Representation, of all genres and kinds, in the media and elsewhere takes on a meaning outside the boundaries of human discourse and behaviour. It takes on greater and more worthy connotations as the process subsumes the depiction of communities, both communal and caste, genders, sexualities, including various marginal groups and collectivities. Similarly, representation in cinema too presupposes its role both as a mirror of the social milieu and as creating or constructing identities. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam have argued that contemporary media shapes identities. By facilitating an engagement by distant peoples, the media deterritorializes the process of imagining communities.1 The form of representation in cinema, particularly mainstream, also undergoes changes as time passes and the epochs change, as articulated by Andrew Spicer in his study of masculinity in British cinema through the War and the postWar years.
In the 1920s and 30s, two forms of the male were prevalent on the British silver screenthe debonair gentleman and the alternative, working class buffoon.2 Mainstream Hollywood cinemas attempts at portrayal and representation could be gauged from the narrative of Barry Levinsons 1996 classic –Sleepers. The film sensitively moves through the autobiographical story by American novelist Lorenzo Carcaterra as it examines the representation of male rape. One of the few and finest films to venture into the analysis of sexual brutality and forced penetration, Sleepers is a laboratory for the study of how sexual violence is represented in films.
Closer to the Indian experience, a number of films, released after the landmark year 1947, have depicted and represented the calamitous vivisection of the subcontinental mainland into what was then claimed as the Hindu India and the Muslim Pakistan. While M.S. Sathyus Garam Hawa (1973) tells the story of the tribulations of Hindu and Muslim families tied together by years of amity and trust suddenly having to defend their honour against those who were friends and peers, B.R. Chopras Naya Daur (1957) pits traditional knowledge and technology against the markers of modernity in the backdrop of the bloodsoaked independence. Mourning the Nation: Indian Cinema in the Wake of Partition by Bhaskar Sarkar traverses familiar territory by studying the concept of mourning in Indian cinema in the postpartition period, but does so through a careful examination of not only films but also Tamas, a serialized narrative on the brutalities of the partition based on Bhisham Sahanis novel of the same name. The book endeavours to trace the depiction of the historical event through the following five decades. It also investigates the notion of nationalism as identity movements continue to rage across the world, the most recent examples coming from North African states such as Tunisia and Egypt where largely youthdriven movements succeeded in deposing dictatorial and brutal presidential regimes. Even though the contexts are different, the arguments for freedom and recognition of identities and freedoms remains the same. The author posits the argument that the partition of India is a particularly harrowing moment within a larger trauma of the Indian modern, especially within the larger canvas of the postcolonial states such as India. The agency postulated in favour of the act of imagination of a nation, particularly in the Indian context, takes on a larger role. This process of imagination, which forms the centerpiece of the Indian nationalist movement, aided and abetted greatly by the proliferation of print capitalism across the subcontinent also reflects in the portrayal of the postIndependence developments and the tryst with modernity in Indian cinema.
Interestingly, the symbolism of freedom is almost entirely punctuated by a sense of loss and deep sadness. The language of mourning is also comparable and similar in various cinematic examples, negotiated through the use of words such as sadma, chot, aghat, and so on. The hermeneutics of mourning thus takes on the Freudian principle of delayed consequences of trauma, reflected in five decades of Indian films. In Steven Spielbergs Schindler’s List (1995), the author finds a western parallel for the unfolding of the effects of collective trauma as time passes. He differentiates between the various forms that the act of mourning can takeexplicit or subterranean, direct or displaced. The process of mourning moves from understanding, memorializing and finally, overcoming loss. To solidify his argument, the author begins his academic exercise by tracing the earliest presence of the partition in films, both documentary and mainstream. He begins with Shabnam (1948), a Filmistan Studio production and The Agony of the Partition, produced by the Films Division in the same year. While Shabnam articulated the trauma of partition through the rhetorical image of a child on the back of a donkey even though the film per se had little to do with partition. In the postIndependence period, films generally undertook a hegemonic project of representing the essential markers of nation building, which was carried out through a careful strategy of influence and imagination. Thus, Indian cinema, or Bombay cinema in particular, set off a project of creating a national culture. Filmindia, the popular magazine from Bombay, hailed cinema in 1948 as a medium that can, and should, be the eyes and ears of the nation. Hindi cinema experienced the results of its nationbuilding role through popular music, an integral part of the Hindi film narrative. The popularization of classical forms of music lent gravity to the claims put forward by the Hindi film project that a hegemonic discourse had to be supported and deployed for the purpose of constructing a culturally unified nation.
