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Punjab in Focus

S.Keita, September 2011

Watermans Arts Centre screened two seminal films on the Punjab, India in September. Twenty minutes before the screening was to start the reception area downstairs was pretty empty. It looked like these important films were going to be seen by one man and his dog. But within a couple of minutes remaining before the first film was to start, the place filled up with all manner of people. Sikhs men in turbans, women in European dress, saris and salwar kameez. Even English and African-Caribbean members of the public turned out for this important event. As part of the African group and thus a true outsider I tried to grapple with the complexities of the Punjab, both films were a virtual sell out.

The Q&A expertly chaired by Dr Meena Dhanda was a lively affair. The audience was knowledgeable, highly educated and kept the panellists Amin Mughal and Dr Pritam Singh on their toes.

The Punjab seems to describe the fabled eastern mysticism that westerners point to.

Thankfully Ajay Bhardwaj’s film dispels this western view in his documentary Kitte Mil Ve Mahi (WhereThe Twain Shall Meet).

The legendary poet Lal Singh Dil is the centre of this film. He discusses with his neighbour how Dalits have been persecuted for centuries. Dil’s affable nature can’t hide his deep sense of injustice meted out to Dalits at the hands of upper caste Hindus.

Ajay Bhardwaj frames Dil in his run-down shack, half naked reading classical poetry. The self-styled rogue poet looks straight into the camera like he is challenging us to disagree with his fight for justice taking any form.

Bhardwaj cuts away from Dil to take us on a journey into the world of Sufi shrines. Many believed that with the massacre and migration of thousands of Muslims during partition in 1947, the holy Islamic spaces would have fallen into a state of disrepair. But the filmmaker is eager to show us that there is a thriving Sufi shrine culture, which Dalits have made their own. The shrines offer the "lowest of the low" sanctuary. Dalits have found a way to be both culturally and spiritually free by adopting Islamic mysticism.

A westerner may see this documentary as reaffirming their belief that India is a place of exotic wonder. But if you read the subtitles when the Sufi (Qawwali) players sing, you get a different view.

Bhardwaj uses the Qawwali players to punctuate the film and to get across key facts about the Punjab. On first viewing this film seems way too long and a bit random. But if you take the time to watch it again without your Hollywood spectacles on, you will become a devotee.

Rabba Hun Kee Kariye (Thus Departed Our Neighbours) is an innoxious title that disguises one of the greatest crimes against humanity in the 20th century.

This film focuses on a small number of elderly men who survived the killing-spree following the partition of Punjab in 1947, to become East Punjab, India.

The esteemed Professor Karam Singh Chauhan was student at Lahore University in 1947, in the film he bears witness to the outbreak of violence. He recalls how local politicians whipped up religious hatred for their own mendacious reasons. But what has also been buried with the innocent is the way in which ordinary, everyday people took in upon themselves to kill their neighbours for merely material advantage.

He tells of how in a village, in Patiala province that he loved and visited often, the Muslims were massacred. Under the threat of forcible conversion to Sikhism, the respected village headman Sai Gulab Shah refused and said that he would rather die than convert. The following morning he was found brutally killed. The Muslims villagers were encouraged to convert and a slaughter ensued.

In a series of candid testimonies, the director asks us to bear witness and remember the victims, the living and the dead.

Hanif Mohammad and Amar Chand Sharma of village Attalan, tell of a time before partition when Hindu, Sikhs and Muslims, together as a community built the Mazar (Shrine) of Baba Nabi Shah. All the villagers would gather at the Mazar in celebration of this noble soul. Can this collective tradition survive the act of partition.

What makes this film so vital is the fact that Bhardwaj has made this film without a reciprocal honest documentary from Pakistan.

In an act of great humanity Professor Karam Singh Chauhan recites the Kalma, a holy Muslim prayer for the dead. He bravely identifies with the suffering of Muslims past and present.

This film calls on Punjabis in India and Pakistan to seek atonement for their wrongdoings in 1947. Bhardwaj has started something that we should all get involved with.

Ajay Bhardwaj (b.1964) is a documentary filmmaker based in Delhi. He holds two Master’s degrees, in the fields of Political Studies and Mass Communications, and has worked in media for the past two decades.

His documentaries have been screened at international film festivals, academic conferences, and community and activist events.

http://ajaybhardwaj.in

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These films are available on dvd, visit frankbrazil.org for details.

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