Still Waters: Memory in Pakistani Cinema

Sep 2014

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Still from film: Ramchand Pakistani

Still from film: Ramchand Pakistani

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Like Rumi’s fabled elephant, felt up by villagers in the dark, the films Khamosh Pani (2003)and Ramchand Pakistani (2008)have many smooth and rough surfaces to feel and grip. Watching them in the dark, you could equally find a trauma film, border film, postcolonial film, intercultural film, feminist film, or example of diaspora cinema. But in context of Pakistani cultural politics, the most striking about them is that these strange, different animals have been lumbering out in greater numbers than before, tails linked, and they are exploring new terrain. Unlike the previous dozen or so Pakistani films about Partition, these films are now, nearly 60 years after the event, looking at relationships between parents and children in regional post-Partition worlds and Partition’s reverberations in those ties even today.

Films about Partition made and released in Pakistan have been rare, somewhat rarer than in India and Bangladesh.1 Khamosh Pani kicked off a wave of new independent Pakistani cinema2 , which had been relatively moribund since Urdu cinema’s golden age from the late-50s to mid-70s. These more recent Pakistani independent films tend to have meaningfully crafted stories, regional landscapes and languages, middle or working class interiors, strong character development, the star power of a famous film actor (perhaps even from India across the border) alongside lesser known domestic film or television stars, and often, narratives of marginalization by gender, sexuality, class, religion, caste or age. These films share concerns and techniques with Indian art cinema’s sub-genre ‘The Muslim Social,’ ascendant between the 1950s and 1980s, but in the contemporary Pakistani context they could be termed a kind of “regionalized minority social.”

What do these cinematic narratives say about long silences that preceded them, punctured periodically by bursts of melodrama and gore?3 It is no coincidence that Khamosh Pani is the story of a familial past buried under decades of denial, and that Ramchand Pakistani is about carrying on for years despite rupture, displacement and trauma within a family. Memory (and the impossible task of sharing it) is critical here; these are works by the first generation that did not directly experience the events of 1947.

By the 2000s, the Partition generation – those who had been children in 1947 – had become senior citizens. These are films about intergenerational transmission, not only of trauma, but of ruptured memory. And in them there is always somewhere, somehow, a mother separated from her son.4 Like much of Holocaust cinema, these films rely on the dramatic device of maternal separation – Ayesha separated from Saleem, her Islamist son in Khamosh Pani; Champa separated from her boy Ramchand – to tell stories of trauma, memory and cultural loss. In both of these films, the idealized mother’s caring labor is a highly nostalgic visual and linguistic archive of place-based regional practices. The loss of Partition is somehow regional, and the idiom of its remembrance is through gender.

They are movies about memory, the tension between closeness and distance, and about living with what comes after.

Khamosh Pani: A separation

Panning over the rooftops of a fictional Pakistani Punjabi village while the dawn call to prayer resounds, the camera first comes to rest on lead character Ayesha on her roof with her friend, Shabbo. Bareheaded and without dupattas, they hold, between them, a length of newly washed red material for Shabbo’s daughter’s outfit, which they will sew together. As they begin to dry the cloth by holding it outstretched and billowing it up and down, the friend drops her end. Both women laugh heartily as Shabbo runs to pick up her end, and they continue to work and chat together in Punjabi.

This richly evocative scene sets the stage for the rest of Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters), the 2003 social realist movie by feminist Pakistani director, Sabiha Sumar. The middle-aged mother and widow Ayesha (played by Kirron Kher) has an open secret: she had converted to Islam, or absorbed it along with her Sikh faith, and married her abductor after refusing to jump into a well like her mother and sister, as commanded by her father to protect her honor from potential rapists during the violence of Partition in 1947. The opening scene where one end of the red cloth is dropped suggests what is to come: Ayesha’s intimate and wide life-sustaining connections will similarly fall. It is no coincidence that, in the opening scene, Ayesha and her friend are attached by material they will work on together, to sew for a daughter’s special occasion. The relationships between neighbors, between friends, and even between parent and child are shown in constitutive moments of material, cultural labor through which they emotionally invest in one another. As the socio-economic and political fabric holding together these moments erodes, the people become disconnected from Ayesha, and the very conditions for her subjectivity are worn thin.

