copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

Indian cinema and Partition

by Jyotika Virdi

Review of Bhaskar Sarkar, Mourning the Nation: Indian Cinema in the Wake of Partition. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009, 372 p.

Drawing on the trauma of India’s violent 1947 Partition as staged in Indian popular cinema, Bhaskar Sarkar deftly sketches wide ranging scholarship on cataclysmic world events, contending that the Indian case offers special insights into trauma studies, encompassing processes of mourning that unfold unpredictably.[1] [open endnotes in new window] That there was a deafening cinematic silence for nearly three decades and then the sudden eruption of Partition representations in the next two decades, Sakar argues, are part of the same process. The initial silence, the refusal to represent painful memories onscreen is contained by filmic narratives that displace, deflect, and defer examining the wounds, a form of mourning. Sarkar states his preference for this mode, adopted in the 1950s and 60s by Indian cinema, over the later phase of incessant and direct representation of violence, rape, and abduction that had been erased from earlier public discourse. The former period of discourse was dominated by lamenting the territorial truncation Partition had wrought, a lost aspiration for an undivided nation at the end of British colonial rule.

Sakar delineates the stakes in this project — a fervent hope to end the trauma surfacing in the mutually destructive nuclear race between India and Pakistan and in the repetitive internal pogroms of religious minorities in 1984, 1993, and 2002. In this light, Sarkar considers the Partition an originary event key to understanding the psychic processes of mourning the loss of a loved object; reexamining that event could potentially heal old wounds. Partition lies at the root of Hindutva nationalism, which conflates Hinduism with the Indian nation and asserts Hindu ascendancy over religious minorities, particularly demanding Indian and Pakistani Muslim submission. However, Sakar somewhat overstates the argument that the Partition is foundational to understanding identity in the new nation, a concept he, among others, interrogates. As he acknowledges, the Partition is not a defining moment of the nation in the south, a region untouched by these events. Its primacy over other schisms is questionable. Other divisions have simmered, erupted, and been equally constitutive in reshaping identity politics and the public sphere. For instance, we get glimmers of the escalating rupture between dalits (low caste) and upper-caste Hindus in 1990, or the women’s movement since the 1980s, culminating in women’s mandatory village level representation, and the way these divisions reshaped local politics while also complicating Hindu-Muslim and dalit politics. Gender is a trope excessively deployed in symbolic representations of the Hindu-Muslim dynamic. However, for Sakar the caste hierarchy within Hinduism and its ongoing physical and psychic violence remain invisible, lack critical investment, and become the “repressed other” in his analysis, which privileges and attends almost exclusively to the Hindu-Muslim divide.

Chapter one explores the film industry and fledgling nation-state at odds with each other as they defined the new nation and its cultural field. Film participated in the “National Symbolic” (52) of an evolving nation, its citizen-subject, and the emergent contradictions of modernization. The state, on the other hand, squarely excluded film from “culture,” a status awarded to literature, the fine arts, and classical forms that exalted a national identity rooted in antiquity, which was ironically an Orientalist affirmation. Cinema, regarded a commercial rather than aesthetic enterprise subsumed by mass culture, was regulated by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry in a relation fraught by state censorship, licensing, and taxation policies. Bereft of the weight of heritage accorded Indian “authenticity,” cinema instead epitomized dynamically changing culture that it encapsulated with its penchant for the hybrid. Established studios had already marshaled generic devices; and in the 1950s the capacious master genre, the social, combined melodrama, realism, evolving audience concerns, and the reformist impulse of literary and social movements. For their scripts, studios developed narratives that affirmed hegemonic nationhood while also articulating misgiving and anxieties about the developing nation.

This excellent exposition of the post-independence film industry builds towards analysis of the first two decades of films, straddling the rest of chapters one and two. The films from this phase displace, sublimate, and allegorize the partition by choosing oblique narratives and devices:

Cumulatively these bespeak the trauma of Partition, often allegorizing the fate that women silently withstood when their families refused to claim them after the two states, at the behest of the families’ initial pressure, agreed to repatriate women left behind. 

