Far Away and Long Ago | Partition through an extraordinary lens

It was a G Aravindan, a director from Kerala who was able to capture the sensitivities of the people affected by the traumatic event and render it for cinema 

The partition of India in 1947, has seldom, if ever, been depicted with perception and dignity. The three films of Ritwik Ghatak in Bangla, Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961) and Subarnarekha (1962) certainly qualify as profoundly moving cinematic works on the division of the country. Strangely enough, the two other films that are major achievements, namely Garam Hawa (1973) and Vasthuhara (1991) are made by filmmakers from South India. Garam Hawa was directed by MS Sathyu of Mysore, married to Shama Zaidi, a talented Urdu speaking scriptwriter from a distinguished Rampur family, and the daughter of Begum Qudsia Zaidi, the aristocratic founder and long-time protector of Hindustani Theatre, Delhi, a progressive, Left-inclined theatre group. This venerable lady also happened to be Sathyu’s mentor. The other film, Vasthuhara, was surprisingly, in Malayalam and directed with great dignity and understanding by G Aravindan, a gifted and versatile artiste.

The Hindi cinema, with its headquarters in Bombay (now Mumbai) has produced nothing of note on the Partition; this is all the more surprising because most of the talented people who have written stories, scripts, songs in Hindi films have come from western Punjab (in Pakistan since 1947) and Uttar Pradesh, both states having been deeply and directly affected by the Partition. The best that Hindi cinema could produce was Dharam Putra (1961) and Waqt (1964) directed by Yash Chopra and produced by his elder brother BR Chopra. They were indirect references to the devastating events, and how these affected individuals and families. Their intent was to bring about communal harmony and bridge the divide between Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs in independent India. The message in both films was populist and sentimental. There was no real understanding of the internally damaging consequences of the Partition and how it had scarred the psyche of people on both sides of the border. In recent times, there have been heavily hyped attempts on the same theme namely, Pinjar (2003), Veer Zara (2004) and Bajrangi Bhaijan (2015), which are all based on communal harmony and love between individuals across the Indo-Pak border.

Bengal and Punjab were the two provinces in British India that were directly affected by the Partition. The death toll was over a million on both sides of the border and the displacement of ten million, the largest in the 20th century. Ritwik Ghatak, a filmmaker of aristocratic antecedents from East Bengal found himself in Calcutta in 1947. His experiences with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), the cultural arm of the Communist Party of India, and his travels with them in rural India gave him a perspective on the far reaching consequences of alienation that affected the lives of people uprooted by blind history.

A sensitive filmmaker
G Aravindan, a Keralite, had no direct experience of the Partition. It is unlikely that he would have interacted with its victims closely. All he had to deal with was the shattering affect the event had on the lives of people in the story by CV Sreeraman. But Aravindan, being an exceptionally sensitive 20th century filmmaker, turned the story into an ongoing tragedy of displacement brought about by the dictates of economic and thus political necessities of the most powerful countries in the world.

Aravindan in his gentle, poetic and deeply moving manner reminds the viewer of the fate of the dispossessed, who for no fault of theirs but their humanity and desire for progressive thought and action, have been dumped on the debris of history, meant to be forgotten

The film is set in 1971 Calcutta. It is about Venu, a government official deputed to send a certain number of families of refugees from East Bengal, living in the city the last two decades to the Andaman Islands. The trouble is that the people there are reluctant to accept the refugees who have so far lived only on hope. Aravindan brings in a personal element when Venu discovers accidentally a familial connection with one of the refugee families. The story unfolds through Arthi, the widow of his uncle Kunjunni Panicker, a poet and revolutionary said to have joined Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. Damayanti, the daughter of Arthi and his uncle Kunjunni, is an MA student, on payrole, having become a communist revolutionary. Her brother, also a revolutionary, is in hiding.

Certain families are chosen by the government to start a new life in the verdant Andaman Islands, but not Venu’s lost uncle’s; Arthi, Damayanti and her brother are destined to remain outsiders in their own country.

Aravindan in his gentle, poetic and deeply moving manner reminds the viewer of the fate of the dispossessed, who for no fault of theirs but their humanity and desire for progressive thought and action, have been dumped on the debris of history, meant to be forgotten. The director’s understanding of the actual workings of politics and the blind destruction of the lives of innocent people it brings in its wake, is indeed prescient.

His achievement is all the more creditworthy as he had to rely on his own sensitivity and the readings of national and world history to guide him apart from Sreeraman’s arresting story to make a film that is a worthy successor to Ritwik Ghatak’s Partition trilogy.

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