The year after Independence, 1948 also witnessed the successful run of Raj Kapoor’s Aag, which posited a mature protagonist against the haloed precincts of the Indian education system inherited from the British, who walks away and discovers his true talents in the world of theatre and drama. The film celebrated the breakaway, rebellious hero and as a result provided a new allegory of independence. The act of walking away and charting his own course lends itself to a rather momentous descriptionthe process of nation building required throwing away the yoke of colonialism and embracing freedom in all its glory. In the 1950s and 60s, only a handful of films addressed partition directly and at length, notable among them being, Lahore (1949), Nastik (1954), and Chhalia (1960). These films reframed cultural memory to uphold particular versions of identity, community and nationality. A notable fact described by the author captures the essence of the turmoil that partition brought about in the Bombay film industry in the form of the letters received by the magazine Filmindia from its readers who worried about the whereabouts of Muslim actors and filmmakers such as Noor Jehan and music composers Ghulam Haider, who ultimately migrated to Pakistan. Kashmir emerged as the focus of not only a vituperative political debate but a tumultuous reminder that representation in cinema holds within its process the creation of new and distinctive narratives. A film titled Kashmir (1950) extolled a virulent brand of Indian nationalism to counter the dispute over the province, echoes of which could be heard in Mani Ratnams Roja and the more recent Lamha (2010).
The project of building a nation found resonance in the development of Bengali cinema through the general recognition of a national imperative to develop a vital cultural field, including a representative cinema, as part of wider attempts to consolidate nationhood. Bengal, which saw itself as a cultural construct different from the Hindi film industry moved towards building a strong culture industry. In view of this argument of building a strong culture, the choice of what should or should not be represented gained an impervious importance. This process of selective representation became critical in establishing the parameters of a national culture. The conflict between the Bombay and the Bengali film industries could be viewed as the central message of the Hindi film Samadhi (1949), a film that depicted the life and times of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Doyens of Bengali films have since claimed that Bombay films have misrepresented Bose in more ways than one and have consequently presented him as a larger than life figure in Bengalilanguage cinema.
Through the analysis of Nastik and Dharmaputra (1961), the author explicates the mode of representation of violence during partition. Both films present communal violence in brief, stylized scenes, the shift from a realist to a consciously presentational mode, sidestepping ethical problems associated with screen representations of brutality still raw in popular memory. Lahore went a step further, stayed away from directly portraying violence on screen and rather dwelt on the subjective dimensions of human suffering as a result of partition. Later, Garam Hawa predicated the disastrous impact of partition on the lives of a large Muslim family living in Agra. A tale of two brothers posits one against the other as they battle circumstances, impulses, and finally violence. The book also includes a specific examination of Govind Nihalanis Tamas primarily because of the longevity principle. While a film lasts for three hours, Tamas was a fivehour long television miniseries, thus reaching out to many more viewers. This ensured a continuum and a steady transmission of messages through the film. Also the fact that the miniseries was aired on television four decades after the partition makes the impact an example of direct yet displaced trauma. Through television, the brutality and the violence was brought back into the lives of the viewers, perhaps as an attempt to collectively coming to terms with the trauma of the partition. The book seeks to engage the conceptual underpinnings of processes such as globalization and religious nationalism through the act of mourning the past.
Roshni Sengupta is Associate Fellow and Senior Editor, The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi.