Khamosh Paani: A Review
There is a moment towards the end of Khamosh Pani, the first feature film directed by Pakistani documentary filmmaker Sabiha Sumar (Who Will Cast the First Stone?) when pro/an/tagonist Saleem, recent convert to the jihadi way, asks his fearful and disappointed mother in exasperation, “Toon mere te fakhar kyon naeen kardeen?” (‘Why aren’t you proud of me?’) It is a potently telling moment, subtly encompassing one of the film’s major themes, that of the hitherto ‘aimless’ and apolitical male youth seduced by and locating purpose and validation in the fundamentalist movement in the early days of General Zia-ul-Haq. Even as it tackles the monumental task of measuring the human impact of Pakistan’s slide into social and moral chaos in the late 70s, the film simultaneously threads through its narrative some of the most controversial, emotionally blistering and still unresolved issues of Partition, which in turn lead into an unflinching commentary on what it means to be female, especially in times of conflict. The terrible meaning of the film’s title becomes monstrously clear.
According to the film’s production notes: “The film is based on actual events that took place when the Indian sub-continent was partitioned in 1947. It was a time of intense violence. In pre-partition Punjab, Muslims and Sikhs had lived side-by-side, but during the partition men from both sides of the religious divide slaughtered each other. Each looted the other’s property, which included their respective women: little distinction was made between robbing cattle and abducting women. Muslim men abducted Sikh women while Sikh men abducted Muslim women. The women were raped, bought, sold, and sometimes, murdered; some ended up marrying their abductors.
“From the women’s point of view, they faced danger from two sides. The immediate threat came from males within their families. Their fathers, brothers or husbands forced them to commit suicide to preserve chastity and protect family and community honour… The official estimate of the number of abducted women was placed at 50,000 Muslims in India and 33,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan. But it is feared that the actual number was much higher.”
Set in a typical, sleepy Punjabi village near Rawalpindi, it tells the story of Ayesha (Kiron Kher), a widow in her forties raising her teenage son Saleem (Aamir Malik) in the years just after General Zia’s military coup. Theirs is a mostly serene existence until radical Islamists arrive from Lahore to induct new recruits for the jihadi cause and to propagate the Islamisation of the country. Initially dismissive of the zealots’ sour humourlessness (“Onu te lagda ae qabaz hoi ae” – ‘That one looks constipated’), impressionable Saleem is nevertheless soon taken in by the sheer forcefulness of their rhetoric, frustrated as he is by the lack of opportunities offered by his circumstances, and secretly threatened by the educational ambitions of his girlfriend Zubeida (Shilpa Shukla). The arrival in the village of Sikh pilgrims, coupled with Saleem’s growing anger and intolerance, leads to the revelation of long-buried and horrific secrets within his own family, ending with Ayesha making the sacrifice that she was never ready or willing to make.
With an eloquent and fairly straightforward screenplay by Indian filmmaker Paromita Vohra (Punjabi translation of the script by Shoaib Hashmi), Khamosh Pani is one of the precious handful of films that has the courage to address the two most contentious yet (cinematically) unexplored issues significant to the sub-continent: Partition and religious extremism. And it is admirable how the film manages to interweave these two seemingly distantly related issues into one cohesive narrative. It is as much Saleem’s story as it is Ayesha’s – a woman first scarred by the violent tearing apart of her family and home(land), only to be devastated years later when her son is taken from her by the new claimants of the same destructive forces.
It is to the filmmaker’s credit that she has the patience to let the story unfold steadily and delicately, avoiding the clichéd device of punctuating the film with several dramatic climaxes that might serve to diminish the impact of the film’s final harrowing moments. The cinematic style is spare, thankfully eschewing the frankly hackneyed ‘colourfulness’ of much of alternative South Asian cinema that can set one’s teeth on edge. Compare Pani’s simple and charming wedding number to the rather orchestral one in Deepa Mehta’s overtly melodramatic Earth. The starkness is equally effecting in a later scene when Saleem lets his propaganda fliers float into the stream, and then shoots them in frustration.
Several scenes depict the burgeoning air of fear and bigotry in the village: the local barber being given an explicit warning when he innocently makes a joke about the General and his grooming ritual, the wall around the girls’ school being raised, shops being forced to close down during namaaz, the Sikh pilgrims being bullied by the zealots while at prayer; and finally, Ayesha’s ostracisation unless she publicly declare her unsullied and unequivocal ‘Muslimness’. And there are few, if any, who would raise their voice in opposition. As Sumar has said, “There was just a kind of fear that led people to stop thinking. When fear becomes pervasive, you stop questioning.”
Aamir Malik in what is apparently his first major role uncannily reminds one of Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal (Bad Education, The Motorcycle Diaries) in his remarkable ability to project both confused aggression and intense vulnerability. Moving with seeming effortlessness from portraying the natural joy of a carefree, flute-playing young man in love in the first part of the film, to the misguided and sullen faux brute of the second, Malik is a rare find indeed, and one to watch closely in the future.
Kiron Kher, though a consummate acting professional and physically perfectly suited to the part, is perhaps a little too refined to play Ayesha. Her city-bred, smooth Punjabi lilt sounds out of place, even though her delivery is adequate. At other times it is the pained look of silent torment in her face and eyes that is a tad too studied, too Method. It would have been interesting to see a more anonymous performer in the part, one who would have better captured the inconspicuous ‘everywoman’ quality that the character should possess, making her tragedy all the more universal; perhaps an actor like the one who plays Ayesha’s friend Shabbo with great down-to-earth warmth.
The film also has some other wonderful supporting players – Arshad Mehmud as the barber, Navtej Singh as Ayesha’s brother, Salman Shahid as Amin, Khurshid Shahid as the feisty old lady at the wedding; Tipu (of Indus Vision’s Sub Set Hai fame) and Sarfraz Ansari are particularly good as the two scouts who recruit Saleem, the latter bringing a subtle menace to a character that to many would be chillingly familiar.
Originally released in 2003 – though, ironically, not in Pakistan of course, despite requests to the Musharraf government – Khamosh Pani was the recipient of the Best Film Award at the Locarno Film Festival, and is now available to view on DVD.