In the Hindi film Filmistaan, the India-Pakistan border is crossed by two protagonists—Sunny, an aspiring actor from Mumbai; and films, hundreds of which are produced by Bollywood each year. Sunny gets mistakenly kidnapped by a group of terrorists and, eventually, ends up finding his dear Bollywood films on the other side of the border with him. This border-crossing on part of the films is mediated through the act of pirating—a dilution of sorts, or rather, a negotiation of identity. Aftaab, who later becomes Sunny’s saviour in Pakistan, trades in the pirated films coming all the way from India. Foregrounding the transnational solidarity between Sunny and Aftaab, the film continues to question the being of the border while also making fleeting references to the Partition of 1947 (referred to as the Partition hereafter) that divided the Indian subcontinent into independent dominions. Just before the end credits song, the last comment from the film comes in the form of a short couplet in Punjabi: “Je dilan nu baant ke rakhde, laanat teri lakeeran nu (Those that part the hearts, shame on such borders of yours)!” Alongside this questioning also lies the idea of a ‘filmistaan’ or the land of films—a reparatory imagination existing against/beyond the border.
Filmistaan is one of the many films that I encountered in a class with Professor Rita Kothari at Ashoka University earlier this year. The course was titled: Dil ka Batwara: Cinematic Partition. As evident from the title, the course relied on a critical study of the cinematic representations of the Partition that was, literally, a dil ka batwara (partition of the heart). Such representations of the Partition for popular consumption pose as well as answer many questions. In the concluding class, the question that Professor Kothari wanted us to part with was: “what are the dangers and dividends involved in reading the Partition through cinema?” This discussion becomes all the more relevant in a diverse—albeit private—group composed of students from the disciplines of Literature, History, and Political Science—all exploring the affective possibilities provided by cinema in studying this cataclysmic history and its remnants. To answer whether or not cinema does justice to an event as major as the Partition, one first needs to begin by not only asking but also experiencing how the big screen has managed to project the Partition so far. The Hindi film industry in India, in particular, has continued to depict the Partition since the 1940s (Dwyer 2017). Elsewhere, reviewing the portrayal of the Partition in Hindi cinema, Manoj Sharma concludes that such a depiction “of the violence committed on vulnerable sections of society, sense of loss, pain of being rootless, forced migrations, economic misery, inhuman brutality perpetrated in the name of religious divide, has been, to an extent, helpful in projecting the trauma of partition” (2009-10: 1159). In Sharma’s conclusion, it is crucial to note that cinema is attempting—or is perhaps expected—to project not only the Partition on the screen but also the trauma associated with it—a trauma so ubiquitous that it seeps into and out of the silences that characterise the Partition to date.
This question of history and trauma is taken up by Jennifer Yusin (2009) while studying these silences. Focusing on the border as the site of the simultaneity of the Partition as both historical specificity and trauma, Yusin argues that the subcontinent inherited “a geography of trauma” (2009: 460) from its borders, defined as “a conceptual schema that is at once a geographical and national reality in which people live and an ungraspable experience that refuses boundaries” (2009: 453). Isn’t it indeed this ungraspable aspect of the reality of the Partition that renders it as an “unfinished business”—a thing of the here and now, a discourse equally relevant in the classroom as it is elsewhere? Notably, Yusin critiques the available Partition scholarship for its shortcomings as it seeks “to reduce Partition violence and its impact to a psychological response catalogued in the aftermath of the Partition” (2009: 458). On the other hand, she categorically upholds Partition literature as it “transcends historical specificity . . . [on the grant of] the creative freedom to travel among cultural, temporal, and historical boundaries without violating the authority of experience” (Yusin 2009: 458).
