abdul Rehman she hadn’t even seen his face.

Physically and emotionally shattered, Shanti tries to commit suicide after leaving Anwar in a remand home, but is rescued by an outlaw, Chhalia (Raj Kapoor), who soon falls in love with Shanti but keeps his own counsel. The plot moves forward as Rehman lands in Delhi to settle old scores with Chhalia and threatens to kidnap Shanti. The bloody fight that ensues between the two adversaries eventually ends in a truce. The hurried climax, set amidst Dussehra festivities, has Chhalia facilitating a reconciliation between Shanti and Kewal, and himself walking into the infinity, while Rehman is reunited with his sister on the return train.

This film, hugely successful during its time, is a classic illustration of how displaced women were treated by society. The first and foremost requirement from a woman always remains her chastity. Shanti is left alone in Lahore and has to fend for herself. But when she returns to her family, her trauma and fortitude pale into insignificance in the wake of the possibility that she may have been sexually intimate, willingly or unwillingly, with a man not her husband. All her pleas of ‘innocence’ fall on deaf ears, and if not for the very cinematic interference of the tramp, Shanti’s lot would have been suicide.

The second film chosen for discussion is much more recent. Gadar: Ek Prem Katha is a 2001 period drama, starring Sunny DeolAmisha Patel, and Amrish Puri, which tries to recreate the post-Partition scenario.

The film tells the story of a Sikh truck driver, Tara Singh (Sunny Deol), who falls in love with a Muslim girl, Sakina (Amisha Patel), from an aristocratic family. The story begins by capturing scenes of forced displacement in the wake of the Partition, where Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims are all attacking each other. During these riots, Tara recognizes Sakina for whom he had nursed a soft corner during their college days, trying to board a train to Pakistan. Like Shanti from the earlier film, Sakina too is separated from her family as she is unable to fight the surging crowds to get on to the train. A murderous mob chases Sakina and Tara Singh saves her from certain rape and murder.

Meanwhile, Tara’s parents and two sisters in Pakistan lament their not returning to Amritsar before the Partition. Tara’s Muslim friend comes to meet the family and requests them to stay with him as his own parents. But such is the atmosphere of hatred and mistrust that Tara’s parents and sisters do not agree, and reluctantly decide to leave. In a very telling scene, while leaving for the station, Tara’s parents are shown giving their daughters two paper pouches. The father instructs the bewildered twins to give up their lives unhesitatingly, lest any Muslim attacks their ‘izzat’ or dignity. Thus once again we are rudely made to confront the fact that even in such traumatic moments of being brutally plucked from home and hearth, women were expected to be more conscious not about surviving, but of preserving the family honour, that only entailed keeping their genitals untouched! Unfortunately, a large mob attacks the whole train in which the family was travelling. Tara’s sisters hastily try to consume the poison but two men throw it from their hands and kill them after cruel physical abuse.

Back in the present, Sakina lives in Tara’s house and soon mutual respect culminates into love. Sometime later they get married and become parents of a baby boy named Jeet. Their life seems like a bed of roses, until Sakina sees an old newspaper during Holi that features a photograph of her father, Ashraf Ali (Amrish Puri), whom she had believed to have been killed during the Partition riots.

When Sakina calls her father (now the mayor of Lahore) from the Pakistani Embassy in Delhi, he arranges to fly her to Lahore. Tara and their son are however told at the last minute that their visa formalities have not been completed, compelling them to stay back in India. In Lahore, she meets her whole clan and there are several emotional reunions. But later, when she wants to return to India, she is forcibly stopped by her father who uses emotional blackmail as well as brute force to poison her mind against her Indian husband and in-laws. Sakina is broken-hearted, but refuses to let her parents’ friends use her post-marriage life as a publicity stunt and depict her in-laws badly in order to extract more sympathy and votes from the Pakistani population. Later she is introduced to a very handsome guy, who hails from a very influential rich family and told that she would be marrying him. Sakina refuses but is locked up in her room, and preparations are started for her second marriage.

