When the British left, they divided us and destroyed us. Seventy-one years later, our politicians are doing the same
In his latest film Pataakha (Firecracker), Vishal Bhardwaj explores the relations between two ferocious, school-going sisters, Champa Kumari (Badki, Radhika Madan) and Genda Kumari (Chutki, Sanya Malhotra), in small-town Rajasthan.
Nothing makes them come alive more than all-out catfights, involving swearing, thrashing, hair-pulling, kicking and dragging each other in a pile of cow dung. And their dreams diverge: one wants to finish school and open her own sa-kool; the other wants to drop out of school to start her own dairy. Early on, the narrator describes the two sisters as India-Pakistan, permanently on a short fuse, coiled for attack.
The girls experience much misogyny, including by a loving, yet wretched, father, who arranges to sell them in marriage, in exchange for a bundle of cash required for a business deal. It is extraordinarily rare in India, let alone Rajasthan, that both sisters elope and marry, finding husbands who are
devoted to making their dreams come true. Yet, Chutki elopes with and marries a guy who tried to rape her at their very first meeting. There's feisty women and feminism in this film all right, but also horrifically mixed messages.
However, politically, the story suggests India and Pakistan really love each other, beneath all that posturing. Madan and Malhotra are marvellously feisty; dad Vijay Raaz is in good form; and the two husbands, played by Namit Das and Abhishek Duhan, are good, too. But Sunil Grover steals the scene as Dipper (what a marvellous name), a charming sleazoid in whom both sisters confide. The explosive sisters metaphor works well, though the script gets laboured in the second half. Written by Bhardwaj, it is based on CS Pathik's short story, Do Behnein.
Mainstream Bollywood has long addressed Indo-Pak relations with intelligence, and an understanding of the heartbeat under the aggression. Kabir Khan's Kabul Express, Ek Tha Tiger and Bajrangi Bhaijaan have sung paeans to the deep-rooted friendship among people across the subcontinent. Meghna Gulzar's Raazi blurred the lines between friend and enemy, and respected the patriotism of both nations. Most of these films have been popular, reflecting what people really think. Mulk and Manto could not be more different, yet both question communalism and fundamentalist patriotism. All these films take forward in mainstream cinema what MS Sathyu discussed in his haunting Garm Hava (Scorching Winds, 1974).
Of course, there will always be the macho aggression of real life, Gadar, Border, et al. It was the same aggression between East Germany and West Germany, that subsided to become a united, stronger Germany. Likewise, the European Union has 28 members, many of whom were at war with each other for centuries, but today form a strong, relatively peaceful, united economic bloc.
When the British left, they divided us and destroyed us. Seventy-one years later, our politicians are doing the same. Politicians and arms dealers bait our hotheads and laugh all the way to the bank, while we willingly offer ourselves as "thanda gosht." Why let some goras take credit for destroying us, bhai, when we can do it ourselves? Aa gai, mujhe maar.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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