Ramchand Pakistani – Dir: Mehreen Jabbar; *ing: Nandita Das, Rashid Farooqui, Fazal Hussain, Maria Wasti
‘A Film By Mehreen Jabbar’… When these words in white flash across the black screen, one is filled with immense pride – and anticipation. After all, one has been following Jabbar’s career right from the start, with the edgy Beauty Parlour, through Dhoop Mein Saawan and Kahaniyan, right down to her several New York-based series. Over the course of her fifteen-or-so year TV career, Jabbar has established a solid reputation as a filmmaker with a unique vision and sensibility who is tremendously skilled at portraying stories of peoples flawed and damaged lives redeemed. Her quiet announcement of her maiden feature film venture was met with many murmurs of approval. Ramchand Pakistani was under production for about two years and was finally released in theatres last month. So it was that one headed into just such a cinema playing RP with feelings of excitement but also a dollop of apprehension. How could the film possibly live up to one’s admittedly heightened expectations?
The simple answer is that RP does not meet those expectations; it exceeds them. Here at last is a true-blue, refreshingly no-frills Pakistani film, neither mindlessly commercial nor clubbing you over the head with posturing preachiness. If one were to be overly optimistic, one could even posit that the film could mark the beginning of a Pakistani nouvelle vague.
RP opens in the village of Bhimra in the desolate plains of the Thar desert, where 9-year-old Ramchand (Hussain), a Hindu Dalit, lives with his mother Champa (Das) and father Shankar (Farooqui). The year is 2002 and relations between Pakistan and India are strained after the militants’ attack on the Indian parliament; troops from both countries are amassed on the tense border. Bright, precocious Ramchand often plays truant from school, and on one such jaunt ventures into the wrong side of the border. Shankar comes looking for him and both are captured and taken away to be imprisoned by khaki-clad Indian border security. Champa is left to wait, and wonder…
Story-wise, that’s pretty much it, and if it seems a little sparse, be not alarmed because RP is not a plot-oriented film; it is what might in PC language be called a ‘human interest’ story. The script is not geared towards pointless twists and turns and things constantly ‘happening’. Instead, we are given a window into a harrowing situation as seen through a child’s eyes. Some have complained that circumstances in the prison are not portrayed as nearly harrowing enough; other than a few scenes of mild torture and a lurking pedophile, the prisoners seem to have it pretty easy in what appears to be a fairly clean cell. That may be true, but then one gets the sense that the film’s goal is not to paint the Indian, the ‘other’, as villains, but to show the impossibility of this rather absurd situation from both perspectives. If someone crosses a border illegally, deportation would seem to be the logical thing to do, but here that is impossible due to a demented form of protocol that automatically deems any such person a potential spy who therefore must be detained indefinitely without cause, charge or trial (sound familiar?). The captors are not monsters; they’re simply doing their job, just as their counterparts on the other side are doing theirs. And as far as Ramchnad is concerned, what can be more harrowing for a child than being separated from his mother and his home?
Champa’s situation is also approached just as gently. Hers is a quiet desperation, which involves that universal act of eternal waiting on the part of the marginalised woman. She is not just waiting for the return of her son and husband, she is also waiting a hopeless wait for release from her social bondages. Here we find a wonderfully subtle dualisation of this family’s predicament: in India, Shankar and son, despite being Hindu, are suspect and powerless because they are Pakistani; in Pakistan, his wife is seen as the same because, although she is Pakistani she is also a Hindu. There is no ham-handed dialogue to underline this or other points, mind, just some expert, deft touches that get the point across just so.
That RP is a tremendously good-looking film should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Jabbar’s previous work. Even so, one is often overwhelmed by the lush, ochre palette of the desert punctuated by the colorful garb of the village folk. Neither is one surprised at the understated cleverness of Muhammed Ahmed’s script. In the same vein, Jabbar’s well-known skill at working with actors is at its best here; RP boasts some of the finest ensemble work on display anywhere, in any language. Das, as always, is a lesson in restraint; she truly is the mother figure who holds it all together. Farooqui, a grossly underrated performer on television, is more than a worthy counterpart. The prison, too, is populated by an impressive coterie of TV regulars: Adarsh Ayaz, Tipu, Shahood Alvi, Salim Meraj. Special mention must go to Maria Wasti who puts in a delightful, often moving turn as a spunky, salty warden put in charge of Ramchand’s everyday care. But the heart of this film is the astonishing Fazal Hussain as the title character, who is a wonder to behold. Utterly guileless, completely natural, and never less than heartbreakingly believable, Hussain is a remarkable find. With hardly a few lines of dialogue, he takes his prolonged silent moments to effortlessly convey all the terrible emotions and thoughts that plague Ramchand’s heart and mind, the most haunting (and one that surely every child has felt more than once) being that it is all his fault.
If one sounds overly effusive about Ramchand Pakistani, well, that’s because the film deserves it. Forget the naysayers whining about it being too this, or not enough that, about it being geared towards the ‘foreign’ film circuit (foreign to whom?). Just see it for what it is: a beautifully crafted, wonderfully acted, and above all, intelligently directed film that is unafraid to let its heart show.