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Read: Going to the Movies | Hira Nabi

The dupatta that Ayesha and Shabbo hold between them also subtly refers to something far darker: stories unearthed by oral history research just a few years before the making of that film reveal how some brothers and sons preemptively murdered daughters, sisters and wives during Partition by wrapping their dupattas around their necks and pulling tight at both ends.  These are stories of radical disconnection, familial breaks. Khamosh Panirenders such familial disruptions—between a mother and a father, a sister and a brother, a mother and a son, or between neighbors and friends — as part of a legacy of fragile attachments reverberating through the decades, linked to structural and episodic violence. It dramatizes the themes of connection and break, nearness and distance through family relationships.As Islamization intensifies in the late 1970s, radicalizing her adolescent, unemployed son Saleem, Ayesha’s relationship to him breaks down. Her supportive network thins; she is forced to draw her own water from the village well where her mother and sister took their lives, and her traumatic flashbacks intensify. As she grows more isolated, she is filmed increasingly from above looking idle, silent and still, spatially separated from others. She eventually commits suicide in the original well into which her father had ordered her to jump.

Sumar structures the narrative of Khamosh Pani as a series of linked backstories to one final contemporaneous scene in 2002, during the tense two-year military standoff between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India at the line-of-control. The bulk of the backstory to that crisis occurs in 1979, around the time of the death of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s populist and brash leader, who was hung by the incoming military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq. And yet even in 1979, this backstory is a setting for further flashbacks to Partition violence in 1947 — linking crises successively deeper in history. These links back in time, much like the links between parents and children, serve as the rich, poignant and deep subtext to the film’s very final scene set during the 2001-2002 standoff, in which Saleem, now an Islamist organizer, narrates a totally distorted version of Pakistani history on TV which erases his own Sikh ancestry — and his own mother. The whole emotional and moral force of the story impels us into the role of witnessing this sad untruth, positioned through the stand-in of Zubeida, Saleem’s ex-lover. The movie is what you find when you unpack that moment: a compassionate counter call to recognize a lie, to know one’s parents, to know one’s history, and to know oneself.

Living with “after”

Ramchand Pakistani, produced by television producer turned filmmaker Mehreen Jabbar, also frames its narrative against the backdrop of the 2001-02 tense military standoff between India and Pakistan, more than fifty years after Partition. The film also plays with space and time, but instead of looking at one place changing over time, this film cuts between different spaces at the same moment in time. These begin as brief vignettes spiraling along Ramchand’s rapid path out of bed, into the courtyard, around the home into the village; then eventually the film splits into larger separate threads, one at home and one in the Indian prison where Ramchand ends up. Set in Sindh’s Tharparker desert outside Bhimra village, a few miles from the Line of Control that divides India and Pakistan, Ramchand Pakistani tells the story of a landless Hindu Dalit/Koli family’s five-year separation. Rebellious eight-year-old Ramchand inadvertently crosses the border after a fight with his mother Champa (played by Nandita Das) over being given less chai than his father, who, worried, follows his son crossing the LoC after him. Caught by local authorities, Shakar is thrown into prison. Torture, beatings and solitary confinement interrupt Shankar’s role as father to Ramchand; yet we see him continuing to father in moments and displaying a kind of resiliency after the unthinkable. Exhausted and washing laundry by hand in the prison courtyard, he manages to help Ramchand overcome his discomfort and say goodbye to the female officer “Madam” who has in a fashion looked after him, as rough, hierarchical and cruel that care may have been. This is what “after” looks like, what carrying on looks like.

