These notes were compiled for a Day School earlier this year that looked at extracts from various Indian films/films about India in an attempt to understand how the issues surrounding the Partition of India in 1947 have been represented on screens.
The ‘partition’ of India was the final act by the British colonial administration working through the India Office and the Viceroy (i.e. the King’s representative) in August 1947. The Viceroy then became the Governor-General of India still representing the King as the Head of State in the independent ‘Dominion’ of India. In Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah became Governor-General.
The Labour government in London faced many severe problems in the immediate aftermath of war. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the worst on record in the UK and the heavy snowfalls in January severely disrupted industry and agriculture. As much as 10% of industrial output was lost, energy supplies were severely restricted. Public spending with the foundation of the National Health Service and the expense of military activity abroad (15% of GDP) created pressure on sterling and subsequent devaluation from $4.00 to $2.80 as the dollar exchange rate. Historians see this as the first stage in the UK’s decline as a superpower. Despite the enormity of the Partition of India as an event, it was only one of the problems facing Prime Minister Attlee’s cabinet (withdrawal from Palestine was also a priority). Mountbatten was given considerable powers and the government was prepared to accept a swift retreat from India. Communal conflict has been a feature of life in India at various times throughout recent history (much of it caused directly by British policies) and in August 1946 around 4,000 people lost their lives in Calcutta during clashes between Hindus and Muslims. The lack of action by the colonial authorities at this point is inexcusable, but the British state was increasingly running out of resources to police India effectively. Mountbatten was appointed Viceroy in February 1947, charged with achieving a British withdrawal by June 1948 at the latest. He accelerated the process of withdrawal in an attempt to avoid further violence – but instead probably exacerbated the conflicts.
The leaders of the Indian Independence movement, including Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi, had been pressing for independence since the 1920s and earlier. (The Congress Party and the Muslim League had origins in the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th century.) The emergence of a ‘two state’ solution is generally accepted to have happened because of the position that Jinnah and the Muslim League adopted in the early 1940s. Jinnah argued for a division according to religious affiliation because of fear that an independent India would be dominated by Hindus. Ironically, Jinnah himself was not a ’religious Muslim’ and the British had encouraged separate political constituencies for Muslims and Hindus and other religious groups as early as 1932 with ‘The Communal Award’. Congress could reasonably argue that Jinnah did not have the support of the majority of Muslims across India as shown in local elections, but he convinced the British that he was the Muslim leader they should negotiate with.
Once partition appeared inevitable (i.e. when Jinnah and Gandhi /Nehru could not agree on how to negotiate with the Viceroy), the fundamental problem became how to divide the three provinces of British India in which there were roughly equal numbers of Muslims and Hindus. Punjab was further complicated by the presence of the home base of Sikhism in Amritsar. Bengal had already experienced a very unpopular earlier partition by the British along religious lines in 1905 (rescinded in 1911). Jammu and Kashmir was actually a ‘princely state’ – not under direct British control. India and Pakistan had to negotiate a partition arrangement after independence and this proved extremely difficult – leading to future military confrontations.
Punjab, Bengal and Kashmir will be the focus of our study of how Partition has been represented on film.
Who was actually responsible for creating this inevitability of Partition in 1947 is the most contentious issue in the history of the period. The most recent British film focusing on Partition, Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House (2017) lays much of the blame on the wartime British leader Winston Churchill and his attempts in 1944-5 to prepare for the threat of Soviet influence over an independent India. Nehru was seen as most likely to adopt a non-aligned but friendly position vis-a-vis Moscow and Churchill saw the possibility of an independent Pakistan as a Western ally, allowing British bases to remain in place. In a documentary screened on British TV in August 2017, Chadha explored this evidence further (referring to wartime documents held in the British Library). This programme suggested that Jinnah had met privately with Churchill and that the idea of Pakistan as a future ally against the Russians was widely shared by what Chadha termed as “the British establishment” – including the Royal Family and the military. The suggestion is, therefore, that the Attlee government was faced with a fait accompli policy that they were unable to alter. Indian historians and Indian filmmakers have tended to blame Jinnah and the British – either separately or together.
‘British India’ referred to what were in effect British colonies, locally administered by colonial civil servants and the India Office in London. In 1947 there were seven major provinces administered in this way and developed from the original ‘presidencies’ of Bengal, Bombay and Madras.
The British Crown also had ‘suzerainty’ over some 500 plus ‘princely states’, ranging from large states such as Hyderabad and Mysore to tiny states of a few thousand. Each local ruler had to make a separate arrangement with the newly established dominions of India and Pakistan.
The directly ruled colonies and the princely states together comprised the ‘British Raj’ established after the 1857 Indian Mutiny. It also became known as ‘the Indian Empire’.
Languages and local cultures
Religion was just one of the potentially divisive factors in India in 1947 and its impact was felt most strongly in the North. In much of Southern India, language differences and ethnic differences (i.e. the Dravidian South’s mistrust of the Aryan North) were more important. During the 1950s and 1960s, Indian government was re-organised to produce states based on linguistic groups. In the states of West Pakistan and East Pakistan after partition, the fact that the mass of the population in the East spoke Bengali and not Urdu was a major issue for any sense of ‘national identity’.
