Pakistan-born director Sabiha Sumar’s debut feature Khamosh Pani has all the ingredients that can make a film click in post 9/11 Southasia, especially as our two traditional enemy countries are being forced to give peace a try. The youthful director had all the reasons to believe that her film would be received with enthusiasm. Hers is a charming effort to combine all current preoccupations into a neat whole, including the ever-increasing interest in the Partition of 1947, the phenomenon of militant religious fundamentalism, the continuing misogyny within the subcontinent’s communities and the so-called war against terror. If the reviews in various publications, especially from India, are anything to go by, Sumar has not been disappointed. However, in her effort to connect these diverse and rather complex social and historical realities with one another, she seems to have preferred to rely more on her imagination than on the facts of recent history.
Khamosh Pani is the story of a Sikh woman from a village now in Pakistani Punjab, who survives the bloodbath of 1947 riots, when women fell victim not only to men on the other side of the religious divide, but also to their own kin. Her family wants its womenfolk to kill themselves by jumping into a well rather than be violated, but our main character flees.
She later finds herself in the custody of a Muslim, whom she marries, after converting to Islam and taking the name Ayesha. The film begins in the late 1970s when Ayesha has grown into a middle-aged woman, a widow who makes ends meet by teaching the Qur’an to village girls. It is during this time that her teenage son Saleem slides into the clasp of the destructive jehadi militancy engendered by Gen Zia-ul Haq’s Islamisation campaign.
This is the time when Sikh pilgrims from India have begun regular visits to the sacred gurdwaras in Pakistan. One of the pilgrim groups includes Ayesha’s brother, who looks for and eventually finds his sister. The discovery of this Sikh connection enrages the Muslim villagers, including Saleem. The pressure mounts and in the end Ayesha jumps into a well and, so to speak, finishes the unfinished business of Partition. In the film’s rather inexplicable finale, the supposed war on fundamentalism of Pakistan’s current military ruler is hinted at favourably.
Riot in the script
The casualty in Khamosh Pani is history. Sumar is insensitive to social and historical nuances and her rewriting of Pakistan’s recent past is so crude that only those desperate to be pleased by this politically correct product will be able to ignore its gross inaccuracies. To begin with, the director portrays Pakistan under the military rule of Gen Zia as constituting a sharp departure from the way it was in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s time, both in terms of religious bigotry and its anti-India stance. The film’s logic necessitates this construction, for how else would one link the fundamentalism of that era with Partition? However, anybody with the slightest understanding of Pakistani politics of the 1960s and 70s would know that Bhutto’s appeal to the Punjab electorate – after the 1965 war and the Soviet-sponsored Ayub-Shastri negotiations at Tashkent – was based on strong anti-India rhetoric. Without that appeal to nationalist feelings, there would have been no question of his coming to power in the post-Bangladesh Pakistani state.
The same logic of the script forces Sumar to concoct a Sikh-Muslim riot in the rural Punjab of late 1970s. The idea of such a riot is rather hard to swallow. First, Pakistan’s anti-India politics has hardly ever been anti-Sikh as such, the strongest vitriolic being reserved for the ‘Hindu Bania’. Second, the riot is portrayed as being the handiwork of fundamentalists encouraged by the Islamist policies of Gen Zia. But one recalls that the military government in those days, and later, was especially friendly towards the Sikhs. Their Khalistan movement had touched a sympathetic chord on the Pakistani side of the border.
The biggest problem lies in the violent reaction of the villagers, including her son, to the discovery of Ayesha’s Sikh antecedents. This goes against the traditional male reaction in situations of conflict in this part of the world. A woman from the enemy community, captured and converted – and assimilated to such a degree that her sole occupation is to teach the Qur’an -would usually be a matter of pride rather than shame for the bigoted, tribal male ego. But the riot is indispensable to the script if the aim is to force the poor woman to jump into the well and thereby provide the required connection between 1979 and 1947.
All this material could still have produced the intended effect, with much less crudeness in the finished product, in the hands of a more sophisticated rewriter of history than Sabiha Sumar and her scriptwriter. What one finds surprising is the nonchalance with which this fare has been dished out and the eagerness with which it is being lapped up.
Material to despise
But perhaps it is not so surprising after all. As journalist M J Akbar has written, “It is currently unfashionable to be aware of history, particularly the history of your own country.” Considering her past experience in the art of forcing facts to suit the imagination (not to speak of more down-to-earth requirements), Sumar is well suited for the job of directing Khamosh Pani. One of her early exploits in the field of documentary filmmaking, Where the Peacocks Dance claimed to document the Sindhi nationalist movement in Pakistan. When it was screened in Karachi back in the 1980s, the film created some furore for having played fast and loose with the topic and the interviewees. (The reference to Peacocks is surprisingly missing from Sumar’s filmography on the internet).
The Indian reviewers’ reactions to Khamosh Pani, their showering of undeserved praise for its handling of history, can perhaps also be explained. They are after all no less susceptible to the urge of oversimplifying history than the film’s scriptwriter. This tendency has its origins in the facile assumption that, given the common past of the two countries and the undesirability of Partition, it should not take much effort to understand the happenings in post-1947 Pakistan. This is an assumption the Indian reviewers are hardly likely to entertain while trying to make sense of any other society.
The simple fact is that those who wish to understand Pakistani society in any depth must approach the subject with a great deal more seriousness and care than is currently evident. The recent efforts at developing a spirit of friendliness between the two countries, admirable and necessary, will be for naught if thinking people don’t adopt a more critical attitude on issues of history.
When Khamosh Pani was scheduled to be screened at the third Kara Film Festival in December 2003 in Karachi, the event coincided with a convention of the Pak-India Forum for Peace and Democracy, which had brought more than 200 Indians to the city. Among them were two relatively young filmmakers, one from Calcutta and the other from Jharkhand. They were eager to attend the screening of Sumar’s production, which had received great attention in film circles in India. I told them not to worry – that as Indian guests in Pakistan they would definitely find a place in the hall. After two days of listening to talk of India-Pakistan camaraderie in the conference hall of the Beach Luxury Hotel where the Pak-India Forum was meeting, and of eating hot, oily food three times a day, the filmmakers were literally stewing in the friendship juices and willing to praise anything Pakistani, including, of course, material that the more cynical among us Karachiwallahs have learned the hard way to despise.
Anyway, I found myself watching Sumar’s film flanked on either side by the gentleman from Jharkhand and the gentleman from Calcutta. They were making it a point to exclaim and make known their pleasant surprise at anything they found heroic – in the dialogue or action – in a hopeless place like Pakistan ruled by its army and dominated by the mullahs. The twosome’s wholly uncritical reaction was a foretaste of what was to develop in the corning year into the aforementioned avalanche of raving reviews in Indian newspapers and websites.
To be fair to the Indians, not a few Pakistani viewers attending the Karachi event and the rare screening of Khamosh Pani reacted more or less similarly. Given our general attitude towards the facts of our remote and recent past, in both countries, this kind of film can be expected to define standard history before long.