Pakistani films

‘Kartar Singh’, a Punjabi film about the Partition from the other side of the border

The 1959 production is an even-handed examination of the horrors that accompanied the division of India and the creation of Pakistan.

The horrors of the partition of India, particularly the division of Punjab, has been examined by many prominent writers such as Bisham Sahni, Amrita Pritam, Rahi Masoom Reza, Ismat Chugtai and Saadat Hasan Manto. Indian cinema too has seen various films made about the Partition, such as ML Anand’s Lahore (1949), Manmohan Desai’s Chhalia (1960), Yash Chopra’s Dharamputra (1961), MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1973), Pamela Rooks’s Train to Pakistan (1998), Manoj Punj’s Shaheed-e-Mohabbat Boota Singh (1999), Anil Sharma’s Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), Chandra Prakash Dwivedi’s Pinjar (2003) and Anup Singh’s Qissa (2013).

But what of films looking at this dreadful event from Pakistan, especially since the perception of both the countries is so different? For Indians, there is hurt and bitterness at the loss of a part of ourselves, whereas for Pakistanis, the Partition marked the creation of a new homeland after much suffering and sacrifice. Although 1947: Earth is set in Lahore and draws from Pakistani writer Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel The Ice-Candy Man, the movie was made by a director of Indian origin (Deepa Mehta) and with a largely Indian cast and crew. Similarly Khamosh Pani (2003), although directed by Pakistani filmmaker Sabiha Sumar, has a cast and crew that includes screenplay writer Paromita Vohra and actors Kirron Kher and Shilpa Shukla from India.

In this regard, a Pakistani film that examines the Partition is instructive. Kartar Singh (1959) is considered one of the all-time great Punjabi films to ever come out of Pakistan. The movie has been written and directed by Saifuddin Saif and stars Sudhir, a leading hero of Pakistani films for four decades. Also in the cast is Mussarat Nazir, who later gained a reputation for popularising Punjabi folk songs like Mera Laung Gawacha and Latte Di Chadar, as well as Bahar, Laila, Zarif, the great playback singer Inayat Hussain Bhatti and Allaudin in the title role of Kartar Singh.

‘Kartar Singh’.
‘Kartar Singh’.

The film was released on June 18, 1959, on the occasion of Eid-ul-Azha, was one of the biggest hits of the year and has since acquired cult status in Pakistan. Though terribly dated in its technique, Kartar Singh still works reasonably well due to its inherently powerful story. The film depicts how one man debases himself totally and unleashes senseless violence on a fellow human being in the name of religion. The restraint in the story in terms of dealing with the various communities is a pleasant surprise. There is no blatant India bashing or Hindu-Sikh bashing. If Kartar Singh is a troublemaker and the Sikhs are shown as rioting and killing Muslims, there are also other Sikhs who balance them out with their goodness, such as the elderly gentleman who kills his son to protect an abducted Muslim woman’s honour. And Kartar Singh too, as the film’s villain, finally repents his dark deeds and sacrifices his life.

Although nobody from the Muslim community is portrayed in negative shades, they are in a minority in their village and have to leave for Pakistan where they have to rebuild their lives from scratch. Thus, the film is as balanced as could be, keeping the bigger human picture in mind.

A highlight of Kartar Singh is undoubtedly its music by Saleem-Iqbal, the stand-out composition being the rendition of Amrita Pritam’s landmark poem about the Partition. Ajj Akhaan Waris Shah Nu has been sung soulfully by both Inayat Hussain Bhatti and Zubeida Khanum. Other noteworthy songs are the patriotic Ajj Mukk Gayee, sung with great feeling and emotion by Bhatti and Salim Raza as the Muslim refugees reach and salute their promised land, the romantic Gori Gori Chandni Di sung by Zubaida Khanum and Desan Da Raja, sung by Naseem Begum.


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