Displaced figurations of the partition are tracked closely in several films (e.g., Shabnam [Bibhuti Mitra, 1948], Aag [Raj Kapoor, 1948], Amar [Mehboob Khan, 1954], Dharamputra [Yash Raj Chopra, 1961], and Waqt [Yash Raj Chopra, 1965]. Shabnam, set against Indian refugees fleeing from the Japanese bombing of Burma in 1942, is a somewhat fantastic tale of a Hindu woman’s amnesia, induced by the loss of loved ones, who is tricked into adopting a Muslim identity by a feudal prince who claims they are married. In Aag the male protagonist separated from his childhood sweetheart follows his passion for theater and lost love until he meets a woman displaced by the Partition who auditions for a play. However, he is disfigured and scarred by the fire he sets off when he learns his patron and theatre partner loves the same woman. In Amar an urban woman defends a rural woman impregnated by her fiancé. A Hindu fanatic falls apart in Dharamputra when he discovers he is adopted and that the Muslim neighbor he rushes to kill in the Partition riots is his biological mother. Compared to this explicit evocation of the riots that kept audiences at bay, in Waqt the Partition is allegorized. An earthquake, a natural catastrophe, stands in for a social one that separates a family reunited in the end through a courtroom drama.

Such allegories of physical eruption, dislocation, and psycho-social disfigurement were expedient, spared the audience of painfully reliving their experience on the screen, preserved the structure of the loss, staved off inflammatory passions, mollified audiences with appeals to secular democratic sensibilities, and entreated them to preserve Hindu-Muslim amity. Interviews with industry stalwarts, directors Yash Chopra and Balraj Chopra, and their memories, are turned into sites that Sarkar investigates for understanding explicit and implicit figurations of the Partition. While dispossession and deterritorialization are embodied in the work of several industry stalwarts, in Ramanand Sagar’s case it presents an alibi for the “rancor” in “his communally charged” televised series Ramayana (1986-88) and Krishna (1989), coinciding with Hindutva ascendance (321 n.75).

Chapter 3 turns to examining Bengali cinema’s mediation of the regional experience of partition and the national project. Two events, the 1943 famine and the 1947 bifurcation of East and West Bengal meld in cinematic representation. Early twentieth century developments in Bengal induced a deep melancholia. There is a cultural memory of the aborted 1905 partition and the province’s steady eclipse as an epicenter of the intellectual ferment producing the anti-colonial movement that spread into a national one, and as a cultural-production powerhouse displaced by Bombay. Like the ascendant Bombay Hindi film industry, Bengali cinema avoided more than fleeting references to the violent partition and its devastating effects on uprooted families facing indescribable impoverishment. The anxieties about downward mobility experienced by eastern bangals (Hindu Bengali refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh) are inscribed in the cinematic obsession with aristocratic (bhadralok) culture that gripped the imagination of the western ghotis (Hindu non-refugee Bengalis), a division that runs through comedies that genially deal with post-partition accommodation, or romantic melodramas that deflect attention from the trauma altogether.

Agnipareekhsha (Agradoot Collective, 1954) is typical of the melodrama. And it was not until after Alo Amar Alo (Pinaki B. Mukherji, 1972) on the heels of the 1971 Bangladesh War that the partition’s ravages were recreated in films candidly addressing the horror of violence committed on women’s bodies and the psychic complexities of these women’s relationships with their abductors and “shamed” families. In Agnipareeksha the female protagonist, drawn to a man, is tormented by the memory of her ceremonial, underage wedding arranged by her grandmother, even though it is discounted by her outraged modern parents. Her inner conflict, a symbolic enactment of the tradition-modernity debate, is reconciled when she discovers the man she desires is the same one her grandmother had chosen. Alo Almar Alo on the other hand centers on an East Pakistani refugee family as a group protagonist confronted by the everyday violence of struggling for a livelihood, intercut with flashbacks of prosperity in their native land. The woman’s abduction by the male lead, an industrialist and philanthropist, and the subsequent law suit she files against him is complicated by her admission in court that he cared for her while she was in captivity. The film invokes women’s confusing but eventual attachment to their abductors that ended with their families rejecting them.

Chapter 4 and 5 address exceptions to the golden rule of silence, a few stray films that openly mourn the Partition:

Ghatak is an auteur to whom an entire chapter is dedicated. Partition and the trauma of losing his home is a through line in Ghatak’s films in which the characters search for and face this permanent loss. Garam Hawa chronicles the story of a Muslim shoe-factory owner who chooses to stay in India, while his brother’s family leaves their Indian ancestral home to migrate to Pakistan during the Partition. This separates their children, first cousins, who expect to marry, and the repeated disappointments in love for the young daughter who stays behind end with her suicide. Staying on in India is fraught with other disappointments and exclusions — from loans, jobs, inheritance, and ease of visiting with family members in Pakistan — leading eventually to the decision to migrate. In the four still available Hindi films (e.g. Dharamputra and Nastik, I.S. Johar, 1954) violence is depicted through oblique representational techniques using cinematic effects and metaphors (e.g., burning tree branches, India’s map, etc.) in narratives ultimately underpinning hope for secular nationhood. Apna Desh (1949) by stalwart director V. Shantaram, among the films gone missing, is discerningly read as a significant “disappearance” (175-177). The Bengali films prefigure Satyajit Ray’s realist mode, focusing on suffering that humanizes refugees, as Garam Hawa does for Indian Muslims, exposing the severe strain on the nation’s official secular self image.