Indian film industries
We are concerned with representations of the events of Partition and its aftermath on film. One of the important issues for us is to identify which film industry has produced a film and who the ‘creatives’ (writer and director in particular) might be. There are many films about Partition issues as well as many filmmakers from diverse backgrounds. For this reason, I’ve tried to include something from each of the following categories (they are overlapping categories, so some films and filmmakers appear in more than one category). There is no ‘ranking’ in this list.
- Popular (mainstream) Hindi cinema – often now retrospectively termed ‘Bollywood’.
- Popular international or Hollywood ‘studio’ films.
- Indian art films and ‘parallel cinema’ films
- International art films
- Films by Indian diaspora directors
- Indian ‘regional films’ – films in languages other than Hindi (or English)
(Because of difficulties of availability of films, I have not included Pakistani or Bangladeshi films that might address Partition issues)
From the list above, it would be useful to distinguish between a film like Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough’s biopic, as an ‘international’ Hollywood studio film and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House as an independent British film (with some Hollywood support) directed by a diaspora director – someone whose grandparents left Rawalpindi in 1947 and who now lives in the UK.
The so-called ‘parallel’ or ‘middle cinema’ of India is difficult to define but it is clearly distinguished from the popular Indian cinema of multi-genre narratives and choreographed song and dance sequences. Parallel cinema was/is more ‘serious’ in its social concerns and character development. It is more difficult to distinguish between parallel and ‘art’ or ‘avant-garde’ cinema, the latter being in formal and narrative terms more experimental.
What follows is an attempt to select extracts from films which represent Partition and in some cases its aftermath in Pakistan, West Bengal, Kashmir and Punjab. In some cases, longer posts are available discussing the films in more detail and I have included links where appropriate.
Jinnah (1998, UK-Pakistan, (English) dir Jamil Dehlavi)
This unusual biopic of the Muslim leader stars Christopher Lee in the title role. Director Dehlavi is a diaspora figure based in Europe and he used mostly British-based actors alongside Indian star actor Shashi Kapoor in this co-production with Pakistan that was controversial at the time of its release but has since been accepted in Pakistan.
Subarnarekha (Golden Line, 1962, Bengali, dir Ritwik Ghatak)
Despite being one of the most important filmmakers of his generation, Ritwik Ghatak’s films were not widely appreciated when first released. But when he went on to become one of the first tutors at the Indian Film Institute in Pune, he soon became an influential figure for younger directors. He was very much affected by partition, being forced to move from East to West Bengal. His trilogy of films in the early 1960s uses music and politics to explore the heartbreak of partition. (The other two films in the trilogy are Cloud-Capped Star (1960) and Komal Gandhar (1961).
In Subarnarekha, Ishwar, a man in his late twenties and his younger sister Sita find themselves in a refugee camp in Calcutta where they acquire a stepbrother – a young refugee boy Abhiram who has lost his mother. This trio then find themselves in the western part of Bengal by the Subarnarekha River. The children grow up and fall in love, but the older brother can’t cope with events and breaks down, unable to escape from his past. In the clip above, the landscape is expressive of the despair and sense of exile and loss experienced by Ishwar.
Roja (1992, Tamil, dir Mani Ratnam)
An important film for Indian cinema, Roja is an example of Tamil language popular cinema. Unlike Bollywood, which in the early 1990s preferred stylised fantasy films, Tamil cinema, and Mani Ratnam in particular, created romances set in ‘real’ situations. Roja (‘Rose’ – a symbol for Kashmir) sees a Tamil cryptologist working for Indian intelligence being sent to Kashmir with his young wife. Visiting an area close to the ‘line of control’, he is captured by a Muslim guerrilla group who want to exchange him for one of their own members imprisoned by Indian forces. The film won many awards and was hailed as a ‘patriotic film’, being dubbed into Hindi, Telugu, Marathi and Malayalam. It encouraged Bollywood to think of more serious issues as the basis for entertainment features.
In this clip the cryptologist tries to talk to his captors.
Lakshya (2004, Hindi, dir Farhan Aktar)
This mainstream Bollywood blockbuster was written by the director’s father, Javed Akhtar, one of the most acclaimed writers in Indian cinema. A young man (Hrithik Roshan) from a wealthy Delhi family attempts to give up his aimless life and eventually passes out of the Indian Military Academy. He is posted to Kashmir and given the opportunity to prove himself in action against Pakistani insurgents. The various conflicts on the Kashmir border/line of control feature in several Indian films, often associated with the ‘Kargil War‘ of 1999.
The film shows Hindi cinema attempting to merge a romance (Pretty Zinta is the hero’s ‘lost girlfriend’, a TV reporter) with a story about young India’s indifference towards guarding its border. Ironically, the Colonel of the regiment is played by the supreme Bollywood hero Amitabh Bachchan. At the time Roshan was one of the young hopefuls attempting to replace Bachchan.
The clip below is a ‘music video’ featuring the title song with scenes from the film. We see the hero in training and the role of the Army officer is shown as both heroic and glamorous. It’s worth noting that both the Indian and Pakistani Armies were created out of the British Indian Army in 1947, a situation which initially created the possibility of a civil war situation in which officers and men who had trained together might find themselves on opposite sides in a conflict. The Bollywood presentation suggests that today there is an American influence on how the image of the Indian military is constructed.
