Pakistani Cinema Had Its Own Way of Looking at Partition Too

Like in India, there were some filmmakers in Pakistan who did venture to look at the bloodiest chapter of the independence struggle of the two countries.

A film poster of the Pakistani film Kartar Singh (1959). Courtesy: Omar Ali Khan

The Wire’s #PartitionAt70 series brings a number of stories, through text and multimedia content, that will attempt at drawing a comprehensive picture of those weeks and months when entire geographies and histories changed forever.

As the Indian sub-continent was divided in 1947, the film industry of the newly formed nation of West and East Pakistan found it had to rebuild itself from scratch. Unlike India, which had different centres of filmmaking like Bombay, Poona, Calcutta and Madras, Pakistan had just one – Lahore. However, due to communal riots in the city, its two major studios, both owned by Hindus – Roop K. Shorey and Dalsukh Pancholi – were razed to the ground. Shorey and Pancholi were forced to leave Lahore and make India their new home. Other Hindu artists working largely in Lahore like Pran, Om Prakash and Kuldip Kaur also migrated to India.

But while the film folk who moved to India were Hindus, not all Muslims from the Bombay film industry left for the new nation of Pakistan. For some, like the then reigning singing star, Noor Jehan, it was a purely personal decision of wanting to return to her roots. When the place of her birth, Kasur, found itself in Pakistan, she decided to resettle there. Undoubtedly, the more secular nature of the film industry, already well established in India, played a key role in many Muslims choosing to stay back here. Many of those who moved to Pakistan had either begun to see their careers starting to decline or were struggling to get their careers going and went in the hope of starting afresh. However, this move did not work for most of them and it was only reigning stars Noor Jehan and the husband-wife team of actor-producer-director Nazir and Swaranalata who continued to find success even after moving to Pakistan.

Much of the talent that was to rule the Pakistani film industry in the coming years were indigenous newcomers like Santosh Kumar, Sabiha Khanum and Mussarat Nazir as most of the ruling stars, filmmakers, lyricists and composers of the time had chosen to remain in India. Some prominent migrants to Pakistan included filmmaker W.Z. Ahmed, writer Saadat Hasan Manto and music directors Ghulam Haider and Feroz Nizami.

The first Pakistani film was released, after quite a struggle, on August 7, 1948. Dawood Chand’s Teri Yaad, starred Asha Posley and Dilip Kumar’s younger brother, Nasir Khan. However, the film, of much poorer quality than an Indian production of the time, proved anything but memorable for those associated it with it and flopped miserably at the box-office.

Teri Yaad (1948) starring Nasir Khan and Asha Posley the first film made in Pakistan. Courtesy: Omar Ali Khan

It took Nazir and Swarnalata (a Sikh who converted and became Sayeda) to get the Pakistani film industry going with its first silver jubilee hit, the Punjabi film, Pherey (1949), made at a cost of Rs 65,000. As other filmmakers like W.Z. Ahmed, Anwar Kemal Pasha and Sibtain Fazli did their bit to build the Pakistani film industry, they not only had to deal with limited resources at their disposal but also had to fight the all too power distributor lobby in a bid to limit the release of the technically superior Hindi films from across the border that, according to them, hindered the growth of an indigenous film industry. Conditions were so adverse for the Pakistanis that it wasn’t till 1951 that a top star like Noor Jehan could come out with her first film, the Punjabi offering Chan Way. Slowly, the industry began to settle down.

Among the early films in India to address the actual events that surrounded the Partition was the Nargis-Karan Dewan starrer Lahore (1949), directed by M.L. Anand where Nargis played an abducted woman in Lahore and Dewan, her lover, who goes to Pakistan to get her back. Pakistan followed suit the next year with their first film looking at the divide of the sub-continent, Masud Parvaiz’s Beli. However, the wounds of the Partition were still too raw and something both countries preferred not to address if they could help it, at least in the medium of film. Thus, compared to the amount of writing that India find on the Partition, the number of films by all three countries (East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh following the Indo-Pak war of 1971) is noticeably and strikingly low.

Like in India, there were some filmmakers in Pakistan too, who did venture to look at the bloodiest chapter of the independence struggle of the two countries. Some prominent Pakistani films that have revisited 1947 include Saifuddin Saif’s landmark Punjabi film, Kartar Singh (1959), Raza Mir’s Lakhon Main Aik (1967) and Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Pani (2003).

Kartar Singh is rightly considered as one of the finest films to come out of Pakistan. It is, in fact, a rather balanced (as balanced as can be) and sensitive film on the Partition. The film is set in a symbolic pre-partition Punjab village in India where Hindus, Sikhs and Muslim live in harmony. The most respected man in the village is the vaid, Prem Nath (Zarif), while World War II veteran, Umer Din (Sudhir), a Muslim, and petty thief and trouble maker Sikh, Kartar Singh (Allaudin), are some of the other prominent people. As communal riots hit the village, Umer Din and the woman he loves (Mussarat Nazir) are forced to migrate to Pakistan. Kartar Singh has a scuffle with Umer Din, now working with the Border police, who wounds him but lets him go. In return, Kartar Singh brings Umer Din’s brother, trapped in India and sheltered by Prem Nath, to the border to unite the siblings, only to have Din shoot him down, thinking Kartar has come again to cause more trouble.

