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Crosses and Knots: Subcontinental Partition Cinema

By Prithviraj Sinha 

Love/Hate. Unity/Division. Peace/War: It seems without the onus of practicing these time-honored binaries, our social lives would be devoid of a central truth. It is wisdom on our part to know that the imperceptible workings of the human mind have been instrumental in fanning divisions over centuries and when I adopt or even so much as enunciate the term ‘subcontinent’, an image of division becomes instantly recognizable with its other graver cultural synonym. PARTITION – an event of life-altering magnitude that etched in no singular terms the brutality of mankind. 1947 was the year when we realized that clinging to the weight of one ideal was foolhardy and skipping from one to the other was the need of the hour. We made our choices then to hoodwink death sometimes and to cut our own corners, little knowing that our collective tragedies resonated in our individual churnings. In the presence of such vitiated tempers, humanity learnt the bitter tyranny of never managing to abide by a single principle to survive. Who knew that these binaries would compel us to resort to hate-mongering and its chiseled weapons would continue to saw the very flesh of democracy (even seventy years down the line) in various forms. The personal choice inevitably then became a political tool with serrated edges.

We have better sense to know that when political maneuverings add fuel to the fire, an ordinary individual, who has suffered some personal dilemmas of his own, resorts to using simmering hostilities and communal tensions to stoke a divisive order that is beyond imagination. It resides in ruins of not just facts and memories alone. All the same as we put together this skeletal idea of Partition, we have to reiterate how the dialectic of hate has become a commonality, an occupation for partisan workshops of the modern era. Make no mistake about it as it’s no longer even relegated to a state or a pan national boundary. That illusion of insular societal complexities of a particular nature has been completely shattered in these Trumpian times. Today, we are ready to air our own private dirty laundries muddied with delicate ethnic and communal filigrees to a globalized mirror of refractions. The sharp edges of shame are left behind in the process of peddling these divisions and without realizing as much, this personal streak becomes disturbingly political.  Be it man or woman, aged and children, today this is the worldview that sums up our collective humanity consonant with our general, exclusionary, egotistical make up.

Then what is the part that the victims adopt in return? Those who have been wronged and splintered by opportunistic agents of division? Which of the binaries do they adhere to? Exactly which political/personal strain do they lean on? Go probe into the deep, ye soul / for in the landscape of 2018, what state of responsibility do we stand by as the past comes crashing disgracefully to the present? This is the finer-point I make keeping aside the narratives, the touch of pure evil and vestiges of truth we recognize with the Partition. If we reel in the subsumption of our essentially divisive times then I believe we have to hark back voluntarily to the same universal strains that go into constructing manmade Holocausts as these. If this is indeed how far we have come then we are only apprehending treading further on the path of more strife and bloodshed even as both words occupy our consciousness by the diurnal clock. With our modern currency of indiscriminate passions stoking a new civil era of disengagement with the politics of peace, we prevail as a Partitioned society, in the face of this overt majoritarian syncretism we rally around. You see, this churning is really deep-seated and claustrophobically internalized.


As my critical framework is built around the narrative of Partition, for me the agency of art vis-à-vis cinematic image and the written word is the one that has made me look at Partition as a tragedy as also the trickle effect of complexities affecting people across these border lines. If you ask me then I will say that a famous painting by Amrita Shergill, titled Group of Three Girls, comes to my mind. This painting was modelled on the rural women of Punjab, the very state that oversaw horrors of Partition and history has informed us how members of the fairer sex had to undergo physical agonies and emotional scars galore. There can be no sanitized appendage to what they went through but this portrait of three woebegone young women, huddled together in a stooped down position and their saturnine features along with Shergill’s use of their dress colors against a damp, sooty backdrop, makes me look at the unexpressed patches of a prior communal life as it was painted a good twelve years before the Partition pogrom. Just like Edvard Munch’s The Scream, it relays a power of suggestion of the coming and the past experience particular to the location and people involved. The particular then morphs into the universal. Was the wan and downcast expression on the women’s faces a part of any pre-existing strain hidden in crannies of anonymity? We’ll never know but I have always felt their faces, rather the mobility of their countenance even in case of a lack of expressions projected on the canvas, made an unwritten past merge with the recorded tales.

My experience of Partition was via history books. I was ‘informed’ about this episode in distant history. I got awakened to it when as a twelve-year-old, I came closer to inspect the turnaround the event occasioned. I watched Pinjar (2003), which was based on the novel of the same name by Amrita Pritam, and the fate of Puro hit me in the gut. As a woman betrothed to be married to a sensitive young man, she is abducted by Rashid who wants to avenge a past misdeed by her forbears on top of contentious land disputes. Puro is made to borne the stigma. Rashid may have ventured on the path of retribution but he does not outrage her modesty. As a Muslim who is made to be the Other, his anger has hardly settled down but he realizes the implications of his actions on Puro. What seems more impossible is how her family disowned her. Her pleas that she is untainted fall on deaf ears as she is driven away. In her fate resonates the fate of millions of women who were abducted and raped during the Partition mayhem and were treated as a ‘stigma’ by the custodians of honor. Puro converts to Islam and the loss she endures is horrific. Her tale seems to encompass turmoils of gender, religion and land that is eternally at the center of every conflict zone.