Garam Hava (1973, dir M.S. Sathyu)
This film, in Urdu, is one of the first examples of the ‘parallel cinema’ of the 1970s and 1980s. The title translates as ‘Scorching Winds’. They are mentioned in the first few lines of dialogue as threatening the flowering trees of the city of Agra (the city which is the home of the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal, two major symbols of the Muslim Mughal Empire in India). If not uprooted, the trees will wither in the heat. ‘Scorching Winds’ is also metaphorical and refers to the violence of communalism sweeping through India in 1947-8. The film deals with a Muslim owner of a small shoe factory. He decides to stay in Agra, but his brother moves to Karachi and gradually life becomes very difficult for the brother left behind. Garam Hava proved controversial even after more than 20 years since the events depicted. It had a delayed release because of fears of communalist violence. It was supported by the government agency, the NFDC and submitted as India’s entry for Best Foreign Language Oscar.
In the interview above the director and scriptwriter discuss the film and its legacy in some detail. The interview in 2014 was conducted at the time of the film’s re-release. (You need to click on the link and watch the interview directly on YouTube).
Earth (1998, dir. Deepa Mehta)
Earth is an adaptation of an autobiographical novel Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, first published as ‘Ice Candy Man’ in the UK in 1988. The director Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar in Punjab in 1950. She moved to Delhi as a child and graduated from the University of Delhi. In 1973 she migrated to Canada and started a film career as a writer and documentarist. She directed her first feature in 1991 and as well as English language features in Canada she has returned to India to make four features. Earth was the second film in her ‘Elements’ trilogy after Fire (1996) and preceding Water in 2005. All three films were controversial (Fire addresses lesbianism and Water, the treatment of widows in traditional Hindu culture). They were also highly praised and won prizes. Her 2012 adaptation of Midnight’s Children was less successful (but still well worth watching).
Although this is a film from a diaspora director with photography by Giles Nuttgens from the UK, it is also a film deeply rooted in Indian cinemas. The music is by A. R. Rahman and the actors include the current Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan in an early role. Nandita Das is a star of Indian parallel cinema and other cast members are well-known in India.
The film is part of the group of films, like Garam Hava that deal with the personal tragedies of Partition rather than directly with the political machinations. Like Train to Pakistan its focus on Punjab means that the complexity of religious, social and cultural relationships are explored in some detail.
The film is set in 1947 in Lahore in Northern Punjab. The city has a Muslim majority but the household at the centre of the narrative is Parsee and the little girl who in effect ‘narrates’ the story has a Hindu nanny/maid (Nandita Das) who has a circle of friends that includes Muslims and Sikhs. The clip below shows the girl and the maid during the kite-flying festival and the maid is being wooed by the Aamir Khan character, the Muslim known as the ‘Ice-Candy Man’, one of his several identities. The kite-flying is a joyful competition which ironically underlines how the community will later be divided by the violence of the communal violence in the lead up to Partition.
Train to Pakistan (1998, dir. Pamela Rooks)
This is another film that received backing from NFDC as a later example of a parallel film. Pamela Rooks was a filmmaker born in Calcutta to an Army family, but the film (in Hindi) is set in Punjab. It’s an adaptation of a 1956 novel by Kushwant Singh, himself a major cultural figure in India post 1947.
The trailer above does not have English subtitles but a subtitled DVD is available in the UK. The story is set in an Indian village in 1947 close to the new border with Pakistan. Despite the conflict all around them, the villagers, mostly Sikh landowners and a minority of Muslim labourers, live a peaceful life. The film explores, through various characters, how the peaceful village is drawn into the conflict. The village money-lender is killed when he refuses to open his safe for a band of Sikh dacoits. The local magistrate, befuddled by whisky and a young prostitute, sanctions the arrest of two men – one is a Communist Party member just arrived from Delhi and the other a local dacoit who never robs in his own village and who was sleeping with his Muslim girlfriend when the murder was committed. The magistrate and police attempt to frame both men, meanwhile a train filled with dead Sikhs arrives in the village and a little later, Muslim refugees on foot from India.
Other Partition narratives
The films discussed here are by no means the only examples of film narratives exploring Partition. Here are two other examples not discussed on the day:
Partition (Canada-UK-South Africa 2007)
Another diaspora director, Vic Sarin, made this film in English starring Jimi Mistry, Irrfan Khan and Neve Campbell in Canada. It takes the Sikh perspective on partition in Punjab.
Qissa – The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (India-Germany-France-Netherlands 2013)
I didn’t see this fine film by Anup Singh until after the Partition Event. Please follow the link on the title above for more details. The film again stars Irrfan Khan as a Sikh in the Punjab at the time of partition. Anup Singh is also a diaspora director with a similar but also slightly different background to Gurinder Chadha.
I used the following two books alongside web searches in preparation for the event:
Akbar, M. J. (1985) India: The Siege Within, Harmondsworth: Penguin
Tunzelmann, Alex von (2007) Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, London: Simon and Schuster
The films from which extracts have been taken have all been available in the UK on DVD except Garam Hava (which is available on YouTube or from India/US as a Region 0 DVD).