Similarly, Champa, who has no idea what has happened to her husband and son, carries on, indentured to a landowner to pay off her husband’s debts. Told by a fortuneteller her husband is dead, she is also shown starting to fall for another man but is policed by her family and boss. While Ramchand Pakistani has the narrative satisfaction of a happy ending, it is after several tantalizing, seemingly imminent resolutions that unravel devastatingly, and the family reunion is only partial and once childhood is over. In its final scenes, Champa and Ramchand stand face-to-face. Ramchand is now a hardened, smoking, pant-shirt wearing, filmi-gana (film-song) singing teen, but as the screen goes black, there’s nothing else but the mother’s tender, broken voice, barely voicing Ramchand’s name, pure longing and breath.

The price of toys

The critic and scholar Marianne Hirsch has a name for this kind of cultural work carried out by a generation that has not experienced a particular historical trauma. She calls it “postmemory”: the relationship of the second, or third generation to powerful, traumatic experiences that preceded their births but that are transmitted to them deeply. Postmemory is not literal memory, but approximates memory in its emotional and affective force. Scholars of memory argue that, moments of collective historical trauma, displacement or exile – conditions that produce a break in the memory chain – affect the transmission of memory within family and society. In these instances, survivors express chaos of emotion rather than memory. Over time and across generations, post-memorial work begins to embody stories through imagined families which make the emotional weight of the stories broadly accessible across distance and difference. While this makes the stories accessible within and between generations, there are also pitfalls to creating universal stereotypes of togetherness and loss.


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In both films, we witness a range of positions towards memory. For Khamosh Pani’s Ayesha, memories are hushed but alive: alone at night, she unlocks a trunk and looks at pictures of Guru Nanak, a pair of spectacles, mementos from her prior life. They are not repressed within her, but they are utterly silenced. After her death, her son releases the trunk and its contents into a stream of water as Zubeida (continually positioned as a witness) looks on — water that unlike a well is not silent, water that metaphorically flows in us as memory, and between people as stories. She – and we – are called to testify to these denied memories when Saleem makes his Islamist pitch during the 2001-2002 Line of Control crisis.

No character in Ramchand Pakistani has directly experienced Partition, but the border created by Partition is a living, absurd fact that traumatically ruptures their lives in a horrifying way. The abrupt, meaningless loss almost destroys Champa. Just like Partition survivors in Khamosh Pani, Champa experiences traumatic symptoms such as flashbacks, disorganized and out of context visual and aural signifiers, and moments when close friends suddenly appear as enemies. She manages to carry on even though her critical roles as a wife and mother have been thrown into crisis. The director Jabbar shows us Champa and her memories in existential limbo, torn about whether to break her marital bangles and take off her jewelry. Five years later, nearing the son’s release, the father coaches Ramchand to bring his mother surma, and Ramchand remembers the exact price (130 rupees). As Hirsch argues, the very idiom of memory is gender, specifically women’s gendered accouterments, but in these films the idiom of memory is also the cost of goods.

And finally, it is regional gendered practices of mothering, which act as screen memories to protect us from what we cannot stand.

Back before

Despite these differences, both films set up screen memories, or idealized memories, supposedly from a time preceding traumatic events. Both films begin with an idealized vision of togetherness on the land. Both families rise at dawn and a mother is filmed in close-up making breakfast for her son in a rural home with an inner courtyard and a hearth. Family life is also shown as deeply immersed in the social, economic world of the village through storytelling, visual, and aural techniques. As the women cook, we hear the non-diegetic (off screen) sound of the village, animals, vendors and family, suggesting their interconnections and the roles of these women as producers of culture through food. Ayesha haggles over vegetables and laments inflation in the laneway as she shouts at Saleem in the house to clean, then gets back to making parathas; we hear the village as we see her hands in close-up making parathas. The film Ramchand Pakistani also tightly overlays public and private like scales on a fish: this time it’s Ramchand (like Ayesha, a character who will lose his place) who speeds from bed to courtyard to laneway to store, checking out the price of a toy truck. Even as a child he is shown as an active agent in his life and home.