Meanwhile, Tara and his son enter Pakistan illegally and reach Sakina just before the marriage is about to be solemnised. Mother and son reunite happily. Ashraf Ali sets the condition that Tara convert to Islam and the family relocate to Pakistan. Tara accepts the terms, but Ali is not satisfied. In a scene high on drama, he tries to make Tara shout insulting slogans against India to prove that he is a true Pakistani. Tara’s patience finally breaks and he ends up killing a member of the mob that was hired by Ashraf to kill him. A lot of twists and turns follow, with Sakina getting shot by her own father in the climax, all because her choice of life partner was against his notions of a ‘respectable match’. This being a Bollywood pot-boiler, Sakina does recover even after lapsing into a coma. The movie ends with Ashraf Ali accepting Tara as his son-in-law and they return to India.

With the passage of time, the way the plight of women displaced by Partition is depicted in movies has undergone a change, which is an affirmative step forward, though much work is still to be done. As opposed to the 1960 narrative in which Shanti is accepted back into the domestic fold after her chastity (during her stay with Rehman) is established, Sakina is ultimately embraced by her autocratic father along with the husband who is the ‘other’.

As mentioned earlier, most film makers keep a tab on the receptivity of their audience before presenting a certain theme on celluloid. Though the major reason for the huge box-office success of Gadar was its militant nationalistic fervour and jingoism, yet the ‘happily ever after’ granted to the lead couple, though more wish fulfilment than reality, is an important comment on the increased tolerance of society that cannot be ignored.

This counter narrative of hope – if not of completely rooting out forced displacement, then at least of learning to survive despite it – is even more starkly illustrated in the third and final film that I want to discuss. The 2003 movie Pinjar, tells the story of Puro (played by Urmila Matondkar), a young Hindu woman living a happy, comfortable life with her family. She is shown to be engaged to a wealthy, kind young man, Ramchand (Sanjay Suri). One day, on an outing with her younger sister Rajjo, Puro is suddenly kidnapped by a mysterious man, Rashid (played by Manoj Bajpai). Though Puro was unaware of the fact, it transpires that Rashid’s family has an ancestral dispute with Puro’s family. In the past, Puro’s family had made Rashid’s family homeless by taking over their property. Puro’s grand-uncle had even kidnapped and raped Rashid’s grand-aunt. The task of exacting revenge is given to Rashid, and his family tell him to kidnap Puro, in order to settle the score.

Rashid goes through with the kidnapping but cannot bring himself to be cruel to Puro, since he is drawn to her. One night, Puro manages to escape and returns to her parents, but is regretfully turned away, for they fear that if Puro were to stay, Rashid’s extended clan would slaughter everyone in their village. Left with nowhere to go, and this is where the narrative makes the first major deviation from the beaten track, Puro does not attempt suicide, but returns to Rashid. Rashid, on his part, was well-aware of Puro’s escape; but takes her back without ado. Even more affirmative is the fact that he does not take advantage of her, even after knowing that she is totally at his mercy. After some months, Rashid marries Puro, and they settle into an uneasy routine of husband and wife, during which time Puro becomes pregnant but miscarries.

The British colonialists leave India and the subcontinent reels under the effects of the partition. In the ensuing confusion and displacement, Puro has a tearful reunion with her brother Trilok, who explains to her that if she so chooses, she can start a new life, as Ramchand is ready to accept her even now. Puro surprises Trilok by refusing and saying that after everything that has happened, she is where she belongs. Ramchand responds with tremendous empathy to Puro, as he sees that she has accepted Rashid. Meanwhile, Rashid slowly tries to merge into the crowd, making it easier for Puro to leave with her family. He is heartbroken, as he is deeply in love with her, but wants her to be happy. However, Puro seeks Rashid out, and the two tearfully bid Puro’s family farewell forever.