Cloud-Capped Star is the first film in Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak’s trilogy about the partition of Bengal in 1947 and its aftermath. It could be argued that all of Ghatak’s features between 1952 and 1977, when his last work was released posthumously, were concerned with Partition, but it is the trilogy that has been most widely seen outside India. E-Flat (Komal Gandhar, 1961) and Subarnarekha (1962, but released 1965) are the other two films in the trilogy. Cloud-Capped Star and E-Flat were shown at HOME in Manchester as part of an Indian Partition Weekend in June. DCPs have been struck by the National Film Archive of India. Cloud-Capped Star is also available as a DVD from the British Film Institute.
The narrative structure of Cloud-Capped Star is seemingly straightforward. We meet a family from East Bengal living in a refugee ‘colony’ on the outskirts of Calcutta in the 1950s. The father is a teacher now struggling to get work and the mother has become something of a harridan in her disillusionment. The eldest son Shankar (Anil Chattopadhyay) is a trained musician but idle and like everyone else in the family seems to exploit his sister Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), the only one with a regular income. Neeta’s younger brother Montu wants to be a footballer and her younger sister Gita seems most intent on getting a boyfriend. The narrative then plays out as the tragedy of Neeta. She will see the prospect of her own marriage disappear, losing the possibility of marrying a man who eventually ends up with Gita. Neeta’s selflessness will bring about her downfall – she catches TB (from lack of proper food and exhaustion from over-work?). Shankar does finally make the effort and moves to Bombay where he becomes a successful singer. But when he returns he is faced with his sister’s decline. Like many Bengali films, Cloud-Capped Star is based on a novel – in this case by Shaktipada Rajguru.
Cloud-Capped Star is not about plot, it’s about the artistic presentation of loss and the consequences of partition. This is a true melodrama with meanings expressed through music, sound effects, framing, composition and mise en scène. Meanings are also expressed through editing. Although this was Ghatak’s most successful film with the Bengali public it’s not because the film follows mainstream conventions. It’s because of the tragic story and the portrayal of Bengali culture. The film certainly is a melodrama but its ‘excess’ is not about beautiful colours or lush music. In his monochrome film Ghatak uses noirish lighting for interiors contrasted with the brash sunlight outdoors. The editing ‘chops’ the end of scenes and ‘throws’ us into the next. Some of the beautiful music in the film is undercut by strident sound effects.
The geography of the Bengal Delta is confusing for outsiders – especially since the rivers that break away from the main Ganges-Brahmaputra to form the fan-shaped delta are given different names by different communities and are now separated by the boundary between West Bengal and Bangladesh. Ritwik Ghatak grew up along the Padma River, one of the rivers of the delta now in Bangladesh. Kolkata (Calcutta) stands on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River. The refugee ‘colony’ in Cloud-Capped Star is close to the river (presumably the Hooghly?) and it is the river bank where Shankar goes to sing and where Neeta walks beneath the great line of trees at the beginning of the film – and where later she meets Sanat (Niranjan Ray), her would-be fiance. Ghatak’s camera, in the hands of Dinen Gupta, composes the images of Neeta and Shankar carefully. They are first brought together with Neeta in a close-up in the foreground to the right of the frame and looking left. In the middle ground is Shankar (looking to the right) and beyond him, first the river and then on the other bank in the distance is a train travelling from right to left (see the image at the start of this posting).
Later in the film, when Neeta meets Sanat by the river it is soon after the crisis point when, having lost Sanat to her sister, Neeta has to ask him for money to pay for Mantu’s hospital expenses – and she herself is showing the signs of TB infection. The long shot above follows a meeting on the footpath beneath the trees at which point Ghatak develops a complex soundtrack mix. The melodious music and background natural sounds of cicadas are suddenly undercut by a wailing sound that could be the engine whistle in the background, but which lingers on as a peculiarly alien sound. At this point, Neeta invokes a sense of despair that she hasn’t confronted injustice and Sanat seems to admit he was wrong to give up his studies and take a job when he could be continuing as a political activist. In Cloud-Capped Star, Ghatak presents the decline of Neeta’s family as a metaphor for the decline of Bengali culture post Partition. Is it important that the locomotive pulling the train in the background is travelling ‘tender first’ – effectively ‘backwards’?
My perhaps rather simplistic reading has Neeta, the most active member of the family who sacrifices her opportunities to use her artistic talents in order to put food on the table for her family, eventually being sacrificed herself. Neeta represents the potential for a new Bengali society that cannot flourish after Partition. Ghatak’s emotional but also analytical storytelling drenches events with music, sound effects and references to poetry scattered through the dialogues. His camera creates complex framings of equally complex staging of actions. The film for me is literally ‘shocking’ in its excess and its cutting – ‘shocking’ in two senses, firstly in its harshness and abruptness and secondly in its disavowal of the conventions we have all too easily internalised from mainstream cinema. The French film theorist Raymond Bellour has produced a detailed, illustrated reading of the whole film that can be found here. As Bellour, quoting Serge Dany, avers, it is indeed one of the greatest of all melodramas. The title may refer to a line from Shakespeare – The Tempest. It may equally refer to the mountains visible from the sanatorium near Darjeeling where TB takes Neeta.
