"I wanted to make a very violent film but without a drop of blood."
This is what director Sabiha Sumar says of her debut film Khamosh Pani.
The Historical background of Khamosh Pani is based on actual events that took place when the Indian sub-continent was partitioned in 1947. In pre-Partition Punjab, Muslims and Sikhs had lived side-by-side; but during Partition, men from both sides of the religious divide mercilessly slaughtered each other. Each looted the other's property, which included their respective women: little distinction was made between robbing cattle and abducting women. The women were raped, sold, bought and, sometimes, murdered. From the women's point of view, they faced danger from two sides. The immediate threat came from males within their families. Their fathers, brothers or husbands forced them to commit suicide to preserve chastity and protect family and community honour. If they escaped death at the hands of the family patriarchs, then they were targeted by men from across the religious divide as 'nothing dishonours the enemy more than dishonouring his womenfolk'. Ironically, though, the women stood a better chance of survival against strangers who were less interested to kill them and more keen to dishonour the 'enemy' community; some ended up marrying their abductors. Most women who survived had set up home; had had children and appeared to have adjusted to their new lives.
In Pakistan, with the onslaught of Islamic fundamentalism from 1979, these seemingly well-adjusted women once again came under threat because of their non-Muslim past. For them this was Partition all over again. Religious intolerance and obscurantism threatened to undo everything they had built around themselves since 1947. Khamosh Pani looks at the story of one such woman, Ayesha.
Changing her earlier intent of making a documentary on the experiences of women who experienced the horrors of Partition, Sumar gives us instead a powerful story of Ayesha's experience of violence and fundamentalism. The spread of religious fundamentalism at grass root levels is scary and disturbing to say the least and extremely well captured giving the film much of its strength. Paromita Vohra's screenplay succeeds in shaking us out of our complacency as we see the tragic far-reaching consequences of fundamentalism.
The strongest part of the film is the track of Ayesha's 18-year-old son Saleem's conversion from an ordinary carefree teenager to a religious fanatic. Consequently, performance wise, the film really belongs to Aamir Malik. As the 18 year old manipulated into become a fundamentalist, he gives a frightening and disturbing portrayal of an ordinary young man led astray. From the boyishly grinning teenager whose life revolves around his girlfriend to the hardened zealot rejecting her and his mother, he is totally convincing. Kirron Kher, the only recognizable face in the film, too gives a moving, subtle and underplayed portrayal of Ayesha, a woman who has to confront her past. They are well supported by rest of the cast though Shilpa Shukla as the career-minded Zubeidaa, looks far too old for her role and this is even more apparent in her scenes with other school girls. Performance wise, however, she is spot on.
What works in Khamosh Pani really is the director's treatment. There is a gentleness about the flow of the film with more often said through the silences of its characters rather than reams of dialogue. Several scenes linger on in the mind after the film is over - the barber's joke not being taken kindly by the fundamentalists, the hurt of Ayesha realizing her best friend doesn't want her there for her daughter's wedding even as she gives her shelter that evening from her abusive husband, the youth heightening the wall at the local girl's school to name a few.
On the other side, the establishing shots of the happy life in Charkhi village before fundamentalism creeps in are perhaps a mite too self consciously cute. The flashbacks of Ayesha's past are among the weakest sequences of the film. The film could have been quite powerful without having them. Or even if they were to be there, perhaps just a flash here or there and then perhaps revealing all could have worked better than this a little at a time treatment. Perhaps then the emotional wallop of why Ayesha doesn't go to the well and fetch her own water could have worked better. That they have been shot most tackily doesn't help either. The shift in narrative once the Sikhs come - to Jaswant hunting for his sister doesn't really work. It would have worked better if we come to know about him from Ayesha's side. And if Jaswant is given information about his sister, couldn't he have been directly told instead of being asked to follow two women? Also you don't quite know what to make of the key moment of Ayesha's decision to finally jump into the well. In trying not to fall into normal modes of melodrama and loudness, this treatment shifts 180 degrees the other way but just ends up suddenly alienating you from the character. And the less said about the shot of her jump into the well, the better.
Technically, the film is adequate.
Full marks to Sabiha Sumar for attempting a sensitive, thought-provoking film like Khamosh Pani but by the end of the film one does feel that yes, a great effort, and the film has its moments but unfortunately, it stops just short of 'being there.'