This movie, based on a novel by Amrita Pritam, breaks new ground in more ways than one. As already mentioned above, it acknowledges that even for the displaced woman, the right to live is more important than saving some ephemeral concept of ‘honour’. This is further emphasised when, unlike Kewal (in Chhalia), Ramchand is shown as ready to start a new life with Puro and even Lajjo is shown as being given the chance to return to mainstream life, in spite of having been kidnapped and in all probabilities, abused. The stereotype of the macho, aggressive male ideal is also hearteningly debunked. Rashid kidnaps Puro to carry on the cycle of hatred and revenge, but his softer side wins over and instead of violating her or greedily holding on to her, he is ready to let her go, in spite of loving her deeply. But the most important departure, for me, is the choice and agency granted to the woman to make an unconventional life choice. Puro refuses to return to ‘normal’, ‘respectable’ life with Ramchand, and chooses to follow her heart, even if it means embracing the ‘other’.

Since women are often the worst victims of armed conflicts and its resultant displacement, it is of great importance that they are given greater agency, and participation in formal as well as informal peace negotiations. Unfortunately, they are still largely seen as victims of conflict who need to be protected and kept safe rather than agents of change for peace. Because of such views and sentiments, the elimination of violence against women in conflict prone areas continues to pose challenges.

The media, of which films are a very potent component, commonly portray women as passive victims of conflict, as is illustrated through the way Shanti and Sakina are portrayed. It is true that conflict and its resultant displacement affect women in a host of ways. But far from being helpless victims, women are resourceful, resilient, and courageous in the face of hardship and it is important to go beyond uni-dimensional portrayals to fully understand their ordeal, without downplaying it. It is in this context that the character of Puro becomes very important.

Obviously, women, men, boys, and girls are exposed to different risks. Men have their own misfortunes – they make up the vast majority of those killed, detained or made to disappear during war. But the point that this essay has tried to highlight is how even after the crisis moments of actual war or riots are over, while male survivors are welcomed back with open arms, without any questions being asked about the number of rapes or murders to his name, women exposed to sexual violence find it very hard to be rehabilitated. But among the majority of Shantis and the Sakinas, there also exist the Puros; and it is their story that needs to be highlighted more, in academics, government documents as well as popular culture. 

Works Cited
Barnes, Julian. A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters. London: Vintage.1989. Print.

Chhalia. Dir. Desai Manmohan Desai. Perf. Kapoor Raj, Nutan, Pran. 1960. Film.

Gadar: Ek Prem Katha. Dir: Sharma Anil. Perf. Deol Sunny, Patel Amisha, Puri Amrish. 2001. Film.

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). Global Overview 2014. Source here. Accessed 28.03.18. Web.

Madzima-Bosha, Tadzie. ‘The effects of conflict are felt hardest by women and children’. Source here. Accessed 25.03.2018. Web.

Pinjar. Dir. Chandraprakash Dwivedi. Perf. Matondkar Urmila, Bajpayee Manoj, Suri Sanjoy. 2003. Film.

Seifert. R. War and Rape: Analytic approaches. Geneva: Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. 1993. Print.

UNHCR, Global Trends 2010: 60 years and Still Counting. 2011. 33. Print.

Dr. Sudeshna Chakravorty
is currently working as Assistant Professor of English, Susil Kar College, Champahati (affiliated to the University of Calcutta). She is involved in various research works and is on the panel of External Examiners of M.Phil. scholars, JNU, New Delhi. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Sarvodaya: A Journal of Human Development, the in-house interdisciplinary ISSN no. awarded journal of Susil Kar College. She has chaired sessions at conferences, most recent of them being at the International Conference on Emergence of Globalisation: Towards Transnationalism, organised by the ISCS in February 2017. She has presented papers at several National and International Seminars and Conferences, She is a Life member of the Shakespeare Society of India and the Jadavpur University Society for American Studies (JUSAS) and makes regular contributions to the latter’s seminars, workshops. She has acted as Resource Person in several of their seminars, most recently at a colloquium at the 20th Anniversary Seminar in March 2017. Her areas of interest include Gender Studies, Folklore and Culture Studies.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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