Along similar lines, highlighting this turn towards literature and memory in accessing and examining the silences engendered by historical trauma, Ira Bhaskar deals with these ever-present shadows through her archive of study: Indian Cinema. Referring to the scholarship on cinema and the Holocaust, Bhaskar explores “cinema as ‘an alternate discourse for history-telling’ . . . that has the capacity to embody/figure the ineffable that eludes the words and the seamless discourse of traditional history writing” (2014: 340-41) in the context of the Partition. Central to Bhaskar’s discussion of Partition cinema is melodrama, proposed as “a cinematic mode through which the ‘unrepresentable’ of holocaustal events is imagined and imaged” (2014: 353), thus responding adequately to its unfinishedness—graspable and ungraspable at once—that continually invites us to face it. Foregrounding the “mourning work” (Elsaesser 1996 cited in Bhaskar 2014: 41) demanded by such events, Bhaskar thus argues in favour of melodrama “as a powerful mode of public mourning” that can generate “historical affect and enable a confrontation of the spectres that haunt history” (2014: 353). It equips one with not one but many languages of mourning, encapsulated in Filmistaan in the scene where Sunny and Aftaab run towards the fenced border, not wanting to part ways, backdropped by the interlaced audio snippets from the public addresses by Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
It could be argued that melodrama makes use of creative freedom at an unparalleled scale, successfully transferring the general political themes onto a particular personalised plane (Elsaesser 1987 cited in Viswanath and Malik 2009: 66). Remarkably, not only could the melodramatic form “have room for realism in the Indian cinema,” it also became a “mode of cultural production/assimilation” by transcending the preceding genres or forms like the novel (Rajadhyaksha 1993 cited in Viswanath and Malik 2009: 67). Further, in a multidisciplinary classroom, the students approach the Partition by making use of “the possibility of accessing historical trauma as affect or through affect” (Bhaskar 2014: 341) that melodrama provides, thereby engaging with history and each other on the basis of a shared sensory language. This way, melodrama becomes available as an affective pedagogical tool relying on “the intense emotional responses that it elicits” (Bhaskar 2014: 353) in the audience, shaping the viewer-readers’ responses in more ways than one.
While cinematic melodrama, too, is not exempt from the issues of (mis)representation, prompting Professor Kothari to confront us with that question, it “paves the way for collective mourning in a public space such as a theatre” (Viswanath and Malik 2009: 63) or, for that matter, a classroom. The melodramatic form often generates an uneasiness as a result, but it also “give[s] voice to a desire for reparation” as Bhaskar (2014: 353) suggests and a film like Filmistaan attempts. Thus, the resultant effect of melodrama becomes both the text and the medium of accessing and experiencing it. Our classes usually ended with a song sequence—with narratives of its own—from the film in question. Following a shared sigh, everyone exited the Zoom classroom silently, having ‘experienced’ the Partition both individually and collectively. After all, as Yusin argues, “we are experiencing the Partition through the act of reading [or watching cinema]. Stories [or their celluloid representations] do not simply describe the trauma of the Partition; they become [it]” (2009: 458).
Bhaskar, I. (2014) ‘Trauma, Melodrama and the Production of Historical Affect: Indian Cinema and the Figuration of The Partition and the Contemporary Communal Riot’ in Nasta, D. et al (ed.) Le mélodrame filmique revisité /Revisiting Film Melodrama. P.I.E. Peter Lang, pp. 339–356.
Dwyer, R. (2017) ‘Partition in Hindi Cinema: Violence, Loss and Remembrance’, The Wire, 10 August [online]. Available at: https://thewire.in/film/partition-hindi-cinema (Accessed: 10 July 2021).
Filmistaan (2012) Directed by Nitin Kakkar [Film]. UTV Motion Pictures.
Sharma, M. (2009-2010) ‘Portrayal of Partition in Hindi Cinema’, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 70, pp. 1155–1160.
Viswanath, G. and Malik, S. (2009) ‘Revisiting 1947 through Popular Cinema: A Comparative Study of India and Pakistan’, Economic and Political Weekly, 44:36, pp. 61–69.
Yusin, J. (2009) ‘The silence of partition: borders, trauma, and partition history’, Social Semiotics, 19:4, pp. 453–468.
Author Information: Sanchit Toor is a graduate student specialising in South Asian literature in the Department of English at Ashoka University, India. A Sahapedia-UNESCO Fellow 2020, he is broadly interested in the questions of language, orality, religion, and translation, studying both oral-performative and textual sources.
Suggested Citation: Sanchit Toor. 2021. ‘Partition, Cinema and an Indian Classroom’, Think Pieces Series No. 21. Education.SouthAsia (https://educationsouthasia.web.ox.ac.uk/).