The same echoes are to be found in the Pakistani drama Dastan (2010), based on the novel Bano written by Razia Butt. While the protagonist in Pinjar was a Hindu woman and in Bano a Muslim, the fate they share is the same. The theme of rupture, loss of home, sense of alienation has been realized with rare sensitivity. The essential loss of innocence in the wake of a new nation’s dawn reveals that the society remains as fractured as it was before lofty ideologies had a field day. Ultimately, the women of the soil who were hailed as its heroes were torchbearers of its stunted beginnings and future generations indebted to half-informed truths.

Perhaps, we find the most nostalgic and powerful narratives of the Partition, the plight of Punjab and its women in Amrita Pritam’s Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu. Amrita Pritam’s poem in Punjabi speaks of a land fragmented invoking images of iconic poet Waaris Shah and the Chenab river.


Actually, barbed wires can never really snap shared experiences and indeed Pinjar and Dastaan are replete with memories of a united land. In fact, filmmakers from both sides have on countless occasions risen above a perceived air of indifference and collaborated on the similitudes that the two countries share. A case in point would be Wirsa, a film that speaks about companionship and assimilation amongst Indians and Pakistanis in a diasporic setting. The music of maestros like Abida Parveen, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, fusion bands, the popular channel Zindagi are constant reminders of a common cultural ethos which highlight the sheer absurdities of sectarian and communal divisions in a post-Partition epoch.

Two recent films, Ramchand Pakistani and Khamosh Paani (both made by Pakistani filmmakers) subtly explore the legacies of contestation that Partition spawned. Ramchand Pakistani, directed by Mehreen Jabbar, is set in post-Partition Pakistan and explores the plight of hundreds of prisoners who are languishing in cross-border prisons (Kulbhushan Jadhav and Sarbjeet Singh are examples of such victims). In Ramchand Pakistani, a Hindu father inadvertently follows his seven-year-old son into India; this makes them Pakistani infiltrators and hence susceptible enough to be put in jail. The two stay in prison for several years until they are released and go back to their ‘home’, Pakistan. Not every story has a similar turn of events.

More incisive narrative about Partition-spawned complexities is Khamosh Pani, directed by Sabiha Sumar. It’s a purview of the continuum of the Partition. In it, Kirron Kher plays a woman who resides in her village Charkhi which after 1947 lies in Pakistan. A Sikh woman who refuses to accept being killed by her own father to save her ‘honor’ from Muslims, she leaves home and chooses to stay in Pakistan. She is no longer Veero but rather Ayesha, a widowed woman who then witnesses the Islamic fundamentalism that consumes and claims her son who has morphed from a gentleman to an extremist.

Partition, for me, is a phenomenon that continues to echo in every single instance of extremism, bigotry and ethnic and sectarian ‘othering’. Lynching, hate crimes abroad, even a look of distrust and disgust. All of these commingled to generate the single greatest human purge just years away from the Holocaust. Remembrances go back to how the Partition was deemed by historians as the ‘Indian Holocaust’. The fabric of suffering and loss reverberates across distances, eras and personages. Till today, my mind shudders, imagining the breadth of loss of property, home, hearth and a way of life that defines this mass exodus.

Generations later today we witness a strong nostalgia and yearning for the days gone by as represented in the Google Search advertisement where long-lost friends are united by their respective grandchildren. These experiences assert the past in the presentness of Partition as well as a desire to overcome the rupture.

The opening of a Partition memorial in Amritsar, safeguarding remnants of people, attires, even structures of homes and various paraphernalia, clearly demonstrates that all cannot be forgotten or lost forever. There’s a life that exists outside public enmities and just small talk. It defines our triumphs, tragedies and life scripts with all the complexities we carry on our shoulders. For a lifetime and generations beyond.


Haq, Zia. “Nayar, optimist, defender of civil liberties, dies.” Hindustan Times (New Delhi), 23 Aug, 2018.

Prithvijeet Sinha is an M. Phil. (English) student at the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow and is an avid reader and writer. Since 2015, he has been publishing his poetry, essays on popular culture, music and cinema on the worldwide community Wattpad and on his blog, “An Awadh Boy’s Panorama: Tracing Words on These Filigreed, Discerning Fingertips”. He also contributes regularly to Reader’s Digest, GNOSIS journal, Café Dissensus Everyday, and Forward Poetry UK.


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

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