Lines of control
27 October 2014
What cinematic representations of the Line of Control say about Indo-Pak relations and the collective unconscious.
Borders and boundaries, hitherto confined as categories of analysis to the study of political geography, are now objects of interest within several academic disciplines, including anthropology, history, political science, social psychology and sociology. While borders activate notions of difference between peoples and places, every year millions of people worldwide breach these borders, both officially and unofficially, in contexts of peace, conflict and violence. In Meenakshi Bharat and Nirmal Kumar’s edited volume Filming the Line of Control: the Indo-Pak relationship through the cinematic lens, political cartography and its psychological impact is the central category of filmic analysis. As the title suggests, the book studies the ways in which the Line of Control (LoC) is constructed and represented in films – the first time this theme has been examined by those studying popular cinema. For this groundbreaking focus, the editors and contributors to this volume deserve praise.
THE SOUTHASIAN MILITARY COMPLEX:
Where is Sodi Shambo? by Sharmila Purkayastha
A garrison state? by Tisaranee Gunasekara
Divide and rule
Borders and boundaries have been a source of contention for countries and communities across the world since the rise of the nation state. Borders define a country’s territory, and in so doing, also define an ‘Other’. More often than not, borders are drawn and redrawn arbitrarily, and while they are intended to be sacrosanct, they are invariably transgressed. To maintain the sanctity of its borders, nation states spend huge amounts on the forces that guard them. Julian Minghi, one of the first theorists of borders and boundaries, calls them the most political of all geographical phenomena. Though in the 1960s, academic studies restricted themselves to examining the demarcation of territory between countries, contemporary approaches emphasise the importance of borders and boundaries in the study of ethnicities, cultures and societies.
Bharat and Kumar’s edited volume is a collection of essays – ranging from simplistic textual analysis to insightful, in-depth readings – by scholars of repute in their respective fields that seeks to build on this broader academic trajectory. It is divided thematically into four sections, namely, ‘Negotiating the Border’, ‘Drawn Lines’, ‘Rapprochement’, and ‘Interviews’, and closes with a filmography and bibliography. The book traces the trajectory of Indo-Pak relations through readings of popular films (most of those studied are from Hindi cinema, but more on that later), operating under the assumption that these reflect Indo-Pak relations, and may be used as epistemological tools to understand political geography and the concept of nationhood. Apart from one essay by Kamayani Kaushiva on the creative output of Ritwik Ghatak, and one by Aparna Sharma on ‘Crossing the Line of Control through the Documentary lens’, the book neither deals with regional language nor non-fiction films.
True to this general trajectory, the first section of the book, with essays by Kishore Budha, Adrian Athique and Rajinder Dudrah, looks at post-1990 popular Hindi cinema. Budha’s essay traces the development of the genre of the war film and reads films such as J P Dutta’s Border as being coterminous with the rise of rightwing politics in India. He identifies a number of factors – such as an uncritical media, censorship and the proximity of filmmakers to political elites – as the reasons why the war film in India is a statist vehicle. Athique, meanwhile, demonstrates the “visualisation and narrative construction of the India-Pakistan border” in two films, once again by J P Dutta. Through a detailed analysis of Border and Refugee, Athique concludes that the border in these two films becomes a psychological condition in the minds of people who live in border towns, thereby transcending its physical existence. According to Athique, the films, which “naturalise the abstract barrier created by the Radcliffe line in the west”, must necessarily end not by the disavowal of the border, but rather by highlighting its inviolability through showing the ramifications of transgression both for the individual and the nation. According to the films, Athique says, peace may be achieved only by respecting the border, which in turn necessitates the constant policing of the loyalties of those who occupy the liminal spaces in frontier territories. In essence, the films only reaffirm the proverb that good fences make good neighbours.
Ever since Partition of the Subcontinent in 1947, which coincided with Independence from British rule, India and Pakistan have shared a relationship that goes beyond conventional geopolitical and neighbourly understandings. The oft-repeated trope of siblings separated at birth – persistent within Hindi cinema of the 1960s and 70s – resonates with the historical event of Partition which Suvir Kaul, professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, describes as the “foundational occurrence in the history of the subcontinent”. According to Kaul, Partition has shaped familial, social, private and public lives as well as state policy. The second section of the book, ‘Drawn Lines’, is entirely devoted to films based on this event.
According to the films, peace may be achieved only by respecting the border, which in turn necessitates the constant policing of the loyalties of those who occupy the liminal spaces in frontier territories.
Meenakshi Bharat, in her essay on the film adaptations of literary texts, provides an analysis of films and novels on the basis of the correspondence principle – that is to say, the fidelity of the cinematic text to the literary text. It is, however, difficult to see past the many typos that riddle the essay: the child in Earth is at once called Lenny Sethi and Lenny Sethna in the same paragraph. Poor editing aside, problems with the essay go deeper. Bharat wonders how the Bollywood song-and-dance formula could have been applied to a serious subject such as Partition in Pinjar, and goes on to suggest that the sequence produces a larger-than-life effect on the original novel by Amrita Pritam. The rather simplistic reason Bharat provides for the use of the song-and-dance formula is that of the filmmaker’s eye on the box office. Though commercial interests are important, it must be understood that popular cinema in India, irrespective of the gravity of the subject, draws on traditions found in Parsi theatre and various other folk genres. In addition, melodrama has become the most stable genre in Hindi cinema. This would explain the ‘larger-than-life’ character of the films far more effectively than reference to the filmmaker’s pecuniary interest.
