Partition in Hindi Cinema: Violence, Loss and Remembrance

Although one might expect censorship due to the sensitivity of the issue, Hindi films began referring to Partition almost immediately after the events.

A still from <em>Gadar – Ek Prem Katha</em>.

A still from Gadar – Ek Prem Katha.

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.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the Partition of India to create India, flanked by West and East Pakistan. Tragedy inaugurated the new nation with forced migration, communal conflicts and war between the new states.

One of the problems of commemorating Partition is that there is no simple narrative of right and wrong. In India many blame the British or the makers of Pakistan, but there is no single group which can be held responsible for the atrocities which took place. One can honour those who suffered and died, but survivors remained ashamed and the guilty may include those in our midst.

Contrary to popular myth, the Hindi film industry has depicted the Partition since the 1940s. This is not surprising, given that many members of the film industry were themselves from the other side of the border who migrated from Lahore to Bombay, including leading figures such as the Anand brothers, B.R. Chopra and Yash Chopra among many others. The migration in the opposite direction included Noor Jehan and Saadat Hasan Manto. There were also migrations from Calcutta including Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, perhaps due to the creation of the eastern border. The Hindi film industry has always concentrated on the depiction of the Partition in Punjab, saying little about the other areas affected by the Partition. The creation of East Pakistan is best known from the Bengali films of Ritwik Ghatak while films about Kashmir, an area contested between the two countries, can trace much of its conflict to the Partition.

Although one might expect censorship due to the sensitivity of the issue, Hindi films referred to Partition almost immediately after the events, such as Lahore directed by M.L. Anand (1949), starring Nargis and Karan Dewan. In Raj Kapoor’s Aag/Fire, 1948, when a mysterious woman (Nargis) auditions for a role, she says she has no name, no home and comes from ‘narak (hell)’ or Punjab, which is burning over the Partition violence. Apna desh, directed by V. Shantaram (1949), tells the story of a woman abducted during the riots. Nastik, directed by I.S. Johar (1954), has a hero who becomes an atheist after seeing the Partition riots and whose travels to seek vengeance become a pilgrimage or sorts. The film was banned on release, finally being shown in the 1960s, and is remembered today mostly for C. Ramchandra and Kavi Pradeep’s ‘Kitna badal gaya insaan’, which depicts trains packed with refugees with trenchant verse about the religious fanatics who indulged in violence. Amar rahe yeh pyar, a lesser-known film directed by Prabhu Dayal (1961), is about a child adopted during the 1947 riots.


Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, 1957, whose title reveals its claim to be a modern national epic, has sequences which can be seen to refer to the Partition. In the song ‘O jaanewale jaao na ghar apna chhod ke’, Radha, the heroine, asks villagers not to leave the village, as the peasants moving in bullock carts are reminiscent of the footage of partition refugee migrations. Another song, ‘Dukh bhare din beete re’, the chorus of peasants form a map of undivided India (and Ceylon/Sri Lanka) surrounded by sheaves of grain.

Some filmmakers tried to show that the differences between Hindus and Muslims are ‘really the same’, so a Hindu extremist has to come to terms with the fact that he was born a Muslim (Dharamputra, directed by Yash Chopra, 1961), and the differences between the communities are of culture and upbringing, not of blood.

A sub-genre of films about families separated and reunited, called ‘lost and found’, can be read as allegories of the Partition. Manmohan Desai had earlier made Chhalia in 1960 about the plight of women who were abandoned and abducted during the riots and whose families refused to accept their return. The denouement amid Dussera implies that Ram rajya has finally come and that families are reunited. His later Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) is about a family separated under a statue of Mahatma Gandhi on August 15, 1947 and how, although the boys grow up in different communities, they are finally reunited with their Hindu parents. Perhaps the Partition theme is rather tenuous but Yash Chopra’s Waqt, 1965, shows a family separated after an earthquake. The family ends up in Bombay, some coming via Delhi, before they are reunited. It is striking that in the earlier part of the film, any script shown is in Urdu but at the end in Hindi, showing a language shift common to much of Punjab (in addition to the use of Punjabi) over this period.

A still from <em>Amar Akbar Anthony</em>.

A still from Amar Akbar Anthony.

Despite these films, little was said about the Partition in public life, perhaps as a trauma too great to mention, until its 50th anniversary in 1997. Four years later, one of the biggest hits in Indian film history chose it as its subject. Gadar – ek prem katha, directed by Anil Sharma (2001), which is a Punjabi film in all but language, in which a Sikh rescues a Muslim woman during the Partition riots in Delhi. They marry and have a child but her father, whom she visits in Pakistan, tries to marry her to a Pakistani. The Sikh hero goes to Pakistan to try to persuade his in-laws to allow his Muslim wife to return to India. Surrounded by the Pakistani army, the hero is willing to convert to Islam, but risks his life by refusing to praise Pakistan and curse India. He more or less single-handedly takes on the Pakistani army and brings his family back to India.

This film was an all-India hit but found particularly large audiences in Punjab, the area of India where a massive exchange of Muslim and Hindu populations took place in 1947 and where around a million people died. This was the first Partition film to find a large audience. It was popular for its self-sacrificing and decent hero, played by the Punjabi superstar Sunny Deol, who was brave, strong and gentle, never asking his wife to convert, allowing her to travel to Pakistan, willing to take on the role of protector of his neighbours and his family, but not willing to dishonour his country. This allows a way of looking back at the Partition with a sense of loss but also with one of pride in the honourable behaviour of one’s own community and the mixed behaviour of the Muslims, with the ‘good’ female Muslim staying in India and the ‘wicked’ male Muslim migrating to Pakistan.

