Commissioned by Channel 4 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the partitioning of India, Partition is more political theatre than cinema. Reassuringly, some of the finest British leftist promulgators were involved in the task of adapting writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s famous short story ‘Toba Tekh Singh’. Produced by Tariq Ali and Darcus Howe, directed by Ken McMullen and starring some excellent actors including Roshan Seth, Saeed Jaffrey and Zia Mohyeddin, Second Run Films have been impressive in their release of the DVD which contains a wealth of extras including a new interview with Tariq Ali on the making of the film. Tariq Ali argues that back in the eighties Channel Four were more willing to commission films such as Partition regardless of the political content. Perhaps this is true in light of today’s Americanised scheduling and the predominance of reality shows. European and alternative cinema has more or less been banished from terrestrial television and rarely do new writers and directors get an autonomous opportunity to be creative anymore. Manto is regarded as one of South Asia’s finest short story writers and whilst much of his work is still not as well known as it should be in the west, his critical reputation and importance to the discourse on the trauma of partition offers both a historical record and autobiographical account of his personal experiences. This is not a mainstream exploration but one of the few experimental accounts that has originated from British cinema on the question and legacy of partition. In effect it should be viewed as a commemoration of the millions of lives that were lost during the horror of partition. Much of the setting in Manto’s short story takes place in a lunatic asylum in Lahore on the eve of partition which would mark the end of British rule, grant independence for India and lead to the establishment of Pakistan as a new Muslim nation. However, at that critical point in history not even Gandhi, Jinnah or Nehru could have foreseen the levels of carnage and loss of human life partition would incur from a catastrophic imperial decision concerning power, control and the economic state of South Asia.
Much of the film taps into this vein of imperial sabotage and resentment secretly harboured by the British towards the Indian people as a whole. At one point the British are criticised for deliberating undermining social progress during their rule by refusing to promote literacy to the rural population as this would have likely accelerated the end of imperial rule. Partition is a highly ideological piece of work with much of the political reasoning articulated through the use of direct camera address in which subjugation, guilt, perversion and hegemony are accentuated as markers of a colonial discourse often repressed in historical attempts to reconstruct the past. Manto was only 42 when he died due to the cirrhosis of the liver as a result of alcoholism and the film is dedicated to his memory. Much of his work has been translated into English now and I have ordered a collection of his short stories as I am interested in pursuing Manto as a writer to investigate what else he had to say about India and partition. What is clear though is that Manto was critical of all politicians and seemed very sceptical about India’s independence and whether or not this would actually lead to self liberation for the ordinary Indian – in many ways it was his vitriolic and outspoken voice that made him such a controversial figure amongst the intelligentsia. In one of the interviews on the DVD, Tariq Ali reads out Manto’s self penned epitaph as sign of the writer’s arrogance. Such is the boldness of the epitaph; it actually sums up pretty well the spirit of Manto:
“Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried the arts of short-story telling. Here he lies underneath tons of mud still wondering if he was a better short-story writer than God”