[Reader-list] Watching “Khamosh Pani” in India

Yousuf ysaeed7 at yahoo.com
Thu Dec 9 16:15:43 IST 2004

Watching “Khamosh Pani” in India
(And why I cannot use it for peace activism)

Yousuf Saeed

While Pakistani director Sabiha Sumer’s 2003 film
Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters) is getting rave reviews
and highly emotional applause in many Indian theatres,
here are some personal thoughts, if anyone’s
interested. For those who haven’t seen it (and are
being reminded by the “must-watch” reports), Khamosh
Pani, the first Pakistani film ever released in Indian
theatres, is about an idyllic Pakistani village called
Charkhi which sees the rise of Islamic fundamentalism
in 1979’s Ziaul Haq regime, and how it affects the
ordinary villagers such as Ayesha, her son Saleem, and
many others, including the visiting Sikh pilgrims from
India. I shouldn’t reveal the full story to spoil the
fun for those who haven’t seen it – it’s great cinema
to watch. I only want to express a chilling uneasiness
I had while watching it at PVR cinema surrounded by
many Punjabi families, a number of them sobbing
through the film.

Much has already been written, produced, staged and
sung about the subject of India’s Partition (on both
sides of the border), and would continue to, since its
horrible memories still haunt a large number of
affected people. But the question we must ask today:
is this memory going to help us resolve any of the
present day crisis, or is it only adding further fuel
to the fire. These days, when I watch a movie (or a
documentary or TV show) on the subject of communalism,
India-Pakistan and so on, (especially after 9/11 and
the Gujarat carnage), I am often looking to see if the
product can be used as a tool for the campaign of
peace and cultural harmony at the ordinary
lay-person’s level. Since I (and my friends) have been
showing films for this purpose to a wide-range of
audiences, mostly youngsters, our experience shows
that (through these films) when you reveal the darker
side of only one community to a lay audience (not
intellectual/activists), it could have a very damaging
impact. For instance when we showed Gopal Menon’s ‘Hey
Ram’ to primarily Hindu school children in Delhi (8
months after the incident), even the little children
became defensive, and started asking questions like
“but what about Godhra? and what about Kashmir” and so
on. We also knew that the same film could be extremely
provocative for the Muslim audience.

But does it mean that we should not criticize or
‘expose’ the fundamentalists of either sides through
media. Of course we should, but in what manner and
context? In my personal view (open to debate), we
probably need a language that heals the already
bruised feelings, rather than romanticize the horrible
events. Khamosh Pani certainly does not heal. I don’t
know about the audience in other places, but watching
it in Delhi with the sobbing Punjabis around, I could
sense a clear message reaching the new generation:
“see, this is how these Muslims/Pakistanis treated us
Sikhs”. When the film showed the marauding Muslim
youth on the streets of Sarkhi, shouting Allaho-Akbar,
and the Muslim clerics making provocative speeches, I
felt, maybe there would be some resolve towards the
end of the film, some kind of politically correct,
sweet ending to the story. But, it kept going the way
it was, and ended, quite predictably, with a
stereotypical image of the fundamentalist Pakistan.

There is of course nothing inaccurate in what the film
portrayed. And one must commend Sabiha, the director,
for daring to produce such a film in Pakistan. She
told a newspaper recently, “In my film, I try to
portray extremism in a bad light…if people in India
decide to misuse it I cannot do anything.” And this is
where the problem lies. If someone in India produces a
film exposing RSS and Bajrang Dal’s nefarious
activities, it would be considered a highly acclaimed
worked in India and abroad, but the same film in
Pakistan would work as hot material – used to incite
hatred and prejudices against Hindus, even though the
filmmaker may have never imagined it that way. Hence,
the new generation of Indian Punjabis/Sikhs/Hindus,
who are not fully aware of the horrors of Partition,
would see only one side of the story in Khamosh Pani,
and get more aggravated towards Pakistanis/Muslims.
Worse still, the victim of fanaticism in the film has
been portrayed by an Indian actress (Kiron Kher), whom
the Indian audience is bound to relate to and
sympathize with, against the rest of the
fanatic-looking actors. Of course the film’s
sentimentality may also make the audience forget that
there were similar harrowing Partition stories on this
side of the border as well. 

This is probably a dilemma that the south Asian
filmmakers and media practitioners have not even begun
to address, even though our cultural borders have
started cracking. One should not doubt Sabiha Sumer’s
sincerity in exposing/criticizing the fanatics of her
country, just as one cannot doubt the intentions of
Gopal Menon or Rakesh Sharma in India. But if it has
been so easy for Sabiha’s European funders/
distributors to sell/release this film in India, they
must also be aware of its far-reaching impact.
Sentimentality on this issue can sell very well but
may not bridge our gaps. For that we need popular
cinema that can make people think rather than sob.

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