VICEROY’S HOUSE (Dir. Gurinder Chadha, UK, 2017)

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Where to start with Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House? It is a film that is likely to polarize audiences. Fatima Bhutto wrote a dismissive opinion piece for The Guardian on the film’s supposedly deplorable romanticism of the trauma of Partition, to which Chadha has replied. I saw the film a few days ago at a preview screening with Chadha in attendance. I agree with some of Bhutto’s criticisms particularly regarding the way Muslims are repeatedly framed as the aggressors and instigators of communal violence – although Chadha’s juggling act of trying not to demonize any one group would have come in for criticism regardless of the how the film turned out. Furthermore, the depiction of the British Empire is somewhat rose tinted, certainly raising the question of whether or not The Mountbatten’s should have got it in the neck. But are these two points of criticism enough to dismiss Chadha’s film as an extension of imperialist propaganda?

The film opens a wound that has yet to heal and in doing so intervenes in the unfolding discourse and historiography of Partition but from a British Asian diasporic perspective. I would reason this film is not strictly about the horrors of Partition. In fact, it is essentially a bloodless film, something that is likely to not sit well with historians. In the Q&A, Chadha said she made a decision not to depict communal violence because she did not want to make a film about victimization and get caught up in the politics of pain and suffering that often gets contested when dealing with such traumatic historical events. This is understandable given what is at stake. However, it is near impossible to remain impartial when it comes to depicting history particularly Partition and there is a sense that by trying too hard to balance the competing representations Chadha loses some of the nuances and contradictions of characters. Attempting to deal with Partition in a mainstream context while targeting a broader audience than usual explains the film’s lapse into Bollywood melodrama in the final moments and why the administrative act of partitioning unfolds within the structural paradigm of the British upstairs-downstairs melodrama. The resultant humour that comes about through this clash of cultures in the house is unevenly pitched and jars with the politics at stake.

Nonetheless, Chadha’s film is significant for two reasons. Firstly, creating a cultural space opens a new site for dialogue and conversation about Partition, Colonialism and Empire, around which there has been a continual silence. The wounds of Partition inscribe a trauma that has often been ignored in the writing of history. Secondly, advocating a prescient message of tolerance and coexistence, however preachy this maybe, seems critical for any chance of reconciliation and healing to take place for the wounds of Partition. In addition, while there is a tendency to simplify and condense history, the film also synchronically magnifies the political machinations of Partition. For instance, the creation of Pakistan is linked to the consolidation of British power, enacted to counter the Soviet Union, and by bringing oil into the equation feeds into the contemporary geopolitical situation today. If anything, this is a moderate political indictment of the British Empire and the historical engineering of Partition. Admittedly, what is most off putting about Chadha’s view of Partition is the reduction of leaders including Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi to political caricatures.

Many of the films to deal with Partition directly have come from outside the mainstream – both Garam Hawa and Tamas were funded by the state in India yet are two of the best films on the subject. The mainstream especially popular Hindi cinema has continued to remain silent on the subject, largely because the trauma of Partition is still being played out and is either too severe or sensitive to deal with, falling back on allegorical tropes such as the lost and found narrative device. Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak has perhaps come closest to capturing the trauma of Partition in his work but Chadha’s view of Partition and history also points to the complicated ways in which we remember the past, in so much her film could be situated as a film about memory and whether remembering correctly or incorrectly is suggestive of a deeper crisis at work in which the history of Partition and Empire has remained buried and obscured in the recesses of our collective imagination.

MAMMO (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1994, India)

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When Khalid Mohamed, editor of Filmfare and journalist, wrote a piece on his great aunt in the Times of India he had no idea that Benegal would eventually convince Mohamed to write a screenplay based on the idea. This was made altogether unusual since Mohamed was not the greatest fan of Benegal’s cinema. Mammo (1994) would be the first of three films, all written by Khalid Mohamed, in which Benegal explored the fractured lives of three women from Muslim families. The story of Mammo revolves around the character of Mehmooda Begum (Farida Jalal) – a displaced Muslim woman who doesn’t quite know where she belongs anymore, a victim of partition and someone searching for an identity in an uncertain Bombay in which secularism has started to fade. Thrown out by her relatives in Pakistan, Mammo comes to Bombay, staying with her widowed sister Fayyazi (Surekha Sikri) and her 13yr old nephew Riyaz (Amit Phalke) from whose point of the view the story is narrated.

