December Issue 2008
The Sky Below is a film that explores the landscape of Partition through an inspired journey. It moves easily from one side of the border to the other, from the past to the present and to some places in the mind that could lie in between.
The film’s director, cinematographer and editor, Sarah Singh, is half Punjabi — on her father’s side she traces her ancestry to the Maharajas of Patiala. The other half is North American. While most of her conscious life has been lived in the West, Singh seems to have a link to the subcontinent deep enough to facilitate her journey through it. The experience of belonging at least in part to more than one culture may have been instrumental in nurturing the empathy with which she reflects on aspects of this momentous event.
The film does not attempt to explore the whys and wherefores of Partition or to lay the blame for the carnage that followed at any particular door. It deals with what Sarah refers to as the ‘subtle trauma’ that haunts the older generation and has in places been passed down to the younger generation. This is the feeling of being torn asunder from one’s land, the need to fashion another identity in the new land.
We do hear the horror stories that are endemic to Partition, but there is always the redeeming human element. A Sikh gentleman who shelters his Muslim friends, a person who travels across the border to Pakistan to hand over an ‘amanat’ left behind. There is nostalgia on the Indian side, some questioning on the Pakistani side on the outcomes of the event.
The opening sequence is perhaps the most revealing. There is a dissolve from a shot of a Kohli woman on the Rajasthan side of the border, dressed in a colourful sari with her distinctive bangles, dissolving into a shot of the same landscape on the Tharparkar side — another woman walking, who is hard to distinguish from the first one. Read over the two sequences, ‘India’ and ‘Pakistan.’
Singh is fascinated by the continuities in culture and heritage that survive, in spite of the erection of the border and all the disputes that have been enacted since. The bitterness of the parting is most evident in the Kashmir sequence where a Kashmiri openly laments the miserable existence that has fallen to the lot of his people, as they face state oppression.
The film has some stunning visual sequences, set to music that mirrors the culture of each region it visits, from Kashmir to Kutch. It is amazing to learn that most of the evocative pieces were recorded en route, with no prior arrangement or additional recording equipment.
The sense of place is palpable in the film and its textures weave a portrait of the rich and diverse culture of the subcontinent. A series of pithy interviews put across views on the historical event and its aftermath. These range from the cool speak of Shiv Shankar Menon, then India’s Foreign Secretary, to the analytical discourse of Raza Kazim in Lahore to the animated lament of the Sindhi Hindus of Kutch, desolate at the loss of the homeland.
The interviews build up point and counterpoint by cutting back and forth from one person to the other at a rapid pace. The pace can take its toll of the viewer, but the filmmaker asserts that it is meant to be as overwhelming as the event itself. At the same time, it gives no one point of view dominance over the other.
Sarah does not go into the darker side of the Pakistani story, perhaps because that side of the story has been told once too often. She does highlight what is, in a sense, a denial of a common history and heritage. The film raises the question of reconciliation as a return to a state of coexistence that was once second nature to the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs of the subcontinent. How this is to come about, we are not sure. The Sky Below is a film that will not please those who are looking for easy answers. It does, however, raise all the right questions.
Tehmina Ahmed is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. She is a senior editor at Newsline and head of Newsline Films.