Re-presenting the Partition of India From Bapsi Sidhwa to Deepa Mehta

Re-presenting the Partition of India From Bapsi Sidhwa to Deepa Mehta

  • The Text
  • Among the scores of narratives dealing with the theme of the partition of India, Ice - Candy-Man is the first novel written from a non-partisan attitude by a Parsi who did not belong to either of the two communities that perpetrated mayhem on each other.

    Born in Karachi, raised in Lahore, living for some time in India, and now residing in America, Bapsi Sidhwa‘s writings are a reflection of lived experiences, told in a form that is at once simple and delicate.

    Conscious of her triple identity as a Pakistani, a Parsi and a female writer, she wrote her third novel Ice-Candy-Man in 1988 and it was published in the United States three years later in 1991 as Cracking India.1 Ice-Candy-Man is told through the eyes of an eight-year old Parsi girl, Lenny. Though, like the writer, Lenny has had a bout of polio and has had to undergo several operations, Sidhwa insists that it is not a self-portrait. The decision to make her narrator a child allows Sidhwa to restrict her world to a very small geographical area of Lahore The narrative is about Lenny‘s comprehension about the turbulent events during the partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan but the compressed world of a child‘s vision is populated by a relatively small group of people which provides a useful microcosm through which Sidhwa can convey the wider history of the period. Most of the narrative centers upon what happened to her beloved Ayah, the maid who looked after her. When the story begins, Ayah is surrounded by many admirers that include a Hindu, a Muslim, a Sikh, a Pathan from the mountains, a Jat from the plains, who together are representative of the population mix of Lahore prior to Partition.

    Among them is the character Lenny calls ―Ice-candy-man,‖ a seller of treats.

    Besides the local people, the British Raj enters Lenny‘s little world too, when Mr. And Mrs. Roger come for dinner, and her tutor Mrs. Pen is an Anglo-Indian. As the Partition nears, and the breakup of the Indian subcontinent becomes imminent, Muslims and Hindus become enemies. In an attempt to save themselves, some Hindus convert to Christianity, others to Islam. Some Hindus leave Lahore. Ayah is Hindu, but she assumes that as a member of a Parsi household she will be safe. Dil Nawaz or the Ice -Candy-Man, who has not received any special favours from her, arrives with a group of fellow Muslims and abducts her. The narrative follows Ayah to Hira Mandi — the red-light district of Lahore— where Ice-Candy-man has ensconced her, and then goes on to describe her rescue and subsequent departure for India.

    An important aspect of this novel is the present tense narration of the story and Sidhwa‘s deliberate use of an unreliable or apparently unreliable narrator. But if we are to agree with the critic Aamer Hussain,2 there is more than this. Writing in the grand tradition of the progressive writers on both sides of the border, scrupulously fair to all parties concerned, approaching politics with the empathy and compassion of a humanitarian feminist, the point of view that Bapsi Sidhwa adopts is one of the novel‘s most successful ploys. We believe we are witnessing the events of the partition through the eyes of an innocent child, but strategically placed flashforwards signal, in a subtle manner, that the adult Lenny is actually reliving the past in order to make sense of the events that baffled her when she was too small to comprehend; simultaneously, she restricts herself to the experiences and sensory perceptions of the child she was. Thus we are given a double – even dialogic—perspective that layers innocence on experience.

    Lenny‘s unreliable narration proves, after all, to be reliable in its own way and causes us to question the British and Indian versions of the truth that have hitherto been accepted. The sickening violence of the period (revealed in all its enormity in the great set-piece story that Lenny‘s young friend Ranna tells of his own escape from the slaughter that overtook his village) which is difficult for a child (Lenny or Ranna) to understand is paradoxically seen more clearly by the reader through the uncomprehending eyes of a child. It is the innocence and disbelief of the children in this book– Lenny, her brother Adi, Cousin, Ranna – together with the humanity of people like Lenny‘s mother, who smuggles rationed petrol at great personal risk to help her Hindu and Sikh friends escape Lahore, and some wonderful, deft, comic moments, that save the novel from an all-consuming bleakness and provide hope for the future. As Ralph Crane3 rightly points out, this essential humanity, this innocence, this indistinctive understanding of the need for restraint, is apparent too in other Partition novels, in Khuswant Singh‘s Train to Pakistan, in Chaman Nahal‘s Azadi, and in Manohar Malgaonkar‘s A Bend in the Ganges.