I’ve watched Cloud-Capped Star two or three times and still I haven’t seen everything it has to offer or understood all its meanings. I’m also completely at a loss (because of my lack of musical knowledge) to fully get to grips with Ghatak’s use of music in this film (which includes a song using Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry, I think). He was undoubtedly a great filmmaker, not properly appreciated during his relatively short career but influential through his teaching at FTII in Pune in the mid 1960s and globally through his writing on cinema and archive screenings of his films for various filmmakers ever since. Here’s one of the songs in the film.It comes during a sequence in which Neeta comes home and confirms that Montu has left college and has taken a factory job. He is too ashamed to tell his parents and Neeta here offers his first wage to contribute to the household. Her mother is unreasonably angry with Neeta. Both Neeta and Montu are going to suffer. At the start of the clip, Shankar gets a razor blade for a shave and is shamed by the shopkeeper who tells him it is disgraceful that she has to support the whole family. He thinks of her as being like Sinbad the Sailor – carrying the Old Man of the Sea (i.e. her family) on her back. Screenings of Cloud-Capped Star are possible as part of the Independent Cinema Office’s India on Film Tour celebrating 70 Years of Independence in August. Look out for screenings around the UK.
I approached this screening with some trepidation. I read Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children in 1982, identifying strongly with its central theme. It felt like the cutting-edge of a fiction in tune with the cultural shifts towards post-colonialist literature. But only a few years later I started to go off Rushdie. I remember a key moment being the attack he made on Black Audio and Film Collective’s film Handsworth Songs in 1987. It’s ironic that Handsworth Songs is now rightly recognised as an important intervention in the development of a Black aesthetic in Britain, whereas Rushdie has lost some of his cultural status. That status appears to have been diminished further with the reception of the film adaptation of Midnight’s Children – scripted by Salman Rushdie who also provides several passages of narration. On its second week of release in the UK, the film was screened only once a day, in the afternoon, in the Vue multiplex at The Light in Leeds. There were just five of us in the audience. This already looks like a lack of confidence from its distributor eOne Entertainment, the new Canadian major .
So, is it as bad as all that? Well, no. I decided not to go back to the book before the screening and I watched in as objective a manner as possible. I was surprised to find myself in tears at the end of the film. That probably says more about me than about the film but in most respects this is a very impressive production. The Indian director Deepa Mehta who makes her films from her Canadian base has achieved what many thought was the impossible feat of adapting Rushdie’s novel with a wonderful cast drawn from the vast array of Indian performers working in India and North America in all forms of cinema. More than sixty location shoots in Sri Lanka stand in for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Mehta has said many things about the production and my guess is that she chose Sri Lanka for two reasons. First she had previously suffered from protests by Hindi fundamentalists when she made Water (Canada 2005), the third film of her ‘elements trilogy’. (See my earlier posting about this film.) She moved that production to Sri Lanka where she discovered that Columbo and its environs has preserved much more of the ‘heritage buildings’ from the colonial period than equivalent cities in India. Midnight’s Children was a much more demanding shoot in terms of locations so Sri Lanka was very attractive. Rushdie’s novel has also been controversial in both India and Pakistan and the shoot was interrupted for a few days when the Iranian government tried to pressurise the Sri Lankans to withdraw permissions. It will be interesting to see what happens when the film finally opens in India (there were protests after its screening at the Kerala International Film Festival). PVR are going to distribute the film in India with a release date of February 1st. I suspect the Indian release will create a stir. I’m not sure if critics and audiences will like the film, but at least they will know the history. It is, of course, unlikely that it will be released in Pakistan except on pirated DVDs. I’m not sure yet whether it will make Bradford – where street demonstrations and a book burning were part of the reaction to Rushdie’s later novel, The Satanic Verses in 1989.
Rushdie’s long novel (500 pages of dense text in the paperback edition) tells the story of two characters born within seconds of each other at the stroke of midnight on August 14/15 1947, the moment of the end of the British Raj and the birth of two new nations separated by Partition. For reasons explained in the plot, the babies are switched at birth (in Bombay) with the poor child given to the wealthy (Muslim) mother and named Saleem and her ‘real’ son going to the poor Hindu father after his wife dies in childbirth (and named Shiva). As the two boys grow up knowing each other (but not their true identities) in the same district, they gradual discover their special powers, individual to each of the Midnight’s Children born at that one moment across the old Raj. We follow the boys through the major events of the next thirty years when they are separated only to be re-united in very different circumstances towards the end of the story. Rushdie also provides us with further background in the form of the story of Saleem’s Muslim family since his grandfather first met the woman he was to marry in Kashmir in 1915. This means that we have a story that covers 62 years of tumultuous history in South Asia with the birth of three new countries (i.e. including Bangladesh in 1971) and a host of important characters. It shouldn’t be difficult to work out from this brief outline that a ‘magic realist’ treatment of these events enables Rushdie to create symbols, metaphors and allegories for much of ‘Indian’ history in the 20th century. The story is essentially about the failure of the children with magical powers to help create India and Pakistan as viable democracies. Rushdie was writing at a time when Indira Ghandi had just been deposed after the period of ‘Emergency’ in 1977.
