Ken McMullen's powerfully provocative film, adapted by Tariq Ali from Saadat Hasan Manto's famous short story, Toba Tek Singh, takes place immediately before and in the days following Partition. Set in both a lunatic asylum on the border and in a map room where government and colonial officials take decisions on the course of the new border, it takes as its subject the fact that even residents of asylums were forcefully separated on religious grounds. Scenes in the asylum are counterpointed by those in the map room, while throughout, a keen-eyed and keen-eared cleaning lady (Zohra Sehgal) provides a knowing commentary on proceedings. ‘Some of them don’t understand why they have to leave this India and go to another India’ she says of the inmates’ predicament. The same actors play dual roles as officials and asylum inmates with the one sometimes acting as a commentary on the other. (When the General is trying to rationalise the British Empire's actions in India, his alter-ego is riding circles on his bicycle.)
Appropriately for the film’s themes of division and the co-existence of several selves, mirrors, screens and veils play a large part in the production design. Theatrical rigour then combines with intricately plotted camerawork to thrilling effect – no more so than when Roshan Seth crosses the border between the film’s worlds, moving from the discussion in the map room to the harsh glare of light and the chattering of birds in the asylum in an unbroken 10 minute take that finds you holding your breath for its sheer audacity.
The film grows in conviction throughout and when Saeed Jaffrey (in one of his three roles), on learning that he must leave the asylum, climbs a tree, refuses to move, and delivers his impassioned ‘what have you done to my world?’ speech with a terrifying, primal force, the drama pierces to the core. ‘Even the monsoon is evil this year,’ he says, ‘it is raining red’. In the scene that follows, a devastatingly controlled conversation at the Gymkhana Club in Delhi between the British General and an Indian minister, the General says of the wholesale slaughter that followed Partition, that it was ‘one of the dreadful ironies of history’. Following the passion of Jaffrey’s speech, these words chill.
The staging is highly effective in its use of minimal but telling detail. As the General addresses the camera with the words: ‘the demons are now unleashed – that’s what we are leaving behind … our true legacy’, behind him two overhead fans are operating. After he finishes speaking and stares out of the screen, the only sound left is that of their blades swiping through the air.
Likewise, the theatricality of scenes is complemented by well-chosen filmic touches. Early on, after a minister makes a joke to the General, it is repeated on the soundtrack by the same actor in the tone of a self-satisified anecdote to be stored and told at a later date. Later, in the Gymkhana Club, we are shown two reactions to the General’s comment that it has been a ‘successful handover’. In the first, in black and white and to the sound of pouring rain, Saeed Jaffrey’s minister says, ‘successful – successful for you perhaps sir, but in this last year over a million Indians have died, killed without mercy,’ his face struggling to suppress the emotion in his words. Immediately we see the same scene again, in colour and without the rain. He says the same words (leaving out the ‘sir’), but this time they do not refer to the dead or anything outside of themselves; they are just words, polite trading items for talking in abstract terms.
‘For a hundred years the British held a veil between us and power. India and its realities appeared hazy, even to the likes of us. Now everything is stripped bare.’ So says Roshan Seth in his guise of a white-suited official before he begins his walk through to the other side, leaving behind the decisions of the map room to lie on the ground of the asylum. ‘Don’t go to India, don’t go to Pakistan. Don’t leave me brothers,’ says Jaffrey in his tree as the camera then tracks back with the appearance of the cleaning woman, sweeping the ground with her brush and raising another veil – this time one of dust.
At the end of the film, in archive footage, the British soldiers and officials board their boats and leave to the strains of Auld Lang Syne, but the unexpected and startling final image with its accompanying words, ‘what is broken is broken’, tell the real story here. Much of humanity lives in this frozen symbolic moment.
Of the many images that remain in my mind from this film, the one that keeps returning is the face of Zohra Sehgal as she wipes a mirror that, in the haze of distance, reflects the map of India that has been partitioned. Her eyes hold and confront our own, as on the soundtrack, Roshan Seth says, ‘we Indians have often considered that the outer world matters only insofar as it affects the inner. This may well have been our only defence against an imperial presence.’ Throughout the film, Sehgal’s eyes have the wisdom of ages. She knows much, says little, has seen everything broken and repaired, time and again across the centuries. She knows that divisions will come, and also that, like the reparations that follow, they are temporary.
By way of a postscript, while writing this review, I have been reading Hold Everything Dear, John Berger’s latest ‘Dispatches on Survival and Resistance’, in which he talks, in Stones, of an acquaintance who ‘learnt early on that life inevitably leads to separations’, and who therefore spent much of his energy on forging links – among them friendship, shared poetry and hospitality – ‘links which had a chance of surviving after the inevitable separations’. Most people on this earth live in the moment that follows the breakage at the end of Partition, whether on a personal, regional or national level. In such times, actions that bring people closer together come very near to an obligation.