The same films (Earth and Pinjar) are taken up for analysis in an essay by Claudia Preckel, who attempts a feminist reading rather than looking at the films as mere adaptations. She concludes that patriarchy rather than religion is the cause of war and violence. Preckel stretches the literal meanings of borders to embrace a more metaphorical understanding of how they impact the lives of women. According to Preckel, the violence unleashed during Partition on both sides of the physical borders also involved the drawing of metaphoric borders by men for women, as well as for men subordinate to those in decision-making positions. Preckel argues that it is therefore imperative to have a strong feminist perspective to guide us in understanding all forms of violence, and to go beyond mere geographical interpretations to include an anthropological study of borders as boundaries that are constructed in a cultural and socio-spatial sense.
There is an inherent curiosity and urge to transgress borders – an urge that may be realised through filmic narratives.
Border crossings in cinema take on a new meaning when we observe cinema in the post-globalisation period. From the late 20th century onwards it has become difficult to pin films to one particular nationality. They seamlessly cross borders and become products emanating from multiple locations, often with crews that comprise several nationalities. Savi Munjal misses this point when she conflates Khamosh Pani and Indian cinema. The film is directed by a Pakistani filmmaker (Sabiha Sumar), scripted by an Indian filmmaker (Paromita Vohra), has Indian actors (Kirron Kher and Shilpa Shukla) and is produced collaboratively by French and German film companies. As is clear, the film itself, with its multiple national belongings, is an exemplar of border transgression.
Throughout this second section of the volume, the discussion of borders and boundaries is undertaken within the rubric of Partition violence only, limiting the possibilities for a deeper understanding. What are the repercussions of these borderlines on contemporary geopolitical situations? How has film defined and redefined notions of the nation by its depictions of these very borders? How do these boundaries impinge upon the idea of the nation in popular cinema? These larger questions fail to be addressed.
Commonalities and differences
Similarities in language, culture and ethnicity between India and Pakistan have been used to form what is commonly known as Track II diplomacy. Adherents to the political possibilities of cultural exchange – for example through the transnational engagement of artists, poets and filmmakers – have laboured hard to make up for the failures of traditional political encounters. For the most part, Track II diplomacy has been dismissed by more hawkish elements as romantic and unrealistic. In his essay in the section titled ‘Rapprochement’, Nirmal Kumar posits the possibility of Track III diplomacy via heterosexual love – a common theme in Hindi cinema. In his deconstruction of Henna and Veer Zaara, he says the films “can be said to have started a wave of Pakistan-positive films”.
But to what extent are audiences affected by these sentiments? Shakuntala Banaji’s essay discusses audience responses from data collected through extensive interviews. While filmmakers stir up raw emotions by creating a monstrous ‘other’, Banaji asks, ‘do the audiences really receive the narratives in this manner?’ Banaji’s research affirms the centrality of borders and boundaries in the collective unconscious of people, concluding that linguistic, religious, ethnic and national borders provide stable identities. However, there is an inherent curiosity and urge to transgress borders – an urge that may be realised through filmic narratives.
An interview with Aijaz Gul in the final section of the book, although interesting, is restricted to the Pakistan film industry and the crisis within. There is no discussion on the representation of Subcontinental history or the LoC, which is the purported focus of the book. In contrast, the interviews of Indian filmmakers, such as M S Sathyu, Mahesh Bhatt and Javed Akhtar, engage actively in debates on Indo-Pak ties in Hindi cinema. According to them, the process of ‘othering’ that is fundamental to the establishment of political borders employs religion as a distinguishing marker of difference.
As mentioned, most of the films taken up for scrutiny in the book are Hindi films from the 1990s onward. Certain films like Veer Zaara, Main Hoon Na, Pinjar feature to the point of repetition, while other films that deal with the border question and Partition, such as Dharmputra, Garam Hawa and Haqeeqat, do not come up for robust analysis in the book, and are little more than name-checked. Although the introduction notes that the study of films from Pakistan was one of the aims of the book, it fails to fulfill its promise. Except for the above-mentioned interview of Aijaz Gul, there are no studies of films from Pakistan. Pakistani cinema has, however, engaged with the subject of Partition extensively: films such as Kartar Singh (Saiffudin Saif, 1959), Lakhon Mein Ek (Raza Mir, 1967), Khaak aur Khoon (Masud Pervaiz, 1979) and others have served this purpose. Also, the essays in the book fail to grapple with the compulsions of popular cinema and why sensitive themes such as Indo-Pak relations are necessarily sanitised. On a more positive note, the filmography at the back of the book is particularly well done as it provides short summaries of the films under investigation that are useful to the lay reader.
And now for some nitpicking: ‘quite’ for ‘quiet’, ‘identify’ for ‘identity’ and ‘papprochement’ for ‘rapprochement’ are examples of poor editing that could easily have been corrected. Despite these misgivings, on the whole, the book makes for pleasant reading for specialists as well as general readers.
~ Gita Viswanath is the author of The “Nation” in War: A Study of Military Literature and Hindi War Cinema. She has also made three short films and one documentary.