The long-lasting treacherous and heart-wrenching effects of the India and Pakistan partition are embedded in the hearts of South Asians everywhere.
Whether it was our grandparents or great-grandparents caught in the midst of British colonial sanctioned segregation, the violent legacy of 1947 and beyond comes with trauma, hegemonic nationalism, hatred, and religious-militaristic state ideologies. India was a quasi-religious thriving world empire before bearing the destruction of imperialism and colonialism; the British’s racist imperial project gave rise to historical tragedy saturated in mass genocide.
Through oral testimonies, published newspaper articles, and eyewitness accounts, we have become acquainted with the stories of our ancestors leaving their homes behind and fleeing. The partition was characterized by the death of thousands of South Asians and the exodus of millions of more refugees uprooted in a vision of uncertainty and loss.
Throughout the Indian subcontinent, communities that once coexisted began to senselessly attack one another, and perhaps the carnage was felt with full intensity in Punjab and Bengal (provinces on what is now Pakistan’s border). Amidst mass abductions, forced conversions, and massacres, some 75 thousand women were raped and disfigured. Between the status of disputed territories and the colossal wave of migration, the stories of individuals are often lost.
Drawing precisely on our innermost senses and affinity for anecdotal accounts of historical events, both Bapsi Sidhwa’s “Cracking India,” and Deepa Mehta’s cinematographic adaptation “Earth” recount the hostile atmosphere surrounding the partition Punjab (pre- and post) through a coming of age story, starring Lenny (in the film, played by Maia Sethna).
Lenny is the daughter of an affluent Parsee family in Lahore, through whom we discover diversity and grand betrayal. The purpose of both the film and the novel was to illustrate women’s experiences during the partition as well as the impact that conflict caused in their lives. While “Cracking India” and “Earth” are both birthed from diasporia interpretations of the partition, the unpacking of events is told in distinct ways.
Through the book we become attached to Lenny’s innocence as she navigates the fringes of Lahore, growing up to bear the implications of conditional violence. The first-person perspective of “Cracking India” details very painful moments only realized through growth.
These elements are, unintentionally, lost in the third person/adult perspective we observe in “Earth.” Lenny narrates the story through the voice of her adult self, recalling uncomfortable and difficult events that shaped the way she understood what 1947 meant. However, through the film, we gain vital visual representations of death, raids, brutal murder, and sheer emotion. Given that our imaginations are limited by a sense of reality, adding faces to characters made the story all the more real. By taking a step back and acknowledging that “Cracking India” and “Earth” are two distinct, but holistic, interpretations of Lenny identifying religious, ethnic, and racial violence, it becomes easier to appreciate stylistic and thematic differences.
In the process of streamlining a novel, films are keen to highlight either violence or romance, as “Earth” sensationalized the hetero-romantic “love triangle” among Ayah, the Ice-Candy Man, and Masseur. “Cracking India” centers on Lenny’s observations and subsequently, what she lost. Lenny, a naïve and curious young girl, is able to eavesdrop on adult conversations, drawing a complete perception of events occurring between several religious groups.
Choosing a child to narrate “Cracking India” allows a more transparent view of a situation as emotional as the partition. “If anyone’s to blame, blame the British…there was no polio in India till they brought it here,” Lenny is too young to perceive religious prejudices or hold any of her own, giving the reader an unbiased point of view.
The fact that Lenny is kept out of school because of her disability grants her more time to be consistently surrounded by adults conversing about the burden of partition.
“I was born with an awareness of the war and I recall the dim, faraway fear of bombs that tinged with bitterness my mother’s milk.”
The novel dramatizes impeding confusions experienced by a young girl becoming adjusted to the rules of her community/society as those rules are forcibly reconstructed to fit a new power dynamic. For instance, through Lenny’s innocence, we observe harmonious interactions among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in their group of friends and those who serve the Parsee family before the onset of raids and ethnic cleansing.
An objective relationship between literal and figurative concepts in Sidhwa’s text is emphasized through a child’s decentered agency. Lenny repeatedly struggles to differentiate between the literal and figurative meaning of partition to truly understand its implications. For example, after overhearing multiple discussions about dividing the nation, Lenny ponders how literal partition is materially possible:
“There is much disturbing talk. India is going to be broken. Can one break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is? Or crack it further up on Warris Road?”