Production and reception
Rushdie’s novel was seen to be unfilmable, although a stage production was mounted in 2003 (see this review) and Wikipedia suggests that a BBC five part serial was considered in the 1990s (ironically featuring Rahul Bose who appears in Mehta’s film) but not developed when it was feared that there would be protests in Sri Lanka where it was to be shot. Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie share a background as diaspora ‘creatives’. Mehta was born in 1950 in Amritsar, Punjab province close to the Indo-Pakistani border created by Partition. Her 1998 film Earth is one of the best Partition films. She and Rushdie worked very closely on the adaptation of Midnight’s Children, agreeing on how much to cut from the novel’s plot to enable a runtime of 146 minutes. It would also seem that Mehta urged Rushdie to write and perform the narration – and that he agreed with some reluctance. I think that on the whole the script works (though I did feel that the last section of the film was less satisfactory in that there were ellipses that seemed to suggest cuts having been made). For me, the one big mistake was the narration. I’m not one of those who never like narration. On the contrary, I like narration when it’s done well and when it fits the narrative style of the film. But Rushdie’s voice is so well-known and his delivery for me was so flat that I winced each time it came on the soundtrack. I think an actor could have ‘performed’ the narrator’s role much more successfully.
The other criticisms of the film seem much less valid to me. Partly, I think, critics in the UK and North America don’t know the history well enough to understand the somewhat schematic presentation of some of the events and they don’t necessarily know much about the different types of Indian cinema or are familiar with the acting talent on display here. Just to take a couple of examples, Kate Stables in what is otherwise a perceptive and balanced review in Sight and Sound (January 2013), refers to “snapshots of Indo-Pakistan wars and cross-border wanderings”. There are two major wars shown in the film, the India-Pakistan War of 1965 and the conflict of 1971 which saw Indian forces crossing into East Pakistan to help secure independence for what would become Bangladesh. I’m not sure what she means by ‘cross-border wanderings’. The Guardian‘s film editor Catherine Shoard refers to “actors perfectly cast to the point of blandness” and music in which “wooden flutes, xylophones and wind chimes patter about on the soundtrack”. The actors include Seema Biswas, Anupam Kher, Rahul Bose, Soha Ali Khan, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and many more known in India as well as the American-based Satya Bhabha who makes a good job of the lead. Perfectly cast, yes. Bland? I don’t think so. Mehta works in a form of parallel cinema that requires actors to work largely (but not completely) in English and to deal with scripts quite unlike those which they would find in mainstream Indian popular cinemas such as Bollywood or Tamil/Telegu. The overall effect is not necessarily as ‘coherent’ as we might expect in the commercial cinemas of South Asia or Hollywood/Europe. It is usually more ‘realist’ but sometimes more expressionist. The fantasy elements of this particular property (largely achieved without CGI) make this seeming contradiction more noticeable. The music in Midnight’s Children is by Nitin Sawhney. If Catherine Shoard doesn’t like his music that’s fine but as a world-class musician, a British Asian with an international reputation, he deserves not to be treated with disdain.
Midnight’s Children is not a perfect film by any means but it is a decent attempt at a literary adaptation that will please the more open-minded of the novel’s many admirers and would also please many new audiences – if they got the chance to see it. Its message of protest about what has happened in India and Pakistan over the years is still something that needs to be shouted out. I think I cried at the end because the film brought together memories of many of my favourite stories from India, partly by reminding me of the films I’ve seen and the novels I’ve read. I’ll try to keep track of what happens to Midnight’s Children in India.
Material on the background to the film’s production has mostly been taken from the Press Pack uploaded by Mongrel Films in Canada.
Here’s the UK trailer which gives some indication of the difficulties discussed above:
It’s great news that Satyajit Ray’s 1963 masterpiece is to be re-released in the UK on a new digital print in Summer 2013 and it was a privilege to be able to view the new print in the ‘Treasures’ strand of the LFF. This restoration goes back to the original film negative and looks very good. The only slight disappointment is that this isn’t one of Ray’s more location-based films. The title translates from Bengali as ‘The Big City’, but much of the film uses sets and back projection. No matter, all the other ingredients are there: a beautifully written story, fantastic performances and a riveting theme of tradition, women’s freedom outside the home and the economic realities of modern Calcutta in the 1950s.
At various points, calendars and diaries tell us that it is 1953. Because we see little of the city, the only other contradictory signifier of time period is a rather more modern motor vehicle that looks early 1960s. The time period matters perhaps only in respect of one of the narrative strands concerning the Anglo-Indian community in the city – see below.
The story by Narendranath Mitra focuses on the Mazumdars, a single family of three generations. Subrata and Arati live with his parents and their own child plus Subrata’s younger sister – still a young teenager. Money is becoming scarce for this middle-class family. Subrata works as an accountant, but his salary is barely enough to support the extended family group and he feels ashamed that his father, a retired teacher with an MA, is reduced to seeking favours from his ex-students who have ‘made good’ (this is one of the separate narrative threads in the film as the old teacher visits his students). When Arati suggests that she might get a job, her husband at first refuses (and doesn’t tell his father) but the prospect of a second salary is far too tempting in the economic circumstances. Arati applies for a job and after an interview is appointed as a ‘salesgirl’ or ‘canvasser’, making housecalls in order to interest upper middle-class housewives in the purchase of a knitting machine. Her immediate boss is a successful Bengali manager. Presumably the machine itself is imported or made in India under licence. I’m not sure why I think this, but I suspect that Ray used his own experience of advertising agencies in London to design the company logo. This film isn’t about industry as such (that becomes the focus of Company Limited in 1971) but the Bengali manager makes several comments about being free of foreign control.
