Ken McMullen

UK, 1987


Review by Ian Johnston

Posted on 07 December 2007

Source Second Run DVD

What have you done to my world? What have you done to my world? For six months, quietly, I’ve been listening to your cries. I’ve heard the sounds of your knives slitting throats and the screams of dying women, castrated men crying, and the sudden silences of abandoned infants. What have you done to my world? Bastards! Criminals! Traitors and butchers! What have you done to my world?

On 15 August 1947 India formally gained its independence from Britain, but this new Indian state was only one part of Britain’s former empire in India. Pakistan, a new separate and Muslim-majority state, came into being the day before through the partition of two Indian states, Punjab in the West and Bengal in the East. The partition line was decided on by a British-led commission and the process itself entailed a massive population exchange of over 14 million people. More tragically, this exchange devolved into a bloodbath where up to or even over a million died in deliberately-targeted massacres, principally in the overloaded trains carrying people from one of the new states to the other.

Exactly forty years after Partition, filmmaker Ken McMullen and writer Tariq Ali made this film, in essence a memorial to the tragedy of Partition; and now, a further twenty years later, it’s been made available on DVD. I have to confess I’ve never heard of the film before (perhaps because it was made for British TV) and I’m quite unfamiliar with McMullen’s work. So, viewing this is something of a revelation. A superb film in its own right, it’s also a reminder of a different age of filmmaking (only twenty years ago!). This is not only in the sense, as Ali and McMullen both stress, of it being a time when radical work – radical both politically and aesthetically – could be made and shown on British TV. It’s also a different age of political cinema, when filmmakers were concerned, in equal balance, with both the political content and finding a suitably radical form in which to express that content.

Ali’s screenplay is based on Toba Tek Singh, a short story by Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto. (Urdu is the language of the Muslims of North India and was made the official language of the new state of Pakistan. Second Run have helpfully reprinted the story in the booklet accompanying the DVD.) Manto, apparently considered one of the great practitioners of the short story in Urdu, lived most of his life in relative poverty, although prior to Partition he was working successfully enough as a Bollywood screenwriter. He moved to Pakistan in early 1948, and this is where his best work was produced, but he struggled to survive financially and suffered from severe alcoholism, which killed him at the age of only 44.

The story Toba Tek Singh, based on something Manto had himself witnessed, is set in the Lahore Lunatic Asylum and describes with a certain sardonic humour the project to “partition” the inmates themselves, forcibly moving the non-Muslims to India. Toba Tek Singh is the hometown of one of the inmates, Bishan Singh, and his story becomes an absurdist reflection of the realities of Partition:

“Where is Toba Tek Singh?” he asked.
“Where? Why, it is where it has always been.”
“In India or Pakistan?”
“In India… no, in Pakistan.”

At the end of the story Bishan Singh, unwilling to move to India, unable to return to Pakistan, lies down and dies in the no-man’s land between the borders of the two new states. In Manto’s story the madness of the lunatics is a reflection of the madness that the politicians inflicted on their subjects; the lunatics’ crazed and distorted perspective on reality proves no more crazed and distorted than reality itself.

But the film Partition makes this source short story only one element in a wider canvas. The Lahore Lunatic Asylum is the central set of a film shot entirely in the studio over ten days, but equal time is given to the figures of power that have control over the lunatics, the British and Indian officials who decide on the details of Partition (where will the line of partition run; when will the lunatics be transferred) and who participate in richly symbolic scenes of the transfer of power. The link between these two settings is established above all through the use of the same actors playing multiple roles—John Shrapnel as an English military officer on one side and an insane Anglo-Indian train driver in the other, or Saeed Jaffrey as a complacent civil servant and then a madman in his tree, responsible for one of the great lines of the film, taken from Manto’s story: “I don’t want to live in India. I don’t want to live in Pakistan. I want to live in this tree.” (These are just examples—both actors in fact play more than these two roles.)

The very choice of actors is part of Partition’s critical project, the way it wants to take issue with the depiction of British/Indian history in popular British films and TV series of the eighties like Heat and Dust, A Passage to India (what was David Lean thinking when he put Alec Guinness in blackface?), Gandhi, and The Jewel in the Crown. (Salman Rushdie famously accused Jewel of outright racism.) In particular, Zohra Segal, who plays what Ali and McMullen call the Everywoman figure in Partition, had a significant second-tier role in Jewel, and Roshan Seth was most famous for playing Jinnah in Gandhi. In fact, Ali has stated how with Seth they wanted to “break him loose” from the kind of film represented by Gandhi. Partition is a British production, so it’s not truly an example of post-colonialist “writing back” from the margins to the historical centre of imperial power, but Tariq Ali’s South Asian origins (he was born and grew up in Pakistan) and his long-standing anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, anti-authoritarian, and firmly socialist stance (he has a long association with the New Left Review) all underpin the determination with which the film contests the excuses, obfuscations, and simple bad faith of conventional, mainstream depictions.

Partition refuses to partake in the common nostalgic indulgence in the history of Britain’s presence in India. Instead, it’s quite scathing of Britain’s responsibility for the mayhem in the subcontinent it left behind. Two scenes are key here. In one, set in the Delhi Gymkhana Club, Shrapnel and Jaffrey play British and Indian officials whose casual conversation opens up some of the ideological issues at stake. The irony is heavy when Jaffrey proclaims the “unique achievement” represented by “two countries divided on the basis of religion”. But a more serious analysis is offered when he proposes the idea that Britain supported the creation of Pakistan as a buffer state against the Soviet Union, he contrasts the Englishman’s declaration of “a successful handover” with the million deaths that handover has entailed, and when the Englishman comments that the way only Europeans are safe from violence is “one of those dreadful ironies of history”, Jaffrey’s character responds that it’s rather “the inevitable result of imperial strategy”.