After these initial scenes of family togetherness, anchored by a mother preparing breakfast for her family in regionally specific way, both movies unfold through stories of separation, trauma and loss. In Khamosh Pani, Ayesha loses her home without having moved at all; while Ramchand loses his home as he crosses the border in a dream state, kicking up dust on the land. Both of these films trace the route of individual loss to a lost visual, aural and linguistic landscape. The losses of Partition are somehow regional. It’s very powerful that Khamosh Pani, for example, is in Punjabi and not Urdu, and Ramchand Pakistani almost fetishizes regional dress and landscape. In both films, we see a broad variety of working class or lower-middle class daily practices in Punjab and Sindh. Through these kinds of close-up shots of hands, long shots from above placing characters in their geographic context, and tracking shots following a character’s path from private to public spaces, the films are strategic, nostalgic archives of specific times and places (brought home by intimate details such as the price of toys and food). By witnessing this archive, we, the audience, are asked to invest in these places, particularly through stories with a putative universal claim to the heart: that of being separated from a mother. Yet how else can we tell these stories, why should we invest emotionally in them on these grounds?

In both films, waves of terrible events are interspersed with normalcy; when life goes on despite traumatic ruptures, it is made up of moments between people. And yet despite this realism, both films present an idyllic back before; before the loss of place, there was an ideal mother, a fresh dawn, a tasty “authentic” breakfast over an open fire. This powerful and consistent narrative structure in films about Partition speaks to a rigid and narrow construction of loss. Saleem’s stance represents one pole, of erasure, and Ramchand’s another, of idealization.

Rumi’s elephants still have far to go. Sixty years after Partition, we can now have a more sophisticated conversation about the intergenerational transmission of trauma and memory. Most importantly, does the parent still need to have been perfect or lost in order to be a sympathetic figure? Can one miss a less than ideal parent, and what does that do to the child’s loss? Does someone need to have been perfect in order to be a victim? What if there never was any compensatory maternal, regional bliss, no matter how long we go back into history, how deep into the accent, or how far into the landscape? How would we tell these stories of displacement and loss then? How would we, and how could we?[/schedule]

Rabea Murtaza is a writer, poet and teacher in the Greater Toronto Area. 

For further reading on this topic, see here.


  1. There are many Indian films about Partiton including Ritwik Ghata’s 1960s trilogy Train to Pakistan and Earth 1947 released in 1998, Hey Ram and Veer Zaara released in the last decade, Gadar (2001), Pinjar (2003), Partition (2007), to name a few. []
  2. These films include Khuda Ke Liye directed by Shoaib Mansoor followed in 2007, Ramchand Pakistani by Mehreen Jabbar in 2008, Tere Bin Laden in 2010, Bol by Shoaib Mansoor and Slackistan by Hammad Khan in 2011, and most recently 2013’s Zinda Bhaag directed by Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi. []
  3. Kartar Singh in 1959, Khaak aur Khaun in 1979, Tauba in 1964, Lakhon Mein Eik in 1967, Behen Bhai in 1968, Pehli Nazar in 1977, and Jannat ke Talaash in 1999. []
  4. You could also treat Khamosh Pani as a forerunner of a new cross-border Punjabi wave of indie cinema, including Anup Singh’s 2013 Qissa, and Anurag Singh’s 2014 Punjab 1984, all films where a mother is forced to part from a son, or even a daughter forced to act as a son. []

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4 Responses to Still Waters: Memory in Pakistani Cinema

  1. […] women. Two young scholars provide intriguing studies of Pakistani cinema. Rabea Murtaza  contemplates memory and motherhood in Pakistani cinema, and Hira Nabi discusses the aura of the cinema, and why […]

  2. Going to the Movies | Tanqeed on Oct 2014 at 1:22 PM

    […] Read about memory and motherhood in Pakistani cinema […]

  3. Azhar Nadeem on Dec 2014 at 12:43 PM

    I had a chance to visit Bhimrah and see the boy RamChand. Then I watched the Movie…Mind blowing indeed

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