  • The Film
  • After developing the film script herself, the Toronto-based, Indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta adapted the novel into film and Earth 1947 was released world -wide in late 1999 as part of her projected trilogy called Fire, Earth and Water. These three different films are according to Mehta herself ―about elements on one level that nurture and destroy us. They are very tangible elements. Fire is about the politics of sexuality, Earth is about the politics of nationalism and Water is about the politics of religion.‖4 Like most adaptations, it is needless to say that there are several differences between the novel and the film. Focusing primarily on the theme of Partition, Mehta omitted several parts of the story, especially the humor, the humdrum activities of ordinary people in Lahore, and several subplots.

    She sifted through the book, amalgamated the characters and combined different elements to make it cinematically viable. Lenny‘s polio, which forms a significant early narrative thread, is sidelined as are the changing relationship between Lenny‘s parents, the murder of a British official, the child marriage of the much-abused daughter of one of Lenny‘s family servants Also missing from the film are characters like the slightly crazy Slavesister as well as the young cousin who attempts incestuous relationships with Lenny.

    The purpose of this article is not to highlight individual differences between the novel and the film, but certain facts need to be stated to point out the reason for such differences. This pertains primarily to the fact that the novel is a verbal medium whereas the film is visual. Geoffrey Wagner in his book, The Novel and the Cinema (1975) divides film adaptation into three ‗modes‘: the transposition, in which a novel is directly given on the screen with a minimum of apparent interference; the commentary, where an original story is taken and either purposely or inadvertently altered in some respe ct; the analogy, which must represent a considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art. In this case, Deepa seems to be following the second path and the subtitle of he film reads: ―An Epic Romance Set Against the Blood Stained Canvas o f Partition.‖ Speaking about the problems of adaptation, another critic Joy Gould Boyum states:

    I‘ve already suggested that a film might be considered faithful to its source to the extent that its implicit reading remained within the confines of that work‘s interpretative possibilities, to the extent that it neither violated nor diminished them.5

    Though there are several historical elements like communal violence, the British snobbery, the flight across the border for the millions who were rendered homeless by the events of 1947, Earth is best viewed not as a historical drama, nor a political fable. It steers clear of being a movie about the events of the Partition only; rather, by concentrating on its effects upon a small group of friends and how it affects their friendships and relationships, it shows the soul of Partition.

    At the same time, Earth is not a traditional Bollywood movie either. It is funded only in part with Bollywood money and has many links, in terms of style, with western cinema. The whole film was wrapped up in forty days and comprised of an international unit comprising British, American, German, French and Indian members. Though it gracefully established the beauty of peace and crudely depicted the tragic loss of it during the Partition, and concluded with the idea that the most painful kind of betrayal is that which occurs within the family, Earth also utilized several aspects of Bollywood cinema. For example, Ice-Candy-Man is played by Aamir Khan, one of Bollywood‘s biggest young stars.6 The director highlights the passionate love between the Masseur and Shanta– a Muslim and a Hindu —they want to go to Amritsar and marry. Though Mehta does not show too many intimate scenes, the love triangle and the revenge motif — staples of mainstream commercial productions – also make their presence felt in the film. The integration of several art forms - singing, dancing, and music - also a trait of the ―Bollywood style‖ – is witnessed, especially in the scene where Ayah rides with Masseur on his bicycle. Here the extended use of a song to replace dialogue (the lyrics to the songs in Earth were written by Javed Akhtar, one of India‘s most prominent lyricists/poets) gave the sequence a particularly romantic feel. The music provided by A.R. Rahaman was also fascinating. So Mehta‘s film can be called a crossover production, catering at the same time to the global and the local.

    The reception of the film has been more or less positive. While most critics have praised the wonderful performance that Deepa extracted from her actors, C.J.S. Wallia criticized the movie downright stating that Mehta‘s rendering of the horrendous tragedy of the partition of India is ―a simplistic treatment of a complex history.‖7 He also states:

    Mehta manages to distort the complex history of the partition and in the process depicts the role of the Hindus and Sikhs falsely and negatively. The film‘s weak storyline, its limiting viewpoint, its poorly developed characters, and the distorted roles of the different Indian religious communities and the British produce a dismal picture of the complex background-events of the partition….Mehta‘s film viciously distorts the historical role of the Sikhs in the freedom struggle and during the partition of India to convey the strong impression that they initiated the riots.

  • The Director‘s Reaction
  • When Richard Phillips asked Mehta about some background to Earth, why she made the film and why there have been so few films made by western filmmakers about the partition of India, Mehta‘s reply was candid:

    The partition of India was like a Holocaust for us and I grew up hearing many stories about this terrible event. Naturally I was attracted to the subject. I have my own theory about why there has been such a silence about this tragedy by western filmmakers, and it is just a theory. I think it is bound up with a number of attitudes that prevail in the western countries about India….There is firstly the spiritual India – a place where you can go and find nirvana.