Between Lenny witnessing a child marriage and multiple deaths to her passionate love of Ayah/loss of Ayah and the inevitable loss of innocence that couples the shift throughout the partition, the reader is forced to carry these traumatizing events with them.
Although “Earth” follows the same storyline of a vulnerable Lenny eavesdropping on mature contexts and spending most of her time with Ayah – thus observing the congenial relationship of her Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh suitors – we are not directly connected to her thoughts and feelings and rather more preoccupied with Ayah’s character.
Detailed explanations are instead replaced by vivid imagery.
Seeing a realistic scene of a pile of dead, bloody bodies or watching a man being brutally quartered is infinitely more triggering than reading about it. Visualizing a confused Lenny’s emotions when she asked her cousin to help tear the limbs off one of her dolls is an entirely different experience.
In light of relating to other characters more directly, Mehta highlights a few passionate moments. First, when Ice-Candy man is showing Ayah how to fly a kite as part of a popular festival, coupled with a Bollywood-scene-like song interjection that served as comedic relief.
The second instance is the intense hetero-love scene between Ayah and Masseur that not only made the film cover but is also the probable reason for the film’s popularity. “Earth” seems to indicate that Ice-Candy man’s unwillingness to accept Ayah’s push back and seeing her with Masseur was the reason he abandoned his initial coexisting nature to kill Masseur rather than seeing his dead sister in the train shaft. One can appreciate that unlike the novel, the film depicted Ice-Candy man’s reaction to the train scene, which enhanced the reader’s feelings.
Ayah’s abduction as the closing scene leaves her fate up to the audience’s imagination, seemingly reinforcing the notion of women living merely as pawns or victims in the partition. The fact that Masseur was on the verge of converting to Hinduism makes the finale all the more emotional.
Switching from a wholesome defiance of state violence to a moment of utter devastation concludes a dramatic element. The strategic somber ending is representative of the ongoing hatred amongst Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in the Indian subcontinent, as Mehta could have just as easily ended with a hopeful society or happy Ayah.
“Earth” is commendable for not only casting actors who followed the same religion as their characters but also for casting a dark-skinned Indian girl to play Shanta. The main plot that devises a socially affluent Ayah in both “Cracking India” and “Earth” is surprising given that a woman of her class would usually not have free range to spend the majority of her time socializing.
One thing is for certain; Ayah’s body is seen as a symbol of land, wanted by various ethnic and religious groups. Her name, Shanta, means peace after all. She has a knack of averting political tension to keep her group intact; when Ice-Candy man asked her why, as a Hindu, she wears saris instead of Punjabi shalwar-kamize she quickly answered that it helps her make more money. The tragic end to Ayah’s existence in the story is symbolic of the violence erupting all around.
“Cracking India” and “Earth” employ narratives that strip female characters of their agency, render them as victims, or depict them losing something; Lenny and her mother deal with Ayah’s abduction, Ayah ceases will over her own life, and Papoo loses her livelihood as a child.
Closely reading Sidhwa’s book and watching Mehta’s film not only highlights the differences between a first person and third person adult perspective but also illustrates thematic differences in including empowered women. While Sidhwa constructed a vision that revered women as more than just collateral damage, Mehta’s adaptation leaves little to no room for female power. Furthermore, Mehta’s traditional analysis of feminism dictates representation as merely performative and hinders her ability to showcase Sidhwa’s novel apart from the heterosexual nationalist violence.
For any of us who have siblings, the relationship with them can be one of the most fulfilling ones. And also one of the most bloody frustrating. No one can quite stroke the fire like someone who knows you extremely well, or sometimes not, but have a familial bond with that neither one of you chose. In “Polite Society,“directed by Nida Manzoor, sisters Ria Khan and Lena Khan’s loving, sweet, and sometimes tumultuous relationship takes center stage.
Played delightfully by Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, respectively, the evolution of their relationship is one of the film’s greatest and simultaneously weakest points. It’s also pretty cool to see two South Asian actresses in an action-comedy movie — how refreshing it is to mention the art of choreography and praise it in regards to fight sequences vs. dance sequences for a film centered on two South Asian women — that itself shows progress.
