Culture
30 September 2022

The Poetics of Partition

Bilal Qureshi

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In a trilogy of animated films entitled Lost Migrations, a refugee crossing South Asia’s lines of 1947, transforms into a weightless paper plane. A grandmother’s cooking unlocks a sea of memories of a Burmese home lost in its uprooting. A Partition survivor named Sultana dreams of a world beyond gender-based violence and trauma, in muted shades of blue. With vibrant illustrations and stylised performances, these three connected short films are designed to educate, inspire and reconcile, in this year’s seventy-fifth anniversary of British India’s violent liberation and rupture.

In recent years, several filmmakers have proven that with subjects of as much historical and political complexity as India’s partition, animation can offer both aesthetic abstraction and narrative liberation. Where literal historical dramas may fail at recreation or believable approximation, animation invites angled perception and poetic licence by design. Persepolis (2007), Waltz with Bashir (2008), and Flee (2021) are just three recent examples of feature-length animated films that have brilliantly translated the scale of Iran’s violent revolution in 1978, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and the exodus from the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, into a highly original and subjective form of political cinema. In Lost Migrations (2022), entire worlds of national experience are translated into short symphonic movements of hand-drawn imagery, music, and mood that feel suspended between the tragic and the poetic. At approximately ten minutes each, these miniature films unlock worlds of silences for the next generation of Partition’s inheritors.

Lost Migrations is one of several projects commissioned by a new Britain-based collective of public historians, archivists, and social-media storytellers known as Project Dastaan. The group began with recording oral histories of Partition survivors across the subcontinent and its diaspora, but have since moved into filmmaking designed to immerse audiences in the legacy of 1947. The project seems especially urgent, given the rewriting of history and revived communal hatreds unleashed by the ascent of Hindu nationalism and industrial-scale digital misinformation.

The collective’s first film, a virtual reality recreation of Partition’s horrors called Child of Empire debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, to rave reviews. It invites viewers to follow Partition refugees as they escape across immersive VR landscapes and eventually return ‘home’ to the fragile worlds that still remain. The founders of Project Dastaan include Australian-Indian filmmaker Sparsh Ahuja, British historian and travel writer Sam Dalrymple, and Pakistani cartoonist and broadcaster Saadia Gardezi.

The feature was a cross-border collaboration between two animation houses: Puffball Studios in Pakistan, and Spitting Image in India.

For a region obsessed with and submerged in celluloid, Partition has generated far fewer films of note – and artistic integrity - than one would expect. Absurdity, tragedy, rupture and loss are hallmarks of the films that do exist. Bengali master Ritwik Ghatak made several films about the Eastern borders of that division but the great arthouse classic of the genre remains Garm Hava (1973). It tells the story of an Indian Muslim family in Agra suspended in the ‘hot winds’ of change that follow division - and in the painful choice that confronts Muslim families who are forced to choose between remaining in India or the future Pakistan. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi may have won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1982, but it is largely remembered as a polite and hagiographic portrait, filmed through a British lens. Oscar-nominated Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998) is the closest to a contemporary international classic film about Partition. It was adapted from Pakistani author Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Ice Candy Man or Cracking India (1998) about the destruction of interfaith Lahore. But Earth too was released almost 25 years ago and made in a different cultural moment, and for a different generation.

Today, Bollywood’s portrayal of Partition has eschewed the contemplation and rumination we see in Earth, for largely histrionic and bombastic melodrama. Stories of star-crossed lovers bridging communal divides has been a recurring theme of Indian cinema that has largely faded as a site of reconciliation in recent years. In the new, post-BJP era, more jingoistic portrayals of noble Hindu Kings versus barbaric and lecherous Muslim invaders has become a cartoonish mainstream assessment of India’s highly complicated interfaith political history.

It is not surprising, therefore, that a cinematic project like Lost Migrations is composed and funded by a diasporic collective like Project Dastaan. The mission driving the films reflects a critical generational change in how Partition is remembered and understood by a new social-media fluent, and transnational third generation of survivors. It is depicted as nightmarish scenes of trains transporting refugees in Oscar-nominated actor Riz Ahmed’s 2020 film Mogul Mowgli. It becomes a superhero-forming experience, in the recent Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy co-directed season of Disney’s Ms Marvel series. Many of the contributing artists and archivists in Project Dastaan echo the sensibility and mission of this new generation of storytellers, seeking to bridge their inheritance with contemporary filmmaking.

In an interview with the BBC for a recent anniversary documentary about Partition’s inheritors, Project Dastaan founder Sparsh Ahuja said he felt deeply angry for many years because ‘he didn’t know where he came from.’ A reunion with the family in Pakistani Punjab who hid his grandfather from a mob became the formative experience that inspired Project Dastaan. Similar to what Lost Migrations achieves, the collective helps survivors like Ahuja’s grandfather return ‘home’ by visiting their ancestral villages through immersive head-set based films, shot on location. ‘Dastaan,’ the Urdu word for story, is never an anecdote but a richly layered and expansive exposition. Personal emotion and memory are the central characters in exploring these histories precisely because so much of the tangible, material history and record-keeping has faded to black.

Partition’s translation into millennial and Gen Z-ready digital popular culture can sometimes feel more like an act of multimedia memoir and personal expression than confrontation with the political machinations and undercurrents that led to 1947. The commemorative stories now emerging have to tread a fine line between historiography and sepia-toned nostalgia, and social-media savvy content. Lost Migrations echoes this, composed in quieter and more intimate brushstrokes than traditional cinema – drawn in lines and colours designed to reflect a mood of shared loss and wistful emotion. As a viewer, it is certainly easier to digest violence as intimate and beautifully crafted animation rather than as a widescreen epic that Deepa Mehta made with Earth, or Attenborough accomplished with Gandhi in 35mm.

The three films that constitute Lost Migrations demand some historical context and engagement, but are internationally accessible and inviting. They echo and assert cinema’s capacity to absorb and reflect the human ache of history through narrative imagination. My personal favourite, Rest in Paper in which a refugee named Ghulam Ali transforms into a floating sheet of paper scattered among bureaucratic borders, is an especially poignant and unforgettable composition. Each film is an attestation to the ways in which each successive generation of artists who choose to confront the legacy of 1947, has to find its own way to process and reframe the shadows of that loss. While far from perfect or comprehensive, Lost Migrations is important as part of an emerging body of works that suggest new frontiers for remembrance, and at its most hopeful, reconciliation.

Bilal Qureshi is a critic, broadcaster and essayist for NPR with writing in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and Newsweek.

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