There was no plan for a trilogy but along with Sardari Begum and Zubeidaa, Benegal’s ‘Muslim Trilogy’ is unique to Indian cinema but perhaps less so in the context of Parallel Cinema which had since its birth in the late 1960s at least attempted to make more films on the subject of partition while also re-presenting the lives of Indian Muslims in an altogether convincing and sympathetic way – Garam Hawa the most notable example. The first film in the trilogy, Mammo, was made in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and Bombay Riots of 1992. The post-Ayodhya context of Mammo gives the film a particularly significant ideological resonance. Benegal and Mohamed’s depiction of the oppressed Muslim minority is one that contravenes the often stereotyped representations found in popular Hindi cinema; the overly marked presence of the token Muslim character. Instead, Mammo and other Muslim characters are psychologically complex, have an inner life that we get to see and are often shown in the process of negotiating, contesting their Muslim identity.

Benegal’s output is staggering, comparable to Satyajit Ray in many respects, although I would argue Benegal took on many more controversial and difficult topics and stories over his career, and constantly adapted his style and themes to account for social and political changes in society. Moreover, I can’t think of any other Indian filmmaker over the past 40 years who has constantly engaged with the stories of Indian women, offering a voice to subaltern lives which are continually blotted out in the mainstream. Mammo comes very late in the history of Parallel Cinema and in some respects is a film representative of both Middle Cinema Benegal was often associated with and the Hindi melodrama, returning to classic films such as Bimal Roy’s Bandini. Indeed, Mammo is one of Benegal’s least seen works, a poignantly crafted tale about belonging, borders and identity.

BAJRANGI BHAIJAAN (Dir. Kabir Khan, 2015, India) – Borders [spoilers ahead]

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I wonder how many eager cinephiles spotted the opening intertextual reference to the Manmohan Desai film Chhalia as the Samjuhta Express makes it way from Pakistan to India? The image of Nutan wiping away the condensation from the window of her train compartment (see below) in the 1960 film is eerily resurrected in the cinematic memories of Bajrangi Bhaijaan. By reaching back to one of Desai’s earliest films, a work exploring the trauma of partition through the eyes of a displaced abductee, Bajrangi Bhaijaan implies this mainstream star vehicle for Salman Khan, while trying to broach the subject of borders and belonging, will in truth be a secularist allegory on the inwardly interminable disturbance of partition. However, does a slick filmic reference to a classic Hindi film automatically categorise Bajrangi Bhaijaan as a deft slice of mainstream melodrama?

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It certainly peaked my interests but like so much of contemporary Bollywood cinema, the film falls prey to an imitative narrative, delivering a film of two halves; the first half, comical in tone, whereas the second half is all about the histrionics and the value of closure. Adopting the much abused ‘lost and found’ narrative, the film is about a young Pakistani girl Shahida (Harshaali Malhotra) left behind in India. It falls upon Bajrangi (Salman Khan), a devotee of Hanuman, to reunite Shahida with her parents in Pakistan. Unlike Salman Khan’s previous films fashioned around his hollow hard body persona, in Bajrangi Bhaijaan the action genre is displaced by social melodrama leaving him sort of exposed as an actor. Unsurprisingly Salman Khan has never really taken acting seriously, having spent his career unashamedly and narcissistically playing himself. He does so again, and when Bajrangi crosses the border into Pakistan he does so as Salman Khan, a secularist Indian film star, imagining a visual memo of cross border congruence borrowed somewhat from P.K.

Admittedly, the film is far more compelling in the second half, enlivened unquestionably by Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s amiable performance as a disillusioned Pakistani reporter, chronicling Bajrangi’s journey through Pakistan, while semi-evoking idioms of the road movie genre. This is a disjointed film, which could have worked far better if it had focused on Bajrangi’s mini exodus through Pakistan. The film’s didactic political approach, accomplished with a bothering sledgehammer like impetus, reaches a spectacularly calculating series of catharses, erasing the Indo-Pak border and reinstating equipoise in terms of religious and national variances. If religious intolerance is a major theme it lingers benevolently on the surface, never pursued with any real complexity. In many ways, the film has become caught up in the criminal charges currently being brought against Salman Khan. It is hard not to view the genial character of Bajrangi Bhaijaan as a vestigial response to Salman’s Khan’s tarnished public image which has yet to dent his box office bankability. It will be interesting to see if and how many times Salman uses his coming films to disguise or apologise for his crimes with the veil of stardom.

