Dir. Sabiha Sumar. Pakistan, France, Germany, 2003. 99 min.
As courageously outspoken as her frontal criticism of Islamic fundamentalism is, Sabiha Sumar's Locarno winner qualifies more as a political pamphlet than a film drama. A Pakistani-born, American-educated documentarist who has explored in the past the growth of Islam in her homeland, paying particular attention to the condition of women there, she has managed to mobilise for her first fiction film no less than fifteen different funds, agencies and production houses, who stuck by her through the many crises encountered after September 11 events and their repercussions in Pakistan. Navigating between 1947 and today, this story of Islamic extremists taking over, under the protection of a local landlord, a whole Pakistani village, terrorising anyone who did not immediately join their ranks and fostering racial hatred against the Sikhs pilgrims, will travel extensively around the world, thanks both to its topical theme and its exotic origins. After all, how many Pakistani films have there been around, recently'
Using 1979, the year Pakistan's former President, Ali Bhutto, was executed and General Zia-Ul-Haq took over, installing martial law and then declaring the country and Islamic state by law, as her point of departure, Sumar's historical survey flashes back to 1947, the year of the partition between India and Pakistan, and ends with a coda taking place in the present. The story evolves around Aisha, a widow hiding a terrible secret in her past. She lives on the meagre pension she receives after her husband's death, complementing it with whatever she makes giving Koran lessons to the girls in her village. Her son, Saleem, restless and discontent with the prospects available for him in the village, seeks shortcuts to fame and glory. The arrival of two slogan-spouting fundamentalists dispensing veiled threats for the benefit of anyone who does not abide by their rules is just what Saleem has been looking for. He joins their gang, gaining in their company the sense of power and self-importance he had yearned for. Racial hatred intensifies by the day in the village, escalating to new heights when Sikh pilgrims come in across the border to pray at a local shrine, though they do have the explicit permission of the Islamabad government, and reaching its climax when one of the Sikhs dares look for his sister, who had been abducted 32 years ago, by the Muslims, during the War of Partition. At which point, flashbacks to 1947 reveal the horrors inflicted by Muslims on Sikhs and by Sikhs on Muslims, with women on both sides being most often the sacrificial victims, killed, raped, abducted and forced to commit suicide by jumping to their death into the water wells to preserve the family honour.
The stand Sumar takes against all religious extremism is certainly exemplary, and she is to be commended for the relevance and accuracy of the facts she relates, but there is little effort on her part to penetrate history beyond the appalling tragedies which have marked the split in the Indian sub-continent. Islamic activists look and act like brutal hoodlums using religion as camouflage for their conduct, the misguided youths who follow them, are nothing more than immature rabble, as for the older villagers, they are, like all the others, cardboard characters, with their inclinations, fears and hesitancies displaying a textbook cross-section of the population. Which is a bit too simple for comfort. The one exception and the best rounded character being Aisha, whose secret is pretty much in evidence long before the script unveils it, but who nevertheless is more authentic than all the rest, thanks to the quietly dignified performance of Indian actress Kirron Kher. Working with an almost entirely European technical crew, Sumar makes no attempts to be subtle, either in her use of the camera or the direction of actors, using a didactic tone that should prevent any misunderstandings of her intentions. Her best achievements are in painting the colourful canvass of everyday village life, which provides the background for her tale.
Prod co: Vidhi Films, Unlimited, Flying Moon
Co-prod co: ZDF/Das Kleine Fernsehspiel, ARTE
Prod: Sachitanandam Sathananthan, Philippe Avril, Helge Albers, Claudia Tronnier
Int'l Sales: Les Films du Losange
Scr: Paromita Vohra from a story by Sabiha Sumar
Cinematography: Ralph Netzer
Ed: Bettina Bohler
Prod des: Olivier Meidinger
Costumes: Heike Schultz-Fademrecht
Theme music: Arjun Sen
Music: Madan Gopal Singh, Arshad Mahmud
Sound: Uve Haussig
Main Cast: Kirron Kher, Aamir Malik. Arshad Mahmud, Salman Shahid, Shilpa Shukla, Sarfaraz Ansari, Shazim Ashraf, Navtej Johar, Fariha Jabeen, Adnan Shah, Rehan Sheikh