Set in London, Ria is an aspiring stunt woman who already shows massive talent in martial arts. She looks up to her older sister Lena, who is enrolled in art school and, also holds remarkable potential in a somewhat less traditionally acceptable field. Their relationship starts off as supportive and sweet with no inclinations of jealousy or resentment that sometimes plagues sisterly bonds. But this also means that they are quite protective of one another, almost to the detriment of their well wishes for each other.
This all happens when Lena gets engaged after dropping out of art school. Ria feels betrayed. They were supposed to be on this journey together in fighting for their dreams. Ria decides that she knows what’s best for her sister and enlists the help of her friends to rescue the damsel in distress from her own wedding. Her deep animosity towards the prospect of Lena getting married is also fueled by Lena’s fiancé and his mother acting extremely suspiciously. The twist that ultimately brings the two sisters back together is both shocking and weirdly somewhat progressive in the motive behind the villain’s origin story. But the twist, unfortunately, is too ambitious for the movie as it tacks on another genre and theme earnestly, but still clunkily.
“Polite Society” tackles not only what it means to fight for one’s dreams but also what it means to have just one ardent supporter. As Lady Gaga famously said, “There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you but all it takes is one and it just changes your whole life.” Well, Ria’s Bradley Cooper was her very own sister who seemed to abandon her, and her faith in her, when she chose a different path. For Lena, the film opened up the question of marriage and the weight it bears in the life of a South Asian woman. Ria’s lack of understanding of the pressure it places on Lena is the start of the change in their relationship — the start of Ria’s coming of age and the start of Lena settling firmly into her adulthood.
Standouts from the cast include Ria’s best friends, played by Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, who commit to the story and characters with such hilarity and conviction. They add the lightheartedness and playfulness the film needs, and it is refreshing that never once do they use Ria’s cultural background as a way to make fun of her or dismiss her.
It is also heartening to see Lena and Ria’s parents being some of the most supportive South Asian parents seen on screen. At the end of the day, it is not the external family pressure that impacts the decisions made by the sisters but rather their own satisfaction, or lack thereof, with their own lives that become the driving force of their actions.
“Polite Society” is written and directed by a South Asian woman for South Asian women, and is definitely worth a watch when it releases in theaters this April.
As a South Indian American, I am aware of how non-brown Americans view the Indian film industry. One word: Bollywood. Bollywood and the South Indian film industry has always been lumped into the same category as Bollywood, despite the diversity. For Indians, South India is obviously different from North India, but non-brown people assume it would all be the same. This extends beyond Indian cinema; feeding into assumptions regarding other aspects of culture like language, food, and so on. People tend to assume all Indians speak Hindi or eat tikka masala at home rather than trying to understand the diversity of Indian culture. With time, especially with the help of social media, there was more accessibility to understanding the differences among these cultures, yet nothing truly spread across the globe. Then came “RRR.”
“RRR” is a Telugu film from Tollywood. This South Indian film has become a worldwide sensation with its incredible visual effects, captivating plot, and catchy music. I was blown away by the reception this film got in the United States, especially from American film critics who were all praise. What impressed me the most was how more Americans clarified it was not a Bollywood film, and differentiated it as a Tollywood film. The number of people taking the time to learn the difference between Tollywood and Bollywood might seem simple, yet meaningful, nonetheless. South Indian films are incredibly underrated and are finally getting the attention they deserved. It is incredible to see the celebration surrounding the film and what it represents and means to this community and how we get to share it with the world. The hype was real, and then the awards season began.
The Golden Globes top the list of some of the major awards for television and film and it was amazing to hear that “RRR” had been nominated in two categories for this award. Funnily enough in my own world, it aired on my birthday. Then came the moment when Jenna Ortega said “Naatu Naatu, RRR” and the song played as M.M. Keeravani approached the stage to accept his award. This song became the first Asian, not only Indian, song to win the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The 80th Golden Globes saw many wins for the Asian community with films like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “RRR.” There is something beautiful about being South Indian in America and watching a South Indian song win an award in America on one’s birthday. There is a joy in getting to tell my friends, both brown and non-brown, about it and share the song, “Naatu Naatu,” with them. Sure it is Indian, but it is just a bit closer to home, and that closeness stands with a beautiful meaning. When it came to the Critics’ Choice Awards, it was touching to hear about how S.S. Rajamouli grew up with the encouragement of creativity and storytelling. It honestly inspired me to continue my own projects; I hope to see them prosper as well.
After the win at the Golden Globes, the Oscars became highly anticipated for the Indian community, especially when the nominations for Best Original Song were announced. Of course, when the familiar title appeared once again, a victory felt within grasp. “Naatu Naatu” had a couple of big moments at the Academy Awards ceremony: the performance and the win itself. The performance was introduced by the absolutely phenomenal actress, Deepika Padukone, who, too, is s South Indian. Her introduction of the song brought forward the context in which the tune takes place, that is during 1920 under the British colonization of India. She reminded all of us of how significant the song was along with its catchy beat. When it came to the announcement of who won Best Original Song, it was a first-of-its-kind victory given that it was the first time an Indian film won in this category. The speech made by M. M. Keeravani was beautiful as he sang to the tune of “Top of the World” with his own lyrics to take in the moment. It was certainly an extremely proud day to be Indian anywhere in the world, and especially to be a South Indian.
Seeing non-brown folks acknowledging the diversity of Indian culture has been beautiful to witness. The cultural pride of saying an Indian film, specifically a South Indian film, won the Oscar, a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and two Critics’ Choice Awards so far is an absolute joy. Seeing South Indian representation, especially during the awards season, is inspiring for brown creatives. This has been a time of great cultural pride in the South Indian community, and as a South Indian creative myself, I am honored to see it.
Photo Courtesy: Netflix
It is the strength of both British and South Asian cinema that every few years, and with increasing regularity, a film comes along that is able to successfully and thoughtfully bridge the highs and lows of both cultures. With the recognisable cross-cultural DNA of films like “Bend it Like Beckham”, “Bride and Prejudice”and others before it, Shekhar Kapur brings to the silver screen an honest and comedic representation of East meets West with “What’s Love Got To Do With It” — an exploration of love and marriage across international norms.
Written and produced by Jemima Khan, the film draws from elements of her own experience of marrying then-Pakistani cricket star and now ex-Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and relocating to the country for 10 years.
“Particularly in the West, Pakistanis would quite often be seen as terrorists, fanatics and backwards,” says Khan, as she reminisces about her time spent in Pakistan over Zoom. “My experience of living in Pakistan was very colourful, vibrant, and fun. I always felt like the rom-com side of Pakistan was more surprising than anything else.”
A film not just about the heart, but with a lot of heart of its own, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” touches on South Asian families, culture, individuality, and marriages in the 21st century. Set in the UK and Pakistan, this is a feel-good and fun story about childhood best friends and neighbours, Zoe and Kazim, AKA Kaz. And as the narrative unfolds, new light is shone on their friendship and questions are asked about the cultural norms and practices we have grown to accept.
It isn’t your usual ‘boy-meets-girl’ tale. On the contrary, they’ve known each other forever; the fabric of their lives intertwined. Kaz is a British-Pakistani doctor of “marriageable” age, opting for an “assisted” marriage set in motion by his own desire rather than parental duress.
“I think we’ve replaced the term “arranged” with “assisted” because South Asian parents now trust their kids more to make the right decision for themselves,” said Shahzad Latif, sitting next to Lily James, who nods in agreement. “It’s still a process. Some parents may have more confidence in their kids than others, but we’re getting there.”
Zoe – played by Lily James – is a professional documentary maker living on an inexplicably fancy houseboat (bit of a stretch for somebody having difficulty funding projects, but, at this point, a crucial ingredient for London rom-coms). As a white British woman, her method of finding love isn’t one that involves parents or family.
“It was a no-brainer for me to be part of the script,” says a smiling James in response to whether any culture shocks were encountered during filming and table reads. “Pakistani culture is so rich and colourful, and it was important for me to showcase this side of the country. So no, no culture shocks per se, just more singing and dancing in comparison to British culture!”
Zoe’s camera is the vehicle through which the film examines Kaz’s “contractual love”, as she trawls dating apps while following her best friend down the assisted aisle.
Emma Thompson’s Cath plays the comedic matriarch to Zoe, eager to witness the conclusion of her daughter’s swiping days by being with someone suitable. She’s found a family in Shabana Azmi’s Aisha Khan – a more layered mum — one that is embracing both tradition and modernity. It would be fair to say that Azmi successfully sells cinema-goers on the difficulty of that struggle.
“Today’s society is slowly coming to terms with providing children the space they rightfully require and deserve to make decisions,” says Azmi, reflecting on how scripts and films have evolved over time. “Gone are the days when parents would blackmail their children into marrying the first person they come across. Just because they are their kids doesn’t mean they are actually children. They are adults with views and minds of their own.”
Kaz is then introduced to Maimoona (Sajal Aly); a shy introvert from Pakistan, unsure about the idea of moving permanently to London. She’s dealing with internal battles of her own; battles between personal desires and societal expectations.
“Maimoona may not have verbally said much, but her face said everything,” explains Aly, looking beautiful and radiant as ever. “She is torn between what she wants and what society silently shoves down at her and eventually, she goes with what the latter expects.”
The film navigates between London and a fabricated Lahore filmed in the suburbs of the British capital; a feat that comes as testament to the film’s production design. Kaz and Zoe’s jaunts across Lahore, backdropped by its magnificent architecture, set the stage for Pakistani music legends to shine, including the mesmerising voice of Rahet Fateh Ali Khan.
And if this wasn’t enough, Nitin Sawhney and Naughty Boy add further melody to the film’s music, as they talk about their experience of creating appropriate tunes such as the foot-thumping “Mahi Sona”.
“It was a great process and experience to create an appropriate language and expression of music which added elements and flavours to the film,” says the duo enthusiastically. “It’s also an ode to our South Asian heritage.”
Even though the tone of “What’s Love Got To Do With It” is distinctly feel-good, the film thoughtfully explores the unconventional ways that relationships may be built, and what multiculturalism can teach one another. Is it, in fact, more sensible to be practical about relationships? Is it possible to learn to love the person we’re with? Is love really the only ingredient needed for a successful marriage? Why was Kaz’s sister shunned for marrying outside of their culture? And do Western relationships draw more on the ideas of assisted partnerships than we realise?
A clever reference is drawn from the moment Prince Charles shattered many royal dreamers’ hearts with his dismissive “whatever in love means” comment upon his engagement to Princess Diana, thus proving that these notions may be closer to home in the West than one might believe.
James and Latif are a charismatic pair, with Zoe married to her independence and Kaz gently questioning her prejudices. The film is also a vivid demonstration of British talent, with Asim Chaudhry playing a hilarious yet questionable rishta uncle, comic duo Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen appearing as a pair of TV commissioners with a briefcase of ridiculous ideas, and Nikkita Chadha as the confrontational Baby — the film’s feisty rebel, in love with dancing.
“It’s incredible to be part of such a diverse and stellar cast,” smiles Chadha animatedly, while sipping on tea at Soho House in London. “My character is defiant and nonconformist — perfectly conflicting with the name “Baby “. I’m really excited for everyone to watch the film.”
Divorce is still stigmatised in South Asia — a theme often carefully avoided in desi films and television. Khan gently addresses it as a twist in the film – with a reminder that be it love or assisted marriage — amicable and mutual separations are a possibility.
As a complete package, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” deftly wraps up all the emotions associated with love and family in its joyful, musical, and vibrant 109-minute runtime. With its cast, music and direction, this classic rom-com is set to make you laugh, cry and, even more importantly, make you think about the multi-dimensional nature of love within and across cultures. The film is now showing in cinemas worldwide, and we highly recommend it.
Desk bound by day and travel bound all other times – Queenie thrives on her weekly dose of biryani and chilli paneer. She recently released her first book called The Poor Londoner, which talks about comical expat experiences people face worldwide. With degrees in Journalism and Creative Writing, her work and research on gender inequality in the travel industry is taught in universities across the globe. Her travels and everyday fails can be found on Instagram (@thepoorlondoner) and YouTube (The Poor Londoner).
Originally from Karachi, Pakistan and now blended into the hustle-bustle of London, Marium is a trainee technology consultant, by day and sometime also night, and also finishing her bachelors in Digital Innovation. In the midst of striving to be someone, she enjoys dreaming about the impossible (impossible according to desi standards and sometime Harry Potter impossible as well), and writing about them. She enjoys baking, decorating things and a cup of chai!