In the second scene, which offers a symbolic representation of the transfer of power, Roshan Seth is the Indian official this time and Shrapnel once again the Englishman, and there’s an extensive critique of Britain’s role in India. Principally, it stands accused of refusing to institute necessary change – “if Macaulay in 1850 had extended literacy to the whole of India, power would have been transferred in 1920 and we would still be one country” – and of deliberately leaving rural India in a undeveloped state of primitive ignorance and mysticism. This Seth character will also have nothing of the popular conception among the British that their granting of independence was an act of moral conscience. No, says Seth, it was instead the act of an exhausted, economically drained people who had lost their will to power.

In Partition we may be present at the centres of power and decision-making but the film offers above all a view from below, and that’s where its sympathy lies. “Everywoman,” the humble sweeper, is our guide and narrator, there in the opening sequence in the lunatic asylum, first wiping the mirror (mirrors recur throughout the film as surfaces that reflect reality but that also can diffract and distort it to the advantage of the powerful) and then sweeping up the dust from the courtyard. She’s also present as a cleaning woman in the civil servants’ world, framed to emphasise her exclusion from the setting that makes decisions about and effects change in her world. She is for them (but not for us, who hear who commentary) a silent witness, dusting the piano in a reception hall, cleaning the Venetian blinds, or outside in the hall on her knees while inside the division of her country is bargained out. Her exclusion in this scene is expressed in succinct visual terms. With her critical comment of “Money, money, money. How much for India? And how much for poor orphaned Pakistan?” the axis of the scene switches to her and peers from her perspective into the meeting room. Then, the camera slowly rises, moves into the open door to frame the civil servants inside, at which point the door behind closes, locking Everywoman on the outside.

Although the name doesn’t appear in the film itself, the way Ali and McMullen, when discussing the film, refer to Zohra Segal’s character as “Everywoman” is a clear enough sign that we’re not dealing here with fully and consistently developed characters of individual psychology. Indeed, many of the characters remain unnamed. Rather, they are “types” familiar from Brechtian drama, figures that act as an embodiment of a particular thematic point or representative of a particular class. But this doesn’t mean that there is anything dry or academic about the characters – or, in most case, the multiple characters – that the actors here play. Partition is full of moments of emotion, drama, humour, irony, pathos, and passion, and the acting is a rich and rewarding combination of an involving appeal to our emotions and a witty prodding of our intellect. It’s a rare film that has as raw and visceral performance as Saeed Jaffrey’s “What have you done to my world?” monologue.

Partition firmly places itself in the line of the Brecht-influenced politically and aesthetically radical cinema of the sixties and seventies. What is at stake for the film is that the viewer is brought – in the tradition of Brechtian drama – to reflect on the events as and after they unfold, and the style McMullen establishes for the film works to support that. That style is a rich and invigorating mix of different elements: elaborately choreographed camera movements, long takes, trompe-l’oeil effects with mirrors, black-and-white and colour footage, voiceover and contemporary audio recordings (including Nehru’s famous “two minutes to midnight” speech), and documentary footage that is often intersected by black bars representing the bars of the asylum.

The central scene of the film, and as fine an example as there is of its combined beauty and intelligence, is a ten-minute take, a tour-de-force which takes Roshan Seth from his one character as a civil servant to another as an asylum inmate. Starting in the civil servants’ setting the camera fixes on Seth’s unmoving head and facial expression as he moves back through what was shortly before a mirror behind us, down a dark tunnel that forms the link between the two worlds and marks the point at which Seth’s Western suit is exchanged off-frame for a simple “native” garment, and then out into the brightly lit asylum courtyard. Here, he moves away from the camera and lies down on the ground in the corpse position while Everywoman (who has also come from the civil servants’ setting, where she was cleaning the Venetian blinds) moves around sweeping the dust over everyone. This is the film’s answer to the claims of a new beginning, that “now everything is stripped bare” with the rending of the veil that the British maintained between Indians and their own land. Here is the symbolic death (with a reminder of the literal deaths of hundred of thousands) of an idea of a single united India and a sign of the suffering that is inflicted from above on ordinary Indians.

This symbolic intellectualisation is than followed by the emotional drama (heightened by the rain, the use of black-and-white, and the mostly high-angle shots) of the separation of the lunatics. And the earlier scene of the Roshan Seth lunatic’s symbolic death is now answered by the bearded lunatic (the Bishan Singh character from Manto’s story) who refuses to leave and sets himself up on the border between the two new states, a border that is now represented symbolically in the asylum courtyard. On his death the tree that has played so prominent role in the film itself falls to the ground. It’s a mournful sight as it lies there in the murky light with rain falling on it like the tears that Everywoman now sheds.

The final moments of the film jolt the audience into shock and reflection. Like so often throughout the film the image of the asylum that we see before us proves to be at one remove from us, a reflection in a mirror. But this time the reflection violently shatters, in keeping with the violent history that is its context, and we are left to ponder the words of poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, words that share Partition’s clear-sighted beauty and provocation:

What is broken is broken
What is broken is shattered
It can not be mended with tears
The broken mirror has no saviour
So why are you sitting there full of hope?

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