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Filmistaan: A love for cinema that forges connections across time, nations, and borders

 

“Whenever Aftaab brings a film to show in the village from India,

I always come to watch it. Under this guise I can visit that side,

meet those people, walk those streets, I can feel the trees there and my heart gleams with happiness.”

Filmistaan, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The words in the epigraph, spoken by one of the characters in Nitin Kakkar’s Filmistaan (2012), are a poignant reminder of the memories which are complexly embedded into the construction of both Indian and Pakistani national identity. They signify the film’s intention to examine the indelible scars Partition left on the lives of millions. At the same time, they ascribe Indian cinema with a unique capacity to bridge the vast chasm between the two nations (Figure 1).

 

 

 

           

            The decision to partition the Indian subcontinent along sectarian lines in 1947 irrevocably tainted India’s celebration of its independence from colonial rule. Carving out the Muslim-majority nation Pakistan and establishing India as the home to Hindu, Sikh and other non-Muslim populations was far from a peaceful process: the spread of communal hatred sparked an unprecedented spate of rioting such as ‘massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions, and savage sexual violence’ which claimed 2 million lives and uprooted more than 15 million people.[1] 

            Over the subsequent years, the memorialisation of Partition has taken many cultural forms loaded with a variety of perspectives and points of view. This article examines Filmistaan’s distinct approach towards memories of Partition and its ensuing socio-political consequences, as they are intriguingly linked with the popularity of Indian cinema. Director Kakkar’s vision for the film positions cinema as a tool to transcend borders and forge connections instead of perpetuating deep-rooted prejudices. Filmistaan highlights socio-cultural similarities and shared theatrical traditions between India and Pakistan to explain the significant and widespread appeal of Indian films that seemingly defy national borders.

            These similarities are expressed through the film’s unusual protagonist Sunny (Sharib Hashmi) who is an Indian man and a Bollywood cinephile. Sunny is mistakenly kidnapped by a group of Islamic terrorists, which shifts the film’s action from India to a small border village in Pakistan. A series of comical situations and interactions among the characters that follows results in a surprisingly light-hearted navigation of this complex terrorist/hostage narrative. Humour is used as an effective tool which allows the narrative to debunk communal anxieties, prevalent Indo-Pak stereotypes, and hardliner rhetoric about these issues. This aspect of the film is particularly intriguing because of the strong contextual presence of Partition through memories and other identifiable references to it.

            Firstly, it is important to consider the title of the film for which the director drew inspiration from celebrated author Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’.[2] Manto’s story presents ‘no man’s land’ between India and Pakistan as the manifestation of the loss, pain, and suffering which the Partition caused. It symbolises how this cataclysmic event did not only divide the countries physically but also separated them emotionally. Yet, more than seventy years after Partition, Kakkar’s film reinterprets and reimagines this ‘no man’s land’ as Filmistaan: a place that celebrates Indian cinema and where the audience is united through their love for this cinema irrespective of which side of the border they come from.

            Sunny’s cinephilia enables a strong connection between him and the Pakistani villagers as they enjoy his constant mimicry of Bollywood actors as well as his recitation of dialogue from popular movies. Sunny’s antics amuse, entertain, and eventually endear him to the villagers who connect with him on a humane level rather than viewing him solely as an Indian man. In addition, the close friendship that develops between the Indian Sunny and the Pakistani villager Aftaab (Innamulhaq) is due to their mutual love and passion for Indian films (Figure 2). Significantly, Aftaab often crosses the border into India illegally in order to smuggle pirated Bollywood films into Pakistan. The same films are then screened for the entire village and become their main source of entertainment. This brings popular, large-scale Indian cinematic experiences to a small television screen in Pakistan (Figure 3).

 

 

            Alison Landsberg discusses cinema as a technology of mass culture that facilitates interconnectedness and communication between people and the world (including history). In particular, she defines media platforms as ‘experiential sites,’ since their accessibility to the public enables the creation of cultural memories, rather than individual ones, through the collective viewing experience of films or television programmes. Thus, the screening of Indian films in Filmistaan can be seen as an ‘experiential site’ symbolizing a cultural interaction and exchange between India and Pakistan. The film demonstrates the reach and popularity of this cinema, while implying that it may have the capacity to circumvent the ongoing volatility within Indo-Pak relations.

            Another element that Filmistaan uses to address Indo-Pak relations is the import of nostalgic memories from before Partition. Landsberg coins the term ‘prosthetic memories’ to describe the ‘prosthetic’ transference of memories of historic events across media and cultures. According to her, media texts, especially films, have the capacity to evoke empathy amongst audiences. For instance, events such as slavery, World Wars, Apartheid, or colonisation are pivotal historical events which continue to find relevance to date. The prosthetic value of these memories lies in their continued ability to connect with audiences by transcending generational, cultural, social, gender, economic and political boundaries.[3]

            Consequently, the representation of memories of the Partition in Filmistaan can be understood as a prosthetic exploration of memories, including perspectives which belong to different generations. Kakkar’s family migrated from Pakistan during the Partition and he grew up listening to stories about their experiences. The film explores this through Sunny’s poignant exchange with an old Muslim doctor in the Pakistani village who had migrated to Pakistan during the Partition (Figure 4).  