    Secondly, there is the conception that India is entirely poverty-stricken, with apermanent kind of begging bowl attitude. There is India of the Maharajas, princes and queens, and the India that comes from nostalgia for the Raj. And there is always the prevailing pressure that people should feel superior to some other place: look how bad India is with all the beggars, aren‘t we lucky to be better off.

    It is uncomfortable and difficult for some filmmakers to produce works that destroythese perceptions. India brings specifically fixed images in many western minds, and the minute you start de-exoticising that, you have to deal with Indians as real people, and there is pressure not to do that.8

    On how the film Earth came about, Deepa Mehta explains to another interviewer how she became fascinated with Sidhwa‘s book: I was hooked. The tumultuous period surrounding the British division of India into two separate countries, Independent India and a newly created Pakistan, had always held a sort of dark fascination for me. India, after years of struggle, finally gained its Independence from the British Empire in August of 1947. However, for most Indians, that ‘Independence‘ is synonymous with its ‗Division‘ or ‗Partition‘, as it is known on the sub-continent. The announcement made by Viceroy Mountbatten, declaring the boundaries which would divide India into two, began a sectarian strife that would wreak havoc for the next fifty years. My father and his family were some of the eleven million people that were uprooted from their homes during Partition. I grew up hearing stories about... the carnage, the rapes and the mindless acts of violence that people who had lived together in relative harmony for centuries, committed against each other - all in the name of religion and nationalism. 9

    Deepa also added that Bapsi‘s Cracking India was a highly personal account of the Partition as seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old girl living in Lahore during that crucial time. What made it totally fascinating for her, was that Lenny, the protagonist, belonged to the minority sect of Parsis who had remained neutral and non-aligned, while the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs single-mindedly massacred each other. Lenny‘s was an entirely unique perspective. It came from within an impartial community, but was also the point of view of a child, who learnt about love, war, destruction and betrayal within a span of a few months.

    Bapsi Sidhwa‘s novel is written in English, and although she wrote the screenplay in English as well, Mehta decided to make the film in Hindi titled Earth. ―Most of the characters in Earth are working class people and the thought of them speaking English in 1947 felt ludicrous, though some relevant scenes remain in English.‖ Mehta also adds that she was lucky that Bapsi understood her position that a book and a film are different mediums. She also reiterated the fact that her film is a direct statement against nationalism and separatism, not just in India, but everywhere. To Maya Churi she confides:

    The enemy really divided and ruled and then left. There is no nostalgia for British Raj in this film. The reason I wanted to do a film about the partition of India into India and Pakistan was that also it is an exploration about what happens with sectarian war whether its Rwanda or Kosovo or which ever country has been colonized and where the colonizers left, the way the French left Vietnam, they‘ve always left a country that‘s divided. 52 years later, for us, we are still struggling with the same boundary issues. As in Ireland or Kosovo. 10

    At the question and answer session after the screening of Earth in Melbourne, Deepa
    also rejected the idea when someone made a comment that Muslims and Hindus had their own homeland, why should not the Sikhs. She categorically stated:

    The issue of separation comes down to a socio-economic platform where religious fervour is used, or misused, by politicians for their own ends. Today it is basically the dollar that drives the demands for separation. The British first perfected it through the method of divide and rule…Film is a powerful medium and my hope is that Earth will produce a dialogue and force people to think more deeply about the cost of such divisions. If people want to separate they should understand what it would really mean. I know that there will be some dialogue or some debate. I hope that Earth will put this into perspective. I think I have made a film that shows the futility of sectarian war, a film that is anti-war. 11

    Towards the end of the same interview Deepa also declared that the film was also ―a period of self-expression‖ for her. It was not just a question of making an anti-war film, but a constant challenge.

  • The Author‘s Reaction
  • The response of writers to the adaptation of their work into film have varied from person to person and have ranged from total rejection to full support. So we get writers like Ernest Hemingway who sold the maximum number of stories to Hollywood producers and yet clearly stated that the only way to interact with them was to drive up to the California state line – ―you throw them the book, they throw you the money, and then turn and drive back fast the way you came.‖ This was his tacit way of stating that after he sold his book, he was not bothered with what the director did to it. On the other hand we also have writers like Bernard Shaw who was spellbound with the infinite possibilities that the cinema could afford and who also stayed in the sets to watch how his plays were adapted.