The film works mainly because of the riveting performance by Madhabi Mukherjee as Arati. She was only 20 when she worked on the film, but convinces as a married woman a few years older. The film narrative depends on her believable transformation into a working woman who can stand up for herself.
The ‘Anglo-Indian question’ is significant with the film set in the early 1950s, only a few years after independence. One of the other four young women appointed as canvassers at the same time as Arati is Edith, an Anglo-Indian in her early twenties about to get married and needing the income. The Anglo-Indians (defined here as mixed race families, rather than as Europeans who remained in India after independence) faced a difficult position when the British Raj ended. Many sought a new life in the UK, Canada or Australia. Those who remained, mainly in Calcutta or Madras, could no longer rely on the more prestigious jobs in railway administration. Edith is depicted as a modern young woman in Western clothes who speaks English in all situations. She befriends Arati, who is open to new experiences, and this friendship is central to the narrative, both in the influence of Edith on Arati and in the conflict created by the behaviour of the women’s boss who demonstrates his prejudice towards the Anglo-Indian community and Edith in particular. The manager is quite an unpleasant character and several commentators have linked this attack by Ray on the ‘new business types’ in the city to his similar criticisms of older business leaders in his previous film Kanchenjunga.
Despite the prejudice shown by the manager and some rather ungracious behaviour by one of the old teacher’s students, overall Ray sticks to the rule of his mentor Jean Renoir and characters are presented as ‘human’ in their behaviour. This is especially true within the family situation. Subrata has the education but he is not as bright as his wife. He is bound by tradition, but he loves his family. The ending of the film has been criticised by some as too optimistic – in a film about the economic realities of life in the city. But really it is optimistic about the marriage. I guess I’m an old romantic, but I thought that there were grounds for optimism. Often rated slightly less highly than Ray’s most famous films, Mahanagar is for me right up there amongst the best.
There were several new Indian films in the festival, but most were on at times that were inconvenient for me. Virgin Goat turned out to be quite distinctive. Essentially a form of ‘parallel film’ it isn’t what one might expect from that label, nor from its other institutional classification as a ‘festival film’ (with funding from a host of the usual suspects from Europe and North America). Instead it qualifies as an outrageous satire on Indian society, ranging across politics and identity.
The title refers to a slight but very attractive black goat called Laila who, according to her owner Kalyan Singh, is the last in line of a flock which has been owned by his family for 500 years. Unfortunately she has yet to conceive and Kalyan is prepared to try anything to make it happen. Convinced that the local vet has finally got Laila into heat he sets off with her to find the local stud billy-goat. We learn that his desperation arises from what he feels is persecution by the state and his own family. The government have seized his lands and forced him to sell his live stock. His son is a layabout, his wife chastises him and all his wealth has gone on his daughter’s dowry. His daughter returning home from the failed marriage seems like the last straw. When Kalyan attempts to walk the several miles with Laila to find the billy-goat he finds his way blocked by the arrival in the area of a political leader. At this stage the director Murali Nair starts to ramp up the surrealism of Kalyan’s experience. Laila is taken from him and she becomes the model for the symbol of a new political party with disturbing fascist connotations – a black goat on a white circle against a red background (reminiscent of Nazi symbols, but I’m not sure if this has other specific meanings in an Indian context). Can Kalyan rescue her and still mate her before her fertile period ends?
I did enjoy the film and parts are very funny. Unfortunately it was projected from DigiBeta tape and the visual quality was poor. This was a shame because it undermined to some extent the investment I had in the opening sequences (which suggested a conventional ‘social film’) and the subsequent twist towards surrealism. The film is heavily dependent on the performance by Raghubir Yadav who is a well-known and highly respected actor in both parallel and mainstream popular cinema. Because he is a believable figure who we can identify with, the surrealist sequences become more powerful in sharpening the satire. I was reminded of some recent Indian novels and also some aspects of African Cinema such as Sembène Ousmane’s Xala (1974) with its similar satire on politicians.
Murali Nair (born 1965) is originally from Kerala and he had an early success with his Malayalam art/parallel films, winning the Caméra d’or at Cannes for his first feature, Marana Simhasanam (Throne of Death, 1999). At that point he had formed his own production company Flying Elephant Films with his wife Preeya and was supporting the company through his work in UK television. Virgin Goat was made in and around Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, which is his current production base. He has had several Cannes screenings and developed a profile on the festival circuit, but some of his films have found it difficult to get releases in India. Virgin Goat has a Hindi language soundtrack which should make it an easier sell in India.
Screen International‘s reviewer described Dhobi Ghat as an arthouse film after seeing it at the Toronto Festival. Mike Goodridge suggested that the film could play in specialised cinemas internationally, but he (correctly) forecast that because the film stars Aamir Khan it would be released on what he called “the Indian circuit” (i.e the 17 different territories that take Bollywood releases) to avoid piracy. And indeed that has been the case with a successful release in UK multiplexes. (I noticed too that the film was playing in Kuala Lumpur on the circuit.) This raises all kinds of questions about production/distribution of what Goodridge refers to as the ‘new independent Indian Cinema’.
