Roundabout | Revisiting women’s stories in classics of Partition cinema
A look back at the depiction of memorable women protagonists of post-Partition cinema, which sought to tell poignant tales and created memorable characters like Puro, Ayesha and Nita
Meet Puro of Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s 2003 film Pinjar, she stands proud and tall in the poignant critique of Partition, 53 years after her imagined story was penned in Punjabi in a novel called ‘Puro’ that came out in 1950.
The writer was none other than Punjab’s iconic Amrita Pritam, who had penned ‘Ajj aakhan Waris Shah nu’ (Waris Shah, I call out to you today), the first dirge to Partition and the horrors that were wrought in the communal riots over the bodies and minds of women. Uprooted from Lahore and settled in Delhi, the stories of women in the bloodbath haunted Amrita, and she once told me, “I would be constantly in touch with Inder Gujral and Mridula Sarabhai, who were actively involved in the rehabilitation of the abducted women. Listening to one horrendous tale after another, a girl called Puro took shape in my mind and the heroine of the novel ‘Pinjar’ (Skeleton) was born as one who refuses to be rehabilitated!”
Thus, the story took shape. Puro is a Hindu girl who is engaged to be married to the handsome and progressive Ramchand, is abducted by the Muslim boy Rashid, at the behest of his elders as Puro’ s clan had abducted his aunt after animosity over land. Rashid is gentle and waits for her to return his love. Puro revolts and runs back to her family, but they refuse to accept her as she is considered defiled. Rashid takes her back, and gradually they fall in love. Partition intervenes and when she is offered rehabilitation too, she scorns it to return to Rashid the man who gave her love and dignity.
It was a bold theme in those days of communal hatred and it took many years for the film to be made. It did not prove to be a blockbuster, but it showed Urmila Matondkar at her best paired with a memorable performance by Manoj Bajpayee as Rashid.
Silent waters speak
A rare experimental film in 2003 featuring Kirron Kher in the lead role was made as experimental Indo-Pak venture, with director Sabiha Sumar linking the pain of Partition to growing religious fundamentalism in the film Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters), which went onto win several international awards. The film looks before and after at the losses of Partition and is set in Charkhi village of a Pakistan province in the year 1979.
It tells the story of a widowed mother and son on a gentle and happy note, yet there is behind it the sad story of Partition which is never talked about. The mother Ayesha is played by Kirron Kher, who supplements the small pension of her late husband by teaching the Quran to the village girls. Yet, there is a hint of more as Ayesha never goes to the village well to fetch water and other women bring it for her. The reason being that it was in this well that Sikh and Hindu women had drowned themselves, and Ayesha a teenager then had not been able to do so. She lived on to marry a Muslim and take his faith. She is respected in the village and her son, Saleem, who is love with a young girl Zubeida and shares a fond and close relationship with his mother. But the dark storm is building, and young Saleem falls prey to religious fundamentalists and is gradually estranged from his mother, and the girl he is in love with to join the fundamentalists.
At this juncture, a Sikh jatha arrives from Pakistan and is welcomed warmly by the elders. In the jatha is a young man who is looking for a girl called Veero who was believed to have survived the mass suicide by Hindus and Sikhs. The world of Saleem explodes when he realises that his mother Ayesha is the same Veero. Kirron as Ayesha gives a memorable performance, for which she won the Golden Leopard award at the Locarno film Festival in Switzerland. It was a rare attempt by the woman director to look at religious fanaticism through the life of a woman who refused to die.
The classic from Bengal
Looking at women in Partition cinema one must move from Punjab to Bengal, which another state that suffered in the Great Divide, and the choice cannot but be the all-time classic made by Ritwik Gatak in 1960 ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’ (The Cloud-Capped Star) which is hailed as one of the best films of the legendary filmmaker and also the one which was most widely viewed.
Seeing it in Panjab University way back in the 1980s at a festival of classics brought here by The Film and Television Institute, Pune, the audience was stilled to silence by the role of Nita played by Bengal’s famous actor Supriya Choudhury.
Adrian Martin, an Australian film and arts critic, says thus of the film: “It took many years for Ritwik Ghatak’s classic The Cloud-Capped Star to be widely seen and recognised outside its home country of India. What a loss for the global consciousness of world cinema in those years!”
It was Supriya Choudhury, who brought alive with rare sensitivity the role of Nita, the eldest daughter of a family displaced by Partition, to leave East Bengal and make it afresh as refugees in Kolkata. As the sole bread winner, she is not just taken for granted, but exploited by her own kin, with the mother encouraging the younger daughter to seduce the young man Nita is befriending, and then demand that she give the gold bangles she had saved for her wedding.
Her only friend in the family is her brother who does no work and is committed to becoming a great musician. He comes to her successful, but too late when she is at the end of her life with prolonged tuberculosis in a sanatorium in the hills. It is her last cry, which tells of her suppressed longings that echoes through the hills as she embraces her brother:“ I, so wanted to live,”she says and, the hills echo her words!