There’s a telling scene early in Mehreen Jabbar’s Ramchand Pakistani. Shankar, a Pakistani Hindu who has accidentally strayed across the border with his little son Ramchand, is being manhandled by paranoid (or perhaps just bored) Indian soldiers who suspect him of being an enemy agent. “Don’t you know how bad things are between the two countries?” they holler, referring to the attack on the Indian Parliament a few days earlier. Shankar shakes his head dumbly: though he works part-time as a schoolteacher, he hasn’t even heard about this incident, which will cast a long shadow over his family’s lives in the years ahead.
The soldiers don’t believe him, but at that moment the viewer, who knows of Shankar’s innocence, can see him as a little person swept along on the vast tide of history, overtaken by events that he can only dimly understand (and isn’t much interested in). This has been a running theme in many of the better films I’ve seen at Cinefan over the years, especially the ones from small countries that don’t have well-established film industries and only produce a few features a year. Inevitably, many of these are instructive films that place intimate human stories against a daunting political background.
Ramchand Pakistani begins in a little settlement in the sun-baked Thar desert, where Shankar (Rashid Farooqui), his wife Champa (Nandita Das) and their son lead impoverished but reasonably contented lives. It’s a homely picture but you can see that little Ramchand is the restless sort, and the shift in the film’s tone comes when he impetuously saunters across the border, getting himself and his father arrested in the process. After they are taken to an Indian jail near the border, the film moves between their plight and the growing desolation of Champa, who has no idea what might have happened to them.
The role of Champa is underwritten – I never got a real sense of her loss, or of the trajectory that the life of a poor, deprived woman in this situation could take – and the casting of Nandita Das didn’t work for me; it would have been more effective if the protagonists had all been played by unknown actors. (I didn’t have the same problem with Rashid Farooqui, though I gather he’s fairly well-known in Pakistan.) Also, Das is just too luminous, even in the scene where Champa considers throwing herself into the local well. The scenes in the prison are much more absorbing, as father and son slowly adapt to their new life and form tentative relationships with their fellow inmates; Ramchand also develops an ambiguous bond with a harsh-tongued Maharashtrian lady officer, a serial watcher of 1980s Sridevi films like Mr India and Chandni, who initially recoils from him because he’s a Dalit but gradually softens.
This is a simply told tale and, despite the potential darkness of the subject matter, a consistently upbeat one. It might possibly be too upbeat for some tastes, given the realities of the lives of prisoners on either side of the border. Personally I had a couple of minor reservations. The dialogue is too refined and mannered in places (there are Punjabi gaalis thrown in at healthy intervals, but they seemed contrived rather than spontaneous) and there’s too much patient exposition, with characters spelling out their predicaments. No one seems really angry enough at what has happened to them. At other times, the film alludes to great horrors but then sugar-coats the blow; for instance, there’s a disturbing scene where Ramchand is taken to an interrogation room and sees his father hanging upside down, bruise marks on his body, but the viewer is never allowed to feel the full force of what Shankar has gone through – we see him limping briefly in the next scene, but things are back to normal soon enough.
Likewise, when it comes to the most traumatic episode for the incarcerated father and son – a false dawn, hope of freedom that turns out to be a bureaucratic error – the camera merely looks away: one moment we see Shankar and Ramchand walking happily towards their assumed freedom, but then there is an abrupt fast-forward and we find that they are still in the same prison four years later, looking not much the worse for wear. Consequently, as the film finds a way to loop towards a happy ending, the last few scenes meander; there isn’t as much at stake as one would think.
At its best, though, Ramchand Pakistani is a dignified film about the struggle to maintain dignity in the face of very difficult circumstances. It also makes some interesting points about the notion of home and what it means to different people. The idea of a Hindu family living happily in Pakistan, but feeling dislocated and uncomfortable when moved across the border to India, is presented very naturally here, but we are also reminded that Shankar, Champa and Ramchand don’t think of themselves primarily in terms of belonging to this or that country; their comfort zone lies in the company