Neorealism in Pakistani cinema
By: Anwer Mooraj
I don’t know how I missed it when it was first screened in 2008. Perhaps, I am a little out of touch with Pakistani cinema. Or, perhaps, after seeing Shoaib Mansoor’s two landmark classics, I thought we had reached the end of the road. And then, by sheer serendipity, an ineffably wise film buff asked me if I had seen Ramchand Pakistani.
I shook my head. I said that the title had put me off. I assumed this was an Indian film about a Pakistani Muslim who crosses the border and adopts a Hindu name for the purpose of espionage. How wrong I was. Based on a true incident, it turned out to be the story of two Pakistani Hindus of the Kohli tribe of Tharparkar, a father and his son, who accidentally stray across the border and are incarcerated in an Indian jail. The father receives exceptionally harsh treatment at the hands of an Indian border guard and members of the interrogation cell. In fact, all the performers, with the exception of Nandita Das, were Pakistanis.
The first thing that struck me about the motion picture was its stark realism and crisp camera work, which hovered over a bucketful of organic new-age anxiety. It reminded me of an early Vittorio De Sica tour de force. There was no overacting, no heroics, no redemption, and no scenes of vandalism, no love song at the slightest provocation or freshly minted terror on the part of the suburban bully. It was an exceptionally enlivening piece of work that embraced and extended the mutual inheritance of the photo-journalist and the visual artist. What I saw was the riveting tapestry of human emotion. If there is a lesson to be learned from this film, it is that the bureaucracy on both sides of the border stretches itself to absurd lengths to enact a travesty of justice.
The camaraderie that existed between Shankar (Rasheed Farooqi) and his son Ramchand (Syed Fazal Hussain) and the Muslim and Hindu prisoners in the jail was most fetching. All appeared to be part of the same porcine family, frozen in time, who heralded each new day with the same sense of hopelessness and helplessness. The development of some of the other relationships had an inevitability that was natural and expected.
Like the unspoken affection between the young trespasser and the female Indian sergeant (Maria Wasti) who used every opportunity to remind the boy that she was a high caste Hindu while he was an untouchable, forbidden to handle the crockery she used. Or the unspoken romance between the wife-who-was-left-behind (Das) and a member of the Kohli tribe, which was nipped in the bud when another member of the tribe prevailed upon the man to uphold the honour of the clan.
All members of the cast played their role extremely well. I was most impressed with Farooqi, who I understand is a teacher in real life and the perky insouciance of Hussain, who came of age in the prison and refused to be cowed down by the jailers. The prison staff displayed the usual mixture of boredom and exasperation while indulging in their duties. Except for the odd political comment and the initial display of third degree tactics to make Shankar confess to something he wasn’t, the staff on the whole behaved quite civilly. It is no surprise that this extraordinary film written and produced by Javed Jabbar and directed by his daughter Mehreen bagged so many prizes and awards. Hopefully, they will now tackle the plight of those unfortunate Indian and Pakistani fishermen.