What works for Kartar Singh in spite of its shoddy making is its powerful story that effectively brings out the horrors of the division. The film carries a plea for humanity and does not resort to undue Hindu or Sikh bashing. There are also good Sikhs shown against the villainous Kartar Singh, who also ultimately sacrifices his life in helping a Muslim reach Pakistan. In another sub-plot, Umer Din’s sister (Laila) is abducted by the Sikhs and when a young Sikh tries to force himself on her, he is not only killed by his own father but she is sent back by the old man, safely escorted.

Despite their weak technicalities and stagey acting, music has always been a strong point of Pakistani films and in this regard, Kartar Singh is no exception. Saleem-Iqbal’s music is a major highlight, with the standout song being a soulful rendering of Amrita Pritam’s landmark poem on the Partition of Punjab, Ajj Ankhaan Waris Shah Nu. Kartar Singh, released on June 18, 1959 on Eid-ul-Azha, was a huge success and has since acquired a highly respectable status in Pakistan.

Lakhon Mein Aik (1967). Courtesy: Omar Ali Khan

While Lakhon Mein Aik’s main story takes place about 20 years following Partition, it is still the events of 1947 that play a key role in kick-starting the doomed Indo-Pak love story between a Hindu girl  (Shamim Ara) brought up in Pakistan after her father goes missing in 1947 and a Pakistani Muslim lad (Ejaz Durrani). The film, directed by Raza Mir, is scripted by no less than Zia Sarhadi, a leftist who made social-realist films like Hum Log (1951) and Footpath (1953) in India before moving over to Pakistan. Pakistanis consider Lakhon Mein Aik as one of the most sensitive love stories made that side of the border and often cite it as the film that inspired Raj Kapoor’s Henna (1991), the last film on he was working on and which was finally completed by his son, Randhir Kapoor.

While Pakistan sees the film as a finely balanced and nuanced film, if seen from the Indian perspective, Lakhon Mein Aik does not really appear quite as so. While every prominent Muslim character in the film is kind at heart, every Hindu, barring the heroine and her father, is seen as negative or evil. And even the father, who returns about 20 years later to take his daughter to India and marry her off there, has to pay for his sympathies towards Muslims during the communal riots of two decades earlier by being placed in a mental asylum by the Indian government. While Pakistan might cite Shamim Ara’s act of taking the bullet meant for her lover at the hands of her husband as the ultimate sacrifice for love and peace, the subtext is pretty clear that this had to be her redemption, to die saving a Muslim man after having married a Hindu man and that too in India.

However, if there is one aspect of the film, both sides can unanimously agree on, it is its brilliant musical score by Nisar Bazmi with Noor Jehan in sublime form, singing some of the finest songs of her career. Interestingly, a bhajan sung by her, Man Mandir Ke Devta, was banned by Radio Pakistan only to have the record sell like hot cakes.

Like Lakhon Main Aik, Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Pani’s main story is also not set in 1947 but in 1979, tracing the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan under General Zia-ul-Haq. The film is about Ayesha (Kirron Kher), a seemingly well-adjusted middle-aged widow in West Punjab who teaches young children the Quran and who helplessly watches her young carefree son, Saleem (Aamir Malik), become a hardened zealot under the new regime.

However, the shadow of 1947 is omnipresent through the film tying itself to Ayesha’s past. She was originally a Sikh woman, Veero, who ran away from her family’s attempt at the time of Partition to have her jump in a well to ‘safeguard’ her chastity and honour rather than be sullied by the Muslim mobs. Veero escaped death in the well but nevertheless was caught, violated and imprisoned. She ultimately marries her abductor and settles down in Pakistan as a Muslim, Ayesha, but never ever goes to the well to gather water.

As events in 1979 come to a boil and her son, shocked at her history, rejects her, Ayesha realises that she can never escape her past. In a poignant climax, she finally goes to the well and jumps in.

The film benefits greatly from Paromita Vohra’s insightful screenplay and Sumar’s gentle treatment of handling the film’s inherent violence without showing any blood or melodrama. Silences speak louder than words in the film that shows us the tragic far-reaching consequences of religious fundamentalism. In that sense, though Veero/Ayesha is the central character in the film, it is actually the track of Saleem’s frightening descent into becoming an extremist that comes through more forcefully and with greater impact.

Karan Bali is a filmmaker based in Mumbai who is also the co-founder of Upperstall.com, a website on cinema of the sub-continent