 

            The doctor was born and raised in India, while Sunny’s grandfather was a Hindu brought up in Pakistan who was forced to move to India at the time of Partition. An exposure to his grandfather’s memories allows Sunny to understand the trauma of his displacement as well as the melancholic nostalgia he still feels for his birthplace. The quote in the epigraph of this article is spoken by the doctor in this scene as he expresses his continued attachment to his roots, regardless of the border that separates him from his birthplace. This evocative scene echoes Landsberg’s observation that cinema is able to reconstruct people’s connection to their memories and their past. Simultaneously, the audience can engage with these memories afresh, as prosthetic memories.

            Moreover, Filmistaan effectively positions Indian cinema as performing a unifying function. Indian film critic Subhash K. Jha supports this argument as he notes: ‘Nitin Kakkar averts all the corny clichés of brotherhood across the barbed wire. By simply using Bollywood as the binding factor between the two countries.’[4] This results in a unique perspective that steers clear of a portrayal filled with anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Instead Filmistaan advocates for the necessity of a neutral space where complex subject matter surrounding Indo-Pak relations can be discussed. This neutrality is taken further in a scene where Sunny and Aftaab discuss what Partition means to them (Figure 5).

           

            Here, Sunny expresses his dream for an ideal world where the Partition never happened and questions the future of having a border between India and Pakistan. These thought-provoking ideas explore what could have been or what may have happened, and they raise fascinating questions for the present generation. According to Landsberg this effect is made possible in cinema by expanding individuals’ socio-political, historical and cultural contexts:

 

            The person does not simply apprehend a historical narrative but takes on       a more personal, deeply felt memory of a past event through which he or she did not live. The resulting prosthetic memory has the ability to shape      that person’s subjectivity and politics.[5]

 

Sunny’s dream of what could have been allows the villagers and Aftaab to relate to him beyond melodramatic tropes of pity or sympathy. Instead their mutual kinship stems from a new consciousness that focuses more on similarities rather than differences. It allows them to break away from the restrictions attached to their identities as Indian or Pakistani.

            Therefore, Filmistaan is a brave attempt which envisions a future that may be ready to heal from the past. The film incites hope for a time when boundaries will disappear to foster peace and cooperation. This thought that has become much more relevant today as the two nations stand at the brink of war. Filmistaan encourages audiences to become a part of its enticing cinematic world, which is a place brimming with infinite utopian possibilities that are independent of any borders. I conclude with the director’s own words:

 

This thought is not restricted to [the] India-Pakistan Issue. It is relevant to all the countries, which are divided into smaller parts. It is a human story. It is relevant every time a human stops being humane.[6]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] William Dalrymple (29 June 2015), ‘The Great Divide’, The New Yorker <https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/06/29/the-great-divide-books-dalrymple> [Accessed 12th October 2017].

 

[2] Saadat Hasan Manto (1987), ‘Toba Tek Singh,’ Kingdom’s End and Other Stories, Verso Books, p.10. Manto was an eminent playwright and author. He was born and raised in India but moved to Pakistan during the Partition and his life and writings have become a testament to the upheaval that Partition wrought. ‘Toba Tek Singh’ is one of his most prolific plays in which the protagonist dies standing in ‘no man’s land’ as he no longer knows where he belongs, reflecting a timely dilemma that people faced during (and even after) the Partition. The play mirrors people’s incomprehension of the stark realities of the Partition which did not only divide the two countries physically but also separated them emotionally.

 

 

[3] Alison Landsberg (2004), Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (Columbia University Press), p 8.

 

[4] K. S. Jha (June 2014), ‘Filmistaan: Movie Review, Review of Filmistaan directed by Nitin Kakkar,’ Ndtv.com

<http://movies.ndtv.com/movie-reviews/filmistaan-movie-review-977> [Accessed 15th July 2017].

 

 

 

[5] Alison Landsberg (2004), Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (Columbia University Press), p.24.

 

[6] R.M. Vijayakar (June 2014), ‘Filmistaan: Heady Brew of Terrorism, Comedy and Bollywood, Rev. of Filmistaan dir. Nitin Kakkar,’ India.west.com   <http://www.indiawest.com/entertainment/bollywood/movie_reviews/filmistaan-heady-brew-of-terrorism-comedy-bollywood/article_93d91552-ec2c-11e3-9e14-001a4bcf887a.html > [Accessed on 20th October 2016].

 

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