Early on in Mehreen Jabbar’s Ramchand Pakistani we see Shankar, the protagonist Ramchand’s father, suspended upside down from the ceiling and beaten — a torture routine most moviegoers are only too familiar with. We see Shankar in this state through the eyes of Ramchand, his seven-year-old son, and we fear the worst for them. The more so because the film was inspired by the true story of a Dalit Hindu father and son from Pakistan who had strayed across the border into India just when tensions between the two countries were at a high in the aftermath of the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament.
Fazal Hussain as Ramchand in Mehreen Jabbar’s Ramchand Pakistani.
One assumes that while they are the “right” religion, they belong to the “wrong” country — what in June 2002 was very much the “enemy”. And that — going by their initial treatment at the hands of Indian army and police personnel — a grim future awaits them.
As it turns out, the torture was the lowest point for Ramchand and Shankar in this sweet, life-affirming film. For the next four years, a prison in Bhuj becomes their home and a motley bunch of prisoners — mostly fellow Pakistanis held on similar charges — and benign police personnel (led by the camp commander who happens to be Muslim) become their family. Sure, life in a prison is no picnic, but Ramchand is put under the charge of a policewoman (played by Pakistani television’s star actor Maria Wasti) with a sharp tongue and a kind heart who, while she makes him mop floors, also indulges him a fair bit.
The conceit — or the premise — of a Hindu Pakistani held prisoner in an Indian camp under the charge of an Indian Muslim commander starkly questions notions of identity and difference, and Ramchand Pakistani blurs boundaries, both literally and figuratively. Though novel, the idea is not entirely original, being merely an inversion of the ‘predicament’ of the Indian Muslim. Yet it grips our imagination, the more so for being based on a true story.
Rashid Farooqi as Shankar, and Fazal Hussain and Navaid Jabbar as the young and teenage Ramchand respectively, are convincing as their bewilderment and shock, gives way to cycles of hope, despair and resignation. Director Jabbar deserves credit for wanting to make a film on this topic; more credit is due for her sensitive and humane treatment of the subject. The trials and tribulations of father and son are mirrored across the border by the acute pangs of separation, uncertainty and dark despair suffered by Ramchand’s mother Champa, rendered evocatively by Nandita Das. Like them, her initial hopelessness seems to give way to a resigned acceptance that verges on placid. A placidity that can be likened to the rose-tinted optimism of Ramchand Pakistani? Or, to the life affirming antidote that resolutely confronts the worse that nationalism and religious divide can bring out in us.
The film has already been very well received in the film festival circuits, having won the Fipresci Award at the Osian’s Cinefan Festival earlier this year and was also selected as part of the competition section at the Tribeca Film Festival in the US.
In six words: Watch it and renew your hope.
Ramchand Pakistani will release across India on 3 October