This week, I present a movie about both the founding of a nation and its reconnection with its religious roots. The nation, by the way, is Pakistan. This is, Khamosh Pani, otherwise known as Silent Waters.
Available on Youtube. Approximately 91 to 97 minutes. The Youtube video has a bunch of stuff at the beginning that you can watch later or just skip.
The movie is set in 1979. It had been around half a year since the General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq finally cemented his control over Pakistan after a year-long coup to oust the controversial Leftist Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The USSR is gearing up to invade neighboring Afghanistan. Neither of these things is of much concern to the people of Charkhi, a village in the Punjab province. I am not sure if that is a real village and Google Maps was not helpful, but whatever.
The focus of the movie is on Ayesha and her teenage son, Saleem. Ayesha supports herself and her son from her late husband’s pension and through teaching the Koran to village girls.
Saleem seems to laze about a lot. He hangs out with another boy named Allabi, plays his flute, and romances a girl named Zubeida.
They seem like perfectly likeable and normal people, yet they each hold a secret. Ayesha never visits the village well, relying on one of the neighbor girls to get water for her. Ayesha’s dark memories of the well go back to 1947, when Pakistan broke away from India.
Saleem’s growing resentment over Zubeida’s wish to go to college improve her social status is worse than he lets on. He fears that she will leave him behind in her ambitions while he struggles without direction.
Then come two men from Lahore. They have come to spread General Zia’s Islamic law to the village and recruit people from the village. The local landowner has the village men gather together to hear their speech. The village men listen, but they are not all that enthusiastic; it takes the encouragement of the landowner to get the rest to eventually start cheering along. Even still, the older men are rather cynical about this new order, and the hanging of former Prime Minister Bhutto does not help.
The activists eventually find inroads with young men like Saleem’s friend. The three of them pressure Saleem to join with stories of Muslims under threat and the promise of being part of something greater. And, really, if you could choose between just sitting around like a nobody in your nowhere village playing a flute all day or being part of a movement that could save your country and bestow upon you the respect that you desire, what would you pick? Well, whatever you pick, Saleem picks the latter.
As this more restrictive form of Islam spreads throughout the country, it gradually begins to take its toll on the village. Ayesha and Zubeida start noticing Saleem becoming angrier and harsher towards both of them. Instead of Zubeida dumping Saleem, he actively pulls away from her. The older villagers are still cynical about Zia, but they are not quite as free in telling their jokes. Saleem and his new Islamist friends roam around basically like a gang, bullying anyone who does not comply with the new order. Ayesha can see her son slipping away from her and her own identity as a Pakistani Muslim called into question.
This movie came out in 2003, about two years after the United States invaded neighboring Afghanistan and a few months after the United States invaded Iraq, on the other side of Iran.
I should probably point out that this is not a purely Pakistani movie, if the Stella Artois ads at the beginning did not hint at that. It is a French/German production. The writer and the two main actresses are Indian, though the one playing Ayesha is from Indian Punjab. On the other hand, it was filmed in Pakistan and the director is Pakistani, as are most of the other actors. So, while it is not purely Pakistani, it is Pakistani enough, I suppose. And this is hardly the first movie that I have talked about to have foreign (often European) backing. Still, it may be important to keep that in mind when watching the movie, as there are parts of it that seem to forsake the specifics of that part of Pakistani history in order to make it seem like a more universal story.
The film does not go into detail about the politics of the time or the politics of the period before General Zia came to power. What is known is that there are those who were unhappy with how things had been and Zia is bringing about real change. The movie seems to portray this change within the framework of gang mentality. They are not outrageously violent yet, but they get very threatening. And then there is that scene where one of the guys casually takes a gun and fires at a group of Sikhs; the Sikhs are too far away for us to know if any of them got shot (and they may be too far away to get shot), but that is not the point. The point terror. The point is that things are going to get violent pretty soon. Thankfully, the movie ends before things get really really bad, but the ending is far from happy, and we all know that this story of these people does not stop just because the movie does.
While it is easy to say that we would resist such tyranny, would it really be that easy to do and continue doing? Ayesha and Zubeida have little power to change anything by themselves. Neither do the older men. Maybe they could band together, but against the government? This is not just a group of people that you can hold off with an AR-15 and a pocket constitution; they will kill you. One could accuse Saleem of being emotionally weak, but it may very well have been that the pull was just that strong. His fear of becoming a nobody is quite relatable, though the constant threat of losing the respect of his new friends has consequences beyond people not considering him cool anymore. Sure, it is not necessarily as admirable as wanting to become part of something bigger that will save your nation and your people, but the end result is the same. And sometimes it is difficult to figure out whether one’s motivations are noble or selfish. Eventually, he will get to the point where he would to deep inside to ever be able to effectively escape if he even ever considers escaping. As people like Ayesha and the elders gradually get sidelined, Saleem starts changing in ways both sad and scary, bringing to the fore and magnifying his darker impulses. And with him goes Pakistan.
I am not sure if it was necessarily fair to portray the rise of Islamist Pakistan as one of directionless young men finding purpose in a gang, but it was certainly an effective one. For sure, it gives it a more universal feel and makes it more relatable to those not brought up in such circumstances.
And, wow…could one make parallels between what happens in the movie and the Alt-Right of America and other parts of the world. I had seen this movie a good two years before I had ever heard that term, but it tracks for the most part. Youth movements led by elderly men. The conflagration between far-away persecution and personal unhappiness. The glorification of manly heroism and holy struggle. The policing of women under the guise of protection. The harassment of minorities. The exploitation of an already corrupt system. The call for a great cleansing of society.
The movie also shows that there were those who were never comfortable with this new way of life, but the ways that they resisted were varied, subtle, and compromised. A gang may terrorize a neighborhood or a city. But this was a government. A government that wrested control from its predecessor and brought about its violent end. It sunk its talons everywhere. Also, the movie does not really point this out as the time period does not allow for it, but it is said that the Reagan Administration supported the Zia government as a bulwark against Socialism and Communism. Gee. I wonder if the fight against the Radical Left has led Americans to support other questionable forms of belief and policymaking.
This American support may have been effective, given Bhutto’s policies and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but still. I do not know if this is true, but I would not be surprised, given the alliances that the United States has formed in its fight against the Red Menace and for Black Gold. General Zia died in 1988 in a very very suspicious plane crash, but his legacy lives on. The movie may be a little simplistic and universalist in its depiction of events, but in doing so, it shows that this could happen anywhere. It happened HERE recently and the damage is still being done. It has happened many times before throughout; it is happening right now somewhere; it will happen in the future. There is no unless we do something; it is going to happen. We cannot be complacent. For they will not stop fighting until they are stopped.
WTF ASIA 138: Her Brother (Japan: 1960, approx. 98 minutes)
WTF ASIA 139: Election (Hong Kong: 2005, approx. 100 minutes)