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PoWs in Indian Cinema: Sarabjeets in Celluloid

PoWs in Indian Cinema: Sarabjeets in Celluloid

Farhana Ahmed
May 8, 2013

The April 26th attacks by Pakistani inmates and subsequent death of Sarabjeet Singh, an Indian death row prisoner in Lahore’s Lakhpat Jail once again exposed the vulnerability of the unfinished agenda of Partition that our sub-continent suffers. Sarabjeet has been in jail and facing death penalty for last two decades for his alleged involvement in a blast in Lahore that took place in 1990. However Sarabjeet is just one example of inhuman detention of Indians in Pakistan which have been more or less not discussed in our cinematic spaces. Bollywod, which suffered Partition itself, seems to be reluctant in shedding lights on this subject that transcends national boundaries.

The first expression of resentment against Partition in Bollywood was perhaps first expressed in a song penned by Pradeep in I.S. Johar’s Nastik (1954):

Dekh tere insaan ki haalat,
Kya ho gaya Bhagwan
Kitna badal gaye insaan…

This song reflects the immediate devastating outcome of the Partition. Similarly Yash Chopra’s first movie Dharmaputra (1961) is about Partition, communal divide and the growing ultra majoritarain sentiments seen in those turbulent 1940s. Though the Censor Board okayed Chopra’s film at that time, in latter decades such issues became vey sensitive and unexpected subjects for cinema in the changed political scenario of our country. From 1980s onwards, Bollywood began naming Pakistan in its stories. Meanwhile, Pakistan too, emerged as a base of radical Islamist militancy and terrorism and this was copied in our films to reflect the anti-India activities across the western borders. Such movies, mostly with masaala elements, were commercial hits but they failed to present the issues realistically. Films like 16 December(2001), Qayamat (2003) provided entertainment on nuclear crisis—mostly replicating the Hollywood.

After M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (1973) the number of movies on effects of Partition in Bollywood is very few. Commercial hits like Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) also lack deeper insight. Pamela Rook’s Train to Pakistan (1999) and Pankaj Butalia’s Karvan (1999) are some remarkable films on Partition. But Sarabjeet like issues came to Bollywood for the first time in 2004 with Yash Chopra’s Veer-Zara—a story of an IAF pilot who was imprisoned in Pakistan for several years. J.P. Dutta’s Refugee (2000) too, touched the issue of hate concerning our divided border. The notable exception of this cross-border tragedy so far is the Indo-Pak production of Nadita Dass starred Ramchand Pakistani (2008) which discussed the hate-politics of patriotism at the expense of love and humanity. This movie, directed by Mehreen Jabbar presents the sufferings of prisoners across the divide very sensitively. Ramchand, a Pakistani Hindu minor, accidently enters the Indian side of the border after quarreling with his mother. His ordeal as a prisoner in India with hundreds of such ‘illegal’ intruders is the state of affairs of many Sarabjeets facing uncertain future in jails across the border. Ashwin Kumar’s short film Little Terrorist (2004) is a telling story of a Muslim Pakistani child who enters India while trying to collect a cricket ball who later returns home with the help of a benevolent Indian Hindu. Amit Sagar’s 2007 film 1971 is also about the Indian POWs in Pakistan. However the “happy ending” of the movies has not been translated in reality so far as the fate of the Sarabjeets are concerned. All are still remaining like Toba Tek Singh somewhere in dark cells of deprivation—a state that cinema can put focus.

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Farhana Ahmed is a cine critic based in Assam, India.

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