When you have already lost everything, you have nothing left to lose.
The film starts with the nations of India and Pakistan having gained independence from Great Britain in 1947. It is supposed to be a time for celebration, but of course that is not to last. Disagreements over the future of this land prior to Independence had led to a Partition that resulted in these two countries. And that Partition was bitter. The two countries pretty much immediately found themselves at war with each other. People in one country who may have been suspected of being loyal to the other country were encouraged to move there, often with violence; sometimes merely the fear of violence.
The story picks up in 1948 in the disputed North-West Frontier Province and Kashmir. During one particular fight, a group of Indian soldiers and a group of Pakistani soldiers got into a fierce battle. Rehmat, originally from Dehli, seems to be the one of the only survivors on the Pakistani side. The other survivor is a captain, who has gotten shot.
And the captain wants the file. What file? The file in the nearby Indian post about the secret tunnel between Delhi and Lahore. He orders Rehmat to wake up his comrades and go get it, but his comrades are all dead. So Rehmat has to go get it on his own to prove himself a true Pakistani and not a traitorous…immigrant. The captain already aired suspicions that Rehmat was trying to flee and threatens his entire family, so he really has no choice in the matter. Well, I guess that killing the already wounded captain is a choice, but he does not do that. Instead, he meekly leaves, even as the captain seems to pass out. He walks towards the post, firing his rifle in the air.
Samarth the cook has been left alone at the Indian post for over an hour. Worried that the Pakistanis have killed all of his comrades, and hearing rifle fire, he calls into headquarters. Headquarters is not very sympathetic, saying that command probably went for a stroll. Samarth admits that he is scared and alone, but Headquarters insults for using Punjabi words and told to shut up…and then tells him that no soldier is alone; all of India is with him. Right.
Having no idea what to do and doubtful that anyone will actually go looking for his fellow soldiers, he takes a bucket and walks to the well…only to find Rehmat there getting water.
After a moment of uncertainty, Samarth runs back to the post. Rehmat follows him for a little bit and shoots inside a couple of times. Hearing only Samarth’s panicked outbursts, Rehmat reasons that he is by himself. He sneaks towards the front of the building, but accidentally gives away his position, leaving him trapped right outside.
Samarth, starts talking, saying that if they pretend that Rehmat simply got lost and needed water, then he can leave in peace and Samarth will not tell anyone about this. Rehmat responds with a gunshot. Samarth repeats his offer, but Rehmat says that he had already killed all of the people whom Samarth could talk to.
Rehmat demands the tunnel file. Samarth knows nothing about any tunnel or any tunnel file, saying that he is only the cook. Rehmat, taking a more conciliatory and condescending tone, offers to let Samarth cook for the Pakistani army. This offer enrages Samarth, who believes this to be an insult to his dead comrades. He shoots in Rehmat’s general direction. Rehmat feels insulted that his offer was so violently rebuked. Samarth fires again, and Rehmat retreats to an area behind some sandbags.
Somehow, their argument turns into a heated political argument about the cause of the Partition between India and Pakistan, along with which side bore more responsibility for the violence and loss that accompanied it. Samarth eventually reveals that he had come from a rich family in Lahore, and it was because of people like Rehmat that he had to flee to Indian territory and work as a lowly cook army, giving up his mansion to Muslim invaders. Rehmat asks why he left Lahore if he loved it so much. Samarth fires at him and Rehmat fires back.
The argument stops there, but the confrontation and maneuvering will start up again the next morning.
This is one of those movies where soldiers on opposite sides of a conflict end up stuck together for one reason or another, such as No Man’s Land from Bosnia and Park Chan Wook’s Joint Security Area. I guess that I have a soft spot for them. So this movie is right up my alley.
There have been a lot of Indian movies concerning the nation’s not-so-friendly relationship with Pakistan. I do enjoy some of them, such as Lahore and Raazi. That said, it seems like lot of them, including those two, make Pakistan out to be a nation of big meanies that constantly harasses and provokes India. And if there is any sort of chance for reconciliation between the two countries, it will happen when Pakistan stops being so mean and India forgives Pakistan for being so mean. I am not saying that movies from other countries (such as the United States) are not guilty of presenting international hostilities in a similar fashion, but it can get tiresome. While this movie is not completely free of painting Pakistan as meaner than India (the Pakistani is attacking the Indian due to some ridiculous conspiracy theory), it tempers that with a bit of nuance.
The political argument, which goes on for quite a bit, might not go really in depth, but it goes further than I thought it would for a movie about military grunts, and touches upon many of the various disagreements that had resulted in a violent Partition. Both Samarth and Rehmat make points that are both passionately held and seemingly valid, though not always perfectly articulated. There are political arguments, economic arguments, personal arguments, and religious arguments to an extent. As I am hardly being well-informed regarding the Partition, I cannot claim to have a deep understanding of what they sometimes talk about. Aside from the tunnel nonsense, there is no attempt to make Rehmat’s arguments seem less right or more wrong than Samarth’s, at least from my outsider’s perspective. He is not lying or misled any more than Samarth is, and there is not much of an attempt to say that his motives do not justify the creation of Pakistan. He is not a tragic prisoner of a misguided belief. Even his harsh captain is not treated as such, at least not much more than the other Indian characters. There may be some nuance that I missed which favors Samarth and the Indians, but…well, I missed it.
An important aspect of this story is the migration backstory. This movie takes place barely a year after Partition, so the pain over losing their homes is still fresh for both main characters. Samarth had to flee from what became Pakistan while Rehmat fled what became India. Samarth may argue that Rehmat had a choice to stay in India, but Rehmat does not see it that way, especially since he suffered losses in his own family. In any case, each ended up in the other’s home city, even in an area that is familiar to the other. And each of them had to put up with the disdainful distrust of the locals. Each man has a sense of identity that is deeply held, badly shaken, torn apart, and unfairly questioned. Each sees the other man as part of the group that made him like this.
Independence from the British Empire was supposed to be a joyous occasion for India, but unresolved issues resulted in misery. Given that the historical India had a patchwork of princely nations, along with a variety of ethnic groups, cultures, religions, and languages, I am not sure that there was ever really a true sense of unity or nation prior to Partition. Well, perhaps at some point during the First World War. Yet, when Samarth refers to Rehmat as a brother, it is almost always sincere. At first, it is out of fear, then later out of a sense of betrayal. But each time, it is real. In a sense, they are family, estranged by differences that they have been unable to reconcile. Their commonality is pain by each other and resentment towards each other. Each has been cast out of his homeland and has taken up arms for a country that barely tolerates him. This national identity is not something that either of them is comfortable with, but it is all that he has left. So each has no choice but to fight for it. There is no going back and there is no backing down. So, what can they do? Well…not to spoil the movie, but there is still not peace in South Asia.
Both funny and sad, this movie moved me much. I highly recommend it.
WTF ASIA 155: Drunken Angel (Japan: 1948, approx. 98 minutes)
WTF ASIA 156: The Story of Qiu Ju (China: 1992, approx. 100 minutes)