Dhobi Ghat is an Aamir Khan Production, written and directed by Kiran Rao – Khan’s partner. Since Khan is the Number 1 star in Bollywood at the moment, we should perhaps question what ‘independent’ means in this context. Although the film sometimes looks as if it was shot ‘on the run’ (Wikipedia refers to ‘guerilla shooting’), it was in fact a major production as evidenced by the lists of VFX and extensive crew roles. Currently there are two different overall budget figures across the web. The film cost either 5 crores or 11 crores (i.e. around £500,000 or £1.4 million). I suspect the latter figure includes a major marketing budget. Even £500,000 would get you quite a long way on an independent Indian shoot – especially if Khan himself works without a fee.
The idea behind the film derives from the interconnections between four very different characters in Mumbai (the alternative title is Mumbai Diaries). Arun (Aamir Khan) is an artist – a loner who grudgingly attends his own exhibition opening. Here he meets Shai, an American investment banker whose father still owns property in Mumbai. She is on a ‘sabbatical’, supposedly researching SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) in South Asia, but seemingly more interested in pursuing her hobby of photography. Both of them use the same laundry service offered by a dhobi nicknamed Munnah – a young Muslim from Bihar. The fourth character only exists on videotapes that Arun finds in a drawer when he moves to a new apartment. Yasmin is an unhappy young woman trapped in a loveless marriage as a new arrival in Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh. She makes the videotapes to send to her brother back home. The tapes then provide stimulus for Arun who sets out on a new project.
I’m not sure what I make of this film. On the one hand, it is a beautifully-produced and engaging narrative (though not a conventional story for mainstream audiences). But it is also rather contrived and conventional with imagery that is almost too ‘composed’ in its presentation of Mumbai. (The photos that Shai takes are extremely well-composed and look like the belong in a gallery.) Omar offers an excellent analysis of how Mumbai is presented and he (and Shubhajit) clearly love the film. I certainly enjoyed watching it and I recognise that it’s nearly thirty years since I experienced Bombay (as it still was then), but although there were some streetscapes that I recognised, I did feel that mostly the film repeated images from other films. Partly, I blame the soundtrack by the critically-acclaimed Argentinian Gustavo Santaolalla. The use of music made me think of Satyajit Ray’s ‘composed’ films, but it tended to remove the sense of noisy bustle on the streets, calming everything down. Sorry, the music is beautiful, but I think I would have preferred either A. R. Rahman or the more direct sound of Salaam Bombay!. The critical reaction to the film has come up with the idea that ‘Mumbai’ itself is a fifth character and there is a general consensus that “only in Mumbai” could we find these kinds of stories. Certainly I think it’s true that Mumbai is the Indian equivalent of Los Angeles – attracting dreamers and those seeking their fortune (or just a living) from all over India. Rao herself has claimed that the script was based to some extent on her own experiences living in the city and the issues concerning class, caste and religion in many scenes are well handled.
The contrivance comes from the introduction of Yasmin’s tapes at the start of the film when we don’t know their provenance. The film starts with wobbly ‘amateur’ video footage shot on Mini-DV with Yasmin’s voiceover. I felt some uneasiness around me in the cinema until more conventional composed images shot on 35 and 16mm appeared. The tapes intrigue us partly through this introduction – whereas the rest of the narrative is presented in a linear fashion. In the last part of the film we are offered quite conventional narrative resolutions in terms of crime or romance dramas. The four characters are well-drawn but what happens to them seemed familiar to me in terms of Bombay stories. There is nothing wrong with that of course, only that the film sometimes promises to transcend a conventional Mumbai-set drama.
The casting sets Aamir Khan against three newcomers (at least as leads). Khan exudes starpower. He plays the mostly sullen loner and his muscle-toned figure and intense stares dominate several scenes. The two women (with Kriti Malhotra as Yasmin) are excellent but the revelation is the dhobi wallah, played by Prateik – who turns out to be the son of India’s greatest star of parallel cinema, Smita Patil. Prateik would never have known his mother who died when he was only a few weeks old. But mention of his mother raises the question of how this film fits in with the tradition of parallel cinema. Aamir Khan himself refers to the parallel tradition in interviews. I think that the film points in the right direction and its success (both commercially and critically) means that it may be easier to get other similar films made. Certainly Kiran Rao has real talent as does the first-time cinematographer, Tushar Kanti Ray and the trio of actors. Aamir Khan continues to be a fascinating filmmaker as actor/producer/director. The screening of Dhobi ghat was preceded by a teaser trailer for the next Aamir Khan Productions release in the Summer entitled Delhi Belly. The short clip looked like an hommage to Danny Boyle and Trainspotting!
Returning to the discussion of ‘specialised film’ status, I doubt whether many people in the audience at Cineworld were from the usual UK specialised audience. If someone like Clare Binns at City Screen, or perhaps the ICO, were to put the film into UK specialised cinemas, I’m confident that they would find an audience.
Here is an HD trailer that offers a glimpse of the visual beauty of Dhobi ghat:
In this interesting clip, Kiran Rao and Aamir Khan demonstrate how they set up some of the street scenes in one of the famous thoroughfares in ‘Old Bombay’.
The excellent official website for the film offers a good range of resources (thanks Omar)