    In the case of Bapsi Sidhwa, we find the writer herself appearing in person in the last scene of the film from which it can be assumed that she has full support of Deepa‘s production. She told an interviewer how in Hollywood, as soon as a book is optioned, they don‘t allow the author near the sets. But here, Deepa wanted her participation throughout the making of the film. In part, this was because there was so much Parsi culture in it. She did not interfere too much because ―it was Deepa‘s vision.‖ In a very humble way Sidhwa also stated that she accepted Deepa‘s generosity in having her around the sets. ―I did have a part in the film though.‖

    Though she agreed that the film stood on its own strength, Sidhwa only wished that Deepa had ―retained the original title. It would have helped the book.‖12 They tried ―Cracking the Earth,‖ but it sounded like a documentary by a farmer. Eventually Mehta chose ‖Earth,‖ and in India, ―Earth 1947.‖ When Julie Rajan further asked her how Deepa decided to make her novel into a film, the author explained in details:

    I got a call from Deepa Mehta one morning. She was very excited having just read Cracking India and said she had been searching for me. Deepa loved the book and talked about it for a long time. She asked if she could make the film. She is also from Punjab; when we talked, I felt that she understood every nuance of the novel. She understood what was very important – the importance of the Parsi child and her passionate perspective. I told her to go ahead and make the film, and she said, ‖But what if somebody else calls you tomorrow and offers you more?‖ I said, ―Look, nobody‘s offered me anything in four years. I don‘t think anybody‘s going to call me tomorrow.‖ I think she was carried away by the book, and, in the heat of that, wrote the script even before the contract was signed – this is exactly how I wanted it to be: that she should love the book enough.13

    Again, Sidhwa has also been very forthcoming about the changes made to her story and she candidly explained to her interviewer:

    The movie stands on its own. But it has the voice of the child and it has the spirit of the book – it has objectivity and it has the story. A movie is only a two-hour affair. A book is spread over a wide expanse of time. Deepa had to get rid of many incidents and characters. I hated the fact that every time I saw the script it was shorter. Then when the film was made, scenes were thrown out until something that seemed very bare to me was left. I realize now that the film works so excellently because of the cuts.

    Asked whether the movie would do justice to her overall purpose for the novel, Sidhwa replied in the affirmative. She understood that the screen exerts its own dramatic
    demands and that the film had to end the way it did otherwise the impact would have been weakened. She was aware that the movie has a totally different audience, a different way of seeing things. But the film widens the audience for the original story. The purpose for writing the story is to reach an audience, so though the film, that goal was further achieved. ―This wider Earth audience may, in turn, learn from the historical tale told in Cracking India.‖14

    In a much later controversy that cropped up with the filming of Deepa‘s last film in the trilogy, Water, Bapsi Sidhwa not only wrote a novel based on the script but also sent a letter to Hindustan Times defending Mehta against the virulent attacks of the Hindu extremist organizations seeking to prevent the production in India of the said film. A copy of the same letter that she also provided for publication on the World Socialist Web site reveals how Sidhwa gave a lot of moral support to Mehta and stated that she was being punished for deflating the egos of some people. Praising her for her professionalism and her commitment to her art, she pointed out how Deepa was caught up in a grotesque Kafkaesque landscape only trying to make a film which was a love story beset by the kind of injustices and misunderstandings that hound the path of true love in the time-honoured tradition of tragic storytelling. In the same statement she reiterated her stand on the earlier film adaptation:

    I wish to make myself clear on another score, as well. I love Earth, the film adaptation of my book Ice-Candy-Man. Novels are notoriously difficult to adapt to the screen, and this was perhaps the most difficult of my novels to make into a film. The task would have daunted a lesser filmmaker, or one less courageous. Deepa had to jettison many characters and subplots to give shape to her cinematic vision of my book and fit it into a two and a half hour movie. But the film stands firmly on its own, as a work of art, apart from the book. It has its own intrinsic integrity and logic.15

    Though it can be argued that a cinematic adaptation of any work of fiction at least helps the less perceptive reader/viewer to understand and appreciate that particular work of art or oeuvre of the novelist better, it would be appropriate to conclude the eternal debate of adaptation by quoting from Joy Gould Boyum once again:

    In assessing an adaptation, we are never really comparing book with film, but an interpretation with an interpretation - the novel that we ourselves have recreated in our imaginations, out of which we have constructed our own individualized ‗movie‘, and the novel on which the filmmaker has worked a parallel transformation. For just as we are readers, so implicitly is the filmmaker, offering us, through his work, his perceptions, his visions, his particular insight into his source. An adaptation is always, whatever else it may be, an interpretation (61-62).

    Thus Both Sidhwa‘s and Mehta‘s interpretations of the Partition remain equally engrossing.

--Somdatta Mandal

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