Many other films also dealt with the Partition, including Pinjar directed by Chandra Prakash Dwivedi (2003), based on Amrita Pritam’s novel and Khamosh Pani, directed by Sabiha Sumar (2003), which is a Pakistani film with Indian actors. Hey! Ram (2000, directed by Kamal Haasan), made in Tamil and Hindi, which begins around the time of Partition, while ultimately carrying a Gandhian message and showing scenes of Hindu barbarity, albeit often retaliatory, gives more emphasis to graphically violent scenes which depict Muslim atrocities, inspired by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, while portraying the RSS as largely sympathetic even though Gandhi’s assassins came among from its ranks.

A still from <em>Khamosh Paani</em>.

A still from Khamosh Paani.

Almost all films which deal with Pakistan evoke Partition by default, notably Veer-Zaara (2004), which is a cross-border romance. Its emphasis is on Punjabiyat, the shared culture of the Punjab. It is striking that the Pakistani girl comes to India to bring the ashes of her Sikh nanny, showing how the Sikhs, whose sacred places were divided between the two countries, form a bridge between them.

Most Partition films show the unimaginable violence of the terrible time. The new art cinema produced one of the epic films of how violence spreads or how other bonds are broken in the upsurge of violence of this time (Tamas, directed by Govind Nihalani, 1986). Garam Hawa, directed by M.S. Sathyu, 1973, is set in the aftermath of Partition, when the border between the India and Pakistan was still open and Muslim families who hitherto had not thought of leaving their homes, began to wonder if they had made the right decision once the social and political climate changed in ways they had not expected. This film shows families in Agra, the heartland of India, who were suddenly made to feel strangers in their own homes. The suffering of these people, not through brutality but through the loss of their values and their human ties, is one of the most powerful films about the impact of Partition. This can be typified in just one shot, the image of Salim (Balraj Sahni), walking in front of the Taj Mahal, the symbol of love and of India but also a Muslim shrine and a part of everyday life to a person born and brought up in Agra. It shows so simply and with cinematic economy how the Partition changed the sub-continent forever. The film has few songs but there is a memorable qawwali to Salim Chishti, when a young couple, Shamshad and Amina, visit Fatehpur Sikri, not as tourists but as pilgrims to the tomb of Chisti, showing their religious attachment to their home city. The lyrics of the qawwali, as so often with Muslim devotional songs, outlines not only the devotion of the pilgrims in the spiritual sense but also of earthly love and hopes.

These films about Partition remind us of the trauma and loss at the founding of the new nation. For many of us today, the documentary footage spliced into some of these films seems to come from an era which is almost unimaginable. There is not only the violence of the times but the loss of homes as communities were shattered, perhaps hastening the loss of the traditional and the modern, and creating a sense of grievance and sorrow in the communities that persists to this day. There is sorrow for what has been lost, for the city of Lahore in particular and for undivided Punjab, some of which is transformed into nostalgia for pre-1947. What is remembered and what is forgotten is complex and disturbing.

That this happened on Indian soil remains deeply troubling. India today is said by many in the country and overseas to be increasingly violent. Debates rage about the existence of ‘rape culture’ and who is tolerant and who is not. How much communal violence may be linked back to Partition and ideas of ‘us’ and ‘them’, and food politics is not entirely clear. Partition and the formation of Pakistan asks Indian Muslims to demonstrate their patriotism, not least when India plays Pakistan at cricket.

Although Hindu nationalists fought against the carving up of Mother India, their punyabhumi and pitrbhumi, today’s Hindutva ideologues seems hardly concerned with Pakistan beyond mere hatred. An initial warmth, with a Christmas Day visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been replaced with ‘surgical strikes’ and a ban on Pakistani artistes working in Indian cinema. Interest in the idea of creating a ‘right of return’ policy for Hindus who live in neighbouring countries and sealing the highly-porous borders are major, controversial concerns.

Historical films which create a popular history of India, even though set before Partition, include an understanding of it in their depiction of Indian Muslims. So Mughal-e Azam, directed by K. Asif (1960), has a voiceover as if by India itself, showing the Mughals as part of the history of India’s composite culture.

Two recent films may imagine concerns about Pakistan. Bajirao Mastani, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali (2015), a love story between a Brahmin Peshwa and a Muslim princess, shows another view of India’s past. This martial Hindu culture of epic splendour has the Brahmin, Bajirao, leading his forces to war with a massive saffron flag over the map of India, Hindmahasamrat, talking of Hindu swaraj and fighting Muslims in Bundelkhand and Hyderabad.

A still from <em>Bajrangi Bhaijaan</em>.

A still from Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, directed by Kabir Khan (2015), Bajrangi, a Hindu nationalist, crosses the Indo-Pak border to return a Pakistani girl who got lost in India on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Nizamuddin, one of the many sites which remain important to Pakistani Muslims. The state, through the bureaucracy and the army, impose the border but for the people it makes little sense. Love, friendship and duty are common values despite the acknowledged cultural differences, shown in a comic series of events centred on food, religion and cricket.

As the 70th anniversary approaches, the idea of Akhand Bharat or Undivided India seems increasingly remote. More pressing are the concerns of today’s Indian Muslims in a Hindu-nationalist country. India is reconsidering its history, and the ways in which it tells it and shows Partition are bound to change as part of this process.

Rachel Dwyer is professor of Indian culture and cinema at SOAS, University of London.