Ghatak’s allegorical trilogy, use of gendered archetypes, tropes, and excessive melodramatic devices are flagged but deemed deliberate self-conscious choices aligned to his iconoclasm and challenge to left orthodoxy. These meld, elevating him to the ultimate romantic artist whose suffering is manifested in key works of melancholic mourning over nationalism and the partition. However, Sakar’s celebrating Ghatak’s use of Indian epics, which putatively provides a complete set of “discursive” and “cognitive resources” (210), an exhaustive hermeneutic for contemporary Indian modernity, accords Hindu majoritarian mythic-culture the official Indian master-text status. Here Sakar presumes universal address hailing religious minorities and unsettles his interrogation of the state’s official modernist nationhood project in preceding chapters. Throughout the nineteenth century reform movements, such an interpretation of Hinduism and the epics has been an upper-caste version accepted by twentieth century leaders whether of Gandhian nationalist or Nehruvian secular-socialist persuasion. Regionally dispersed and competing lower caste interpretations of the epics have failed to challenge hegemonic upper caste Hinduism rampant even in popular Indian films, begging the question, whose version of the Indian epics?

Chapter 6 examines the television miniseries Tamas (Govind Nihalani, 1988) which broke the silence on representing the Partition and reshaped public discourse through the controversy, legal battles, and judicial adjudication that ensued. Tamas tracks the characters from a cross-section of classes in a community torn apart by Partition events. Among the central characters are a low-caste Hindu and his pregnant wife who undertake the journey to India where their child is born in a refugee camp, symbolizing the birth of a nation. The miniseries marks a watershed moment dividing the early “silence” phase from the later one of the 1990s and 2000s. This later phase is examined in chapter 7, about films that obsessively revisit the Partition and where the “repressed returns” with a vengeance.  There are tensions in Sarkar’s evaluation of Tamas. He implicates it in “nationalist historiography” that exclusively blames British divisive ruling policies (e.g. 234, 239) while also acknowledging that the series impugns the machinations of fanatical nationalist leaders and wealthy beneficiaries (239, 241-42). Sakar mandates that realism should balance “transformative cultural politics” (249) yet balks at the Supreme Court’s paternalistic prescription to educate through the “institution of Culture”(255-56). He views the centrality of the dalit figure as merely opportune against the backdrop of (Hindu) low-caste political mobilization in the 1980s rather than as a significant wedge that Hindutva politics has had to manage (237). Further, Sarkar argues that while Tamas shows the centrality of religious faith, it lacks analytic power (245), as in the scene of Sikh women’s mass suicide, which taps into the audience’s popular mythic memories of Hindu Rajput women’s honor-saving ritual. Yet his reading also misses the cornerstone of Sikh religious faith: there is an incessant invocation of torture and male martyrdom in Sikh mythic-historic legends that forge the community’s identity. More incontrovertible however, is Sarkar’s critique that the show’s leftist idealization of common folks’ proclivity for inter-community compassion and explicit, albeit off-screen, rampant mob violence, are contradictory themes (242-43, 245). Sarkar aptly delineates the purpose of these cultural artifacts: give victims a voice, bear witness so we may never forget, but know that we can never fully know (233, 248).

Various types of films are assessed for their varied engagements with the mourning process. These include

