September Issue 2008
After winning critical acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and bagging the International Federation of Film Critics Award at the 10th Osian Cinefan Film Festival in New Delhi, Mehreen Jabbar’s Ramchand Pakistani finally made it to cinema screens across the country last month.
Ramchand’s strength lies in its very timely and critical theme — the issue of Indian and Pakistani prisoners languishing in each other’s jails for crossing the border, mostly inadvertently.
Ramchand is the story of one such prisoner, a little Hindu boy Ramchand (Syed Fazal Hussain), living in Tharparkar, who unwittingly crosses the border into Kutch, India. His father, Shankar (Rashid Farooqui) goes after him and both end up in an Indian prison, where they are detained for five years.
The film traces the life of Ramchand as he transforms from a sweet and innocent kid into a smooth operator in the company of all sort of criminals who inhabit the cell. Among them is a child molester who tries to lure Ramchand and a small-time crook who keeps offering him drug-laced cigarettes. And then, there is the beautiful but bigoted Kamla (Maria Wasti), an upper caste police officer, who resents Ramchand at first because he is a Dalit, but later grows fond of him, despite herself.
A parallel track also runs through the film — that of Ramchand’s mother, Champa (Nandita Das), who stays behind in the village in the hope that her husband and son will return, but is later forced to leave to work on a feudal landlord’s farm to pay off a debt. She rebuffs the advances of shopkeeper Abdullah (Noman Ijaz) initially, but succumbs when hopes of her husband’s return fade. However, eventually, Abdullah too abandons her when he is chastised by the landlord’s munshi and she returns to her village only to be reunited with Ramchand who has finally returned. As far as the storyline goes, it is simple, interesting and follows a logical sequence of events. However, one felt that the climax scene could have been built up a bit more, for the ending seems very abrupt.
Considering its theme, Ramchand, fortunately, is not designed as an anti-India tirade or even a tear-jerker. The movie does have a couple of scenes showing the ruthless interrogation and torture of Ramchand’s father by the jailer, but it is generally understated and dwells more on the human aspect of life in an Indian prison, among its many eccentric characters. However, save for Kamla’s character, with its interesting nuances, the eccentricities of the rest of the characters are never quite explained. For instance, one never learns why one of the prisoners constantly chews paper, or why another paints the prison walls. The politician is also given short shrift. That goes for another character outside of the prison walls — Abdullah, who pursues Champa, and then drops her like a hot potato at the slightest provocation.
Having said that, one must commend Jabbar for the themes she has tackled. The issue of Pakistani and Indian prisoners has been a bone of contention between the two constantly sparring neighbours, and Jabbar’s film highlights the need for taking remedial measures to ease the suffering of the prisoners and their families. When one of the inmates is asked what he intends to do after he is released, he says, “Go back and fish, and then land up here again!” This remark may have elicited some laughs, but it throws light on the predicament of the hapless victims.
The feminist element in the film is also noteworthy. Champa is shown as no ordinary, downtrodden village belle. She is a proud, self-respecting woman, and, on occasion, quite a firebrand. She refuses to take any financial favours from Abdullah following her husband’s disappearance, and trades in her bangles in return for the cash he loans her. In another incident, when she overhears the landlord tell Abdullah off for showing an interest in her due to her being a Dalit, she responds by refusing to continue working for him.
Similarly, the caste system has also been touched upon by juxtapositioning Kamla’s character against Ramchand’s — the Brahman Kamla, who initially does not allow the Dalit Ramchand to touch her utensils, develops a bond with him as the story progresses and actually kisses him goodbye when she is leaving her job to get married.
It is scenes like these that lift Jabbar’s work above your regular movie fare. However, one criticism that has been levelled against the film is that while it tackles several pertinent issues, it handles the film’s central theme with so much restraint, that it appears to be too polite, and doesn’t leave the kind of strong impact a theme of this nature needed, in order to register with the masses. This may have to do with Jabbar’s transition from television to celluloid, but then she is known to be an understated director.
However, where the movie scores brilliantly is on the acting front. Right from the two young boys, Syed Fazal Hussain and Navaid Jabbar, who play the title role, to all the prisoners, each character has been portrayed convincingly. Hats off to Mehreen for a very astute selection of the cast. Particularly deserving mention, aside from the boys playing Ramchand, are Maria Wasti who was simply superb as the police officer, and Rashid Farooqui who plays Shankar. Indian actor Nandita Das was competent in a role that was not very demanding. Nevertheless, she brought star value to a movie which relied mostly on TV actors.
The music and soundtrack of the film is another feather in Mehreen Jabbar’s cap. Composed by Kolkata’s Debajyoti Mishra, the songs have a haunting appeal, especially ‘Phir Wohi Raastay’ rendered by Shafqat Amanat Ali, and picturised poignantly on Ramchand. Indian classical singer Shubha Mudgal joins Shafqat in the melodious ‘Allah Megh Dey.’ Anwar Maqsood’s lyrics are equally powerful.
Another plus is the impressive cinematography by young Sofian Khan, who captures Tharparkar beautifully on celluloid.
All in all, Ramchand is a competent movie on a pertinent theme, and keeping in mind that it marks Mehreen’s transition from the small screen to the big screen, it is definitely impressive.
Lacking the glitz and glamour generally associated with feature flicks, Ramchand Pakistani is more likely to appeal those who prefer to watch meaningful cinema.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. She also works at Hum television.