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Understanding The Importance of Partition

Ahead of our upcoming film season, writer and journalist Nauman Khalid reflects on Partition and why it is so important to commemorate this historical event.

According to the Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, the division of India cast a long shadow over demography, economics, culture, religion, law, international relations and party politics. In his book India after Gandhi: the history of the world’s largest democracy he claims: “… In the Indian academy the past is defined as a single immovable date 15 August 1947.” Partition is etched in the minds of the people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. According to varying estimates 12 to 15 million people were uprooted and several hundred thousand to a million lost their lives in the resulting upheaval.

Celebrations for the 70th anniversary of independence from the British will be taking place on both sides of the Radcliffe divide mid-August but a more introspective mood pervades in the mother country. Recently, the Southbank in London hosted the Karachi Literature Festival and the British Library, the Jaipur Literature Festival with the likes of Mohammed Hanif and Shashi Tharoor lambasting the British colonial presence in the subcontinent.

HOME is hosting its own programme to commemorate Partition from the Fri 9 to Sun 11 June, with films showing how the division marked the lives of those who made or perished in the perilous journey from one side to the other at the time of the rushed, arbitrary division.

On show first is Viceroy’s House which was on general release till only recently. The late Bengali auteur, Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-capped Star and E-flat together with Subarnarekha are referred to as his “Partition trilogy”. Of these the first two are being screened.

The Cloud-capped Star is about a displaced Bengali middleclass family in a Calcutta refugee colony at the time of the division who, primarily, depend on their eldest daughter/sister to get by. This tale of unilateral sacrifice hasn’t weathered the test of time in some ways. The sole breadwinner of the family is shown to be a paragon of virtue but to have no agency. She only finds a voice towards the bitter end when events have led her to decrepitude and she finds herself carted off to a sanatorium in Shillong where she is finally amidst the mountains she always longed to see but hasn’t the physical or mental wherewithal to enjoy. One pauses and admires Ghatak’s inventive camera-work, his beautiful compositions and his deft editing – he was an Eisenstein admirer. The programme also presents a rare opportunity to watch E-flat alongside, which is about two rival theatre groups and Anup Singh’s tribute to Ritwik Ghatak The Name of a River.

Another film on the menu, Mango Dreams – the story of an old Hindu doctor-widower who goes on a road-trip with a Muslim rickshaw driver – attempts to show India’s secular spirit in a beautifully shot way. However, the highlight of the weekend is the film Qissa by Anup Singh which tells the dark, harrowing tale of a Sikh family who settle on the Indian side of Punjab after they are forced to move in the carnage of Partition. This is a story about patriarchy gone mad told movingly and shot beautifully in the verdant plains of the Punjab. Anup Singh is an admirer of Ghatak’s work who is said to have been greatly affected by the partition of his homeland, Bengal.

The Pakistani historian, Ayesha Jalal in her book The Pity of Partition points to what was most egregious about Partition: “India’s partition along ostensibly religious lines in 1947 is simply the most dramatic instance of post-war decolonization based on the arbitrary redrawing of boundaries.”

Many years ago, I watched my first film on Partition at what used to be Cornerhouse in Manchester – Ken McMullen’s 1987 film based on Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story Toba Tek Singh set in a Lahore lunatic asylum two years after the seismic division of the subcontinent, starring Zia Mohyeddin, Roshan Seth and the late, Saeed Jaffery and Zohra Sehgal – South Asian actors based in Britain who deserve more appreciation than they’ve been given.

In the predicament of the inmates, perhaps, we have one of the greatest short stories in Urdu and films on Partition. Given the dearth of good films on the subject, the inclusion of this landmark film is mandatory in any programme purporting to commemorate Partition.

Our Partition film weekender runs between Fri 09 – Sun 11 Jun. Find out more and book tickets here.