The war films valorize the camaraderie among Indian soldiers on the war front. Border commemorates the 1971 Longewala battle during the Bangladesh independence war when a small contingent of Indian soldiers overcame a relatively larger Pakistani force and L.O.C. marks the 1999 battle Indian soldiers waged in the mountainous Kargil terrain, triggered by the Pakistani army’s incursion beyond the line of control. In Gadar a Sikh truck driver risks his life to first defend and then marry a terrified Muslim woman separated from her family who leave for Pakistan during the Partition riots. Years later she reconnects with her parents and visits her father, now a mayor in Pakistan, but is prevented from returning to her child and husband, who stakes his life to rescue her. Train to Pakistan captures microcosmic details of the Partition experienced in a Punjab village on the Indian side of the border rife with rumors of the Hindus and Sikhs killed by Muslims. A retaliatory conspiracy to blow up a train packed with Muslims departing for Pakistan is thwarted by a hot headed ne’er-do-well Sikh youth who sacrifices himself for the cause. Impelled by twin forces of globalization and Hindu militancy of the last two decades, these films package the past as authentic accounts of a traumatic history, meeting contemporary taste and cultural-political needs. Sarkar argues the films index the unresolved process of mourning that in the Freudian paradigm entails withdrawing investment in the loved object, turning affect into cognition. Merely recognizing the condition producing the trauma is insufficient unless the residual affect is acknowledged, which in these films is mobilized as anger and revulsion of the other in its use of spectacular violence, cinematic kitsch, or stock characters.

Earth, also set on the eve of the Partition in cosmopolitan Lahore, is an upstairs-downstairs narrative told from the viewpoint of an eight-year-old polio-ridden Parsee girl, who spends her time with her Hindu ayah (nanny) and is privy to the nanny’s affair with a Muslim masseur, antagonizing the “ice candy man” who visits regularly. Once the riots erupt, communities across class are consumed by violent passion paralleling the jealous rage with which the once-endearing ice candy man hacks the ayah’s lover to death. Naseem (Saeed Mirza, 1995), like Garam Hawa earlier, focalizes the Muslim minority. And it, as well as the Bengali documentary Way Back Home (Supriyo Sen, 2003), are judged by Sakar as successful acts of mourning, films that signal overcoming the loved object’s loss. In Naseem, the eponymous protagonist, a Muslim teen girl’s bond with her ailing grandfather is set against the eve of the 1992 riots following the Babri Masjid (Babri Mosque) desecration by Hindu fundamentalists, who claimed the mosque was the Hindu god Rama’s birthplace.[2] The film interweaves two timelines, the pre-Partition hopeful moment about which the grandfather reminisces but Naseem’s youthful brother and friend angrily contest. And the time of the youth disillusioned by the present.

Sarkar reads the grandfather’s death on December 6, 1992, the fateful day of Babri Masjid destruction, not as the death of secularism but as the possibility of re-envisioning it, acknowledging past mistakes. Way Back Home chronicles the filmmaker’s journey with his parents returning to their ancestral home in East Pakistan they left fifty years earlier. Historical archival footage, intercut with personal affects and memories, unsettle the subjectivities these tokens constitute when the parents eventually cannot recognize anything in the place they cherished so deeply during their lifetime away. The film struck a strong personal chord with Sarkar, but he then faults Deepa Mehta’s Earth (like Train to Pakistan), packaged for a globalized audience, for clichéd images and for universalizing the particularity of partition, denying the possibility that the film might strike “other,” more local, and equally subjective kinds of affect or identification. The charge does not square easily with Sarkar’s own promise to locate the lessons of India’s partition, albeit particularized, within a broader history of trauma studies. Explicitly he does not deliver on this promise in the book’s coda, although we are left to infer that in India the mourning process is ongoing, suggesting a cultural failure to overcome the historic loss, and that the Partition’s cinematic representation draws on referents from Indian epics that Sakar deems “civilizational”(8).

None of my disagreements, mainly with the book’s second part titled “The Return of the Repressed,” detract from admiring the rich extra-textual details contextualizing all the films  and the sheer brilliance of part one, the acuity of reading “A Resonant Silence” of the early post-partition phase films. The films’ puzzling fixation on melodramatic devices — of coincidence, foundlings, abandonment, and unwed mothers in interminable formulaic narratives of family members uniting after catastrophic disasters tear them apart — is not unlike an individual’s inexplicable recurrent dream. Sarkar’s astute hermeneutic of the collective unconscious shows us the elegance in the films’ elision and silent restaging of loss suffered in a tragic traumatic moment that the nation mourned.


1. India, a British colony since 1757, won independence on August 15, 1947. The end of two hundred years of colonial rule was accompanied by dividing the heavily Hindu and Muslim populated regions into India and Pakistan in the northwest and east. This was the effect of British divide-and-rule policies; but in 1971 East Pakistan declared its war of independence and subsequently established itself as Bangladesh. [return to text]

2. There is a credible argument that Hindutva leaders’ mobilization against Babri Masjid was a diversion to contain the political momentum the lower caste was gaining in the 1980s. The upper-lower caste wedge among Hindus came to a head in 1990 when the Mandal Commission recommended strengthening affirmative action, resulting in the eruption of violent protests.

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