October Issue 2003
Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters) is uncomfortably, chillingly close to home. Set in the Punjab village of Charkhi in 1979, at a time when General Zia’s “Islamisation” began to spread insidiously through Pakistani society, the film tells the story of the making of a religious extremist. But more than that, it is a story of the relationship between a mother and a son, a relationship that is slowly poisoned as he turns towards an ideology that is a world apart from her benign, inclusive God. On an even deeper level, it is the story of a woman whose past catches up with her. There is a sense of fatalism here that Hardy would have relished.
Saleem (Aamir Malik) is a callow, dreamy-eyed youth with no particular purpose in life. Stolen kisses with his girlfriend, lazy afternoons playing the flute or lounging about with his friends occupy most of his time. His mother, Ayesha, (Kiron Kher) is a widow who makes ends meet with her husband’s pension and her income as a Quran teacher. Mother and son share a close and affectionate bond.
Into the bucolic world of Charkhi, where it seemed that time stood still, enter two men who are destined to change it forever. Insinuating themselves into the life of the village, Rashid and Zubair set about converting its inhabitants to their own intolerant, angst-ridden version of Islam. Saleem, too, is slowly won over by the force of their convictions — he has at last found a direction in life. His pleasant demeanour is replaced by a brooding sullenness. The light-hearted banter between mother and son turns to silence.
Ayesha, bewildered by the change in him, at first entreats Saleem to stay away from his new friends. Then, as her efforts are met with brusque refusal, she retreats into a shell, watching his transformation with growing despair.
Change comes to Charkhi too. Shops are forcibly closed for prayers, people are compelled to say their prayers in the mosque, and the wall of the girls’ school is raised so that no passerby may peer inside.
Into this simmering cauldron of religious fervour arrive Sikh pilgrims from India to celebrate a festival at their temple in Charkhi, a legacy of pre-Partition days when many of them were settled in the area. The villagers regard them with suspicion at best, and hostility at worst. But the hostility is not one-sided. There are bitter memories of the mass rape and abductions of Sikh women by Muslim men in the cataclysmic events of 1947. One of the pilgrims decides to search for his long-lost sister Veero, who, instead of committing suicide by jumping into the well at her father’s command when the family’s honour was at stake, had run away instead. His quest leads him to Ayesha.
When Saleem learns of his mother’s ‘infidel’ past, he feels he has to prove his religious commitment even more fiercely. He demands that Ayesha make a public declaration of her Muslim faith but she refuses, convinced that her beliefs require no such endorsement. Rejected by her son, shunned by her neighbours, Ayesha says her last prayers at dawn, and jumps into the well. The silent waters have claimed her at last.
When Khamosh Pani, directed by Pakistan’s Sabiha Sumar, and co-produced by Pakistani, French and German production houses, was screened at the 56th Locarno International Film Festival 2003 in Switzerland in August, it created a sensation. The audience reportedly gave it a standing ovation lasting almost 12 minutes. The judges for the competition obviously concurred. Khamosh Pani won the Golden Leopard for Best Feature Film and Best Actress. This is the first time that a Pakistani film has won two major awards at an international film festival, with 19 entrees from 13 countries, including Argentina, Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Britain, France, Italy, India, Iran, Japan, Romania, South Korea, Switzerland and the United States. And this was not all. The film also won the Grand Prix awarded by the Ecumenical Jury and earned a Special Mention from the FICC/IFFS Jury, (an international organisation of film societies and non-profit cinemas) and the Young Jury.
It is tempting to speculate that the film’s subject matter played a role in its resounding success. While this may perhaps be true to some extent — given the world’s current fixation on Islamic fundamentalism — there is no denying that this is a deeply moving, beautifully crafted film. The story by Sabiha Sumar, scripted by Paromita Vohra, steers clear of stereotypes and overwrought sentimentality. Even Rashid and Zubair, the two men who stir up religious fervour in Charkhi, are not formulaic. No thunderous rhetoric from them, just a sinister deliberation as they spread their divisive venom. You can almost hear the drip-drip as it seeps through the roots of the social fabric. The sense of impending doom is created through understatement, and there is no pedantic insistence on a ‘message.’ The title of the film is more than apt in many ways.
The camerawork by the German Ralph Netzer is breathtaking, taking on an almost poetic quality in places: Zubeida, at the window of the abandoned building, waiting in vain for her lover, Saleem fervently praying at the mosque, bathed in the luminous moonlight, Ayesha, gazing with unseeing eyes into the darkess as her world crumbles around her. A haunting musical score by Madan Gopal Singh and Arshad Mahmud complements the unfolding tragedy.
While these elements are important in themselves, the heart of a film lies in its performances. And Kiron Kher and Aamir Malik are both brilliant in their roles. The gradual corrosion of the mother-son bond, as each locks himself up in private grief, make for powerful drama. When Saleem implores his mother to own her Muslim faith in public, the viewer can sense his anguish and inner conflict between his love for her and his “duty” as he sees it. Several of the supporting roles are played by actors familiar to Pakistani audiences, including Abid Ali, Salman Shahid and Arshad Mahmud (as Mahboob, the benign barber with an irreverent sense of humour who, in his own small way, defies the forces of obscurantism that have pervaded his village). With Kiron Kher and Navtej Johar — as Ayesha’s long lost brother Jaswant — from across the border, the cast is a multi-national one, as is the crew, a testimony in itself to the power of cooperation and tolerance.
Apart from a couple of awkward scenes — one such being the walk along the hillside by two Sikhs recalling their past in Charkhi which comes across as completely unconvincing — this is an exquisite, tightly-woven film, which has much to say but does so with the lightest of touches. One caveat however: towards the end, it seems that Sumar’s penchant for storytelling overtook her instinct for dramatic effect. Otherwise, Ayesha’s shocking leap into the well would have been the perfect, abrupt ending to the sense of dread that had been building up. Like the stopping of a heartbeat.