The ending is remarkable in terms of ideological address, more fascinating than the rest of the film, opening a space for an imaginary dialogue on cross border cultural politics. Through the social media efforts of reporter Chand Nawab, ordinary people from India and Pakistan amass on the Kashmiri border, demanding Bajrangi be allowed to return home safely. Finally, Shahida speaks for the first time, quoting Bajrangi’s reverence for his faith, invoking a fantasy wish fulfilment, and visualizing peaceful relations, both politically and religiously. There is a veiled truth to the final shot when Bajrangi lifts Shahida into the air. Director Kabir Khan uses a freeze frame so that Shahida is left suspended in mid-air with Bajrangi looking up to her, ready to catch her. Choosing to finish on a purgative note can be interpreted ambiguously, translating metaphorically into a commentary on Indo-Pak relations, that they also remain suspended, in limbo, unresolved. Just like P.K., Shahida is still a child and thus has not been poisoned by the Indo-Pak culture of hate; it is not so much her innocence at stake but rather the mentality of a generation who might potentially opine differently about their respective neighbours. Glib this message maybe, and exponentially preachy, and while Bajrangi Bhaijaan is certainly not great cinema, it strives clumsily to a denouement of apocryphal cathartic proportions in which the hedonistic, emotional release is romanticised as a trait that only Bollywood knows how to manufacture with a completely benign morality.

SEEMA / BOUNDARY – (Amiya Chakrabarty, 1955, India)

Seema was directed by Amiya Chakrabarty and released in 1955. It was the 8th highest grossing film of that year. From 1941 to 1957 Amiya Chakrabarty directed a total of 14 feature films. Most of the films including Seema were social melodramas. Chakrabarty’s training came about during his time at Bombay Talkies and then later Filmistan where he enjoyed commercial success. Chakrabarty was a filmmaker who seemed to evolve with each film and had his life not been cut short so unexpectedly then perhaps his contribution to the development of the Hindi melodrama might be more widely discussed in critical discourse. Seema is one of Chakrabarty’s most interesting films in terms of the Hindi melodrama. The story is centred on the character of Gauri (Nutan) – a young woman who is wrongly accused of theft and criminalised by the state. Gauri has lost her parents and she is alone in the world. The film opens in a refugee camp (a bustee) and although Chakrabarty does not explicitly state any political or historical context it seems likely that Gauri is a victim of partition. Given Chakrabarty’s Bengali roots and the fact that he was forced to leave Bengal in 1935 due to his political activism, Gauri is an exile and the loss of her parents makes her character similar to Nita in Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Capped Star, 1960). Actually, in many ways, Gauri acts as a precursor to Nita but a major difference exists between the two; Nita is part of a family and sacrifices her own ambitions whereas Gauri’s victimisation by those around her leads to rebel and openly defy the laws of social oppression. Once the police fail to contain Gauri’s defiance, a shelter for abused women run by Ashok (Balraj Sahni) take her in and offer the promise of social reformation.

The first half of the film in which Gauri’s victimisation is the main focus of the narrative is by far the strongest. In terms of ideological investigation, the first half boldly asserts that social forces cultivate Gauri’s destructive nature and her repeated questioning of authority presents her as both a figure of patriarchal oppression but also someone searching for an identity obliterated by partition. The final third sees Gauri and Ashok falling in love and although Gauri is predictably reformed (thus transforming Seema into a conventional melodram; only on the surface though), Chakrabarty opts for a muted ending. It is an ending that promises very little in terms of hope for Gauri and Ashok, and may even hint at an exclusion from society. What a film like Seema illustrates quite brilliantly is that the Hindi melodrama by the 1950s was taking on a growing ideological sophistication and offering directors the perfect vehicle for exploring the lives of ordinary Indian women. Chakrabarty’s job was made a lot easier though by the added presence of Nutan who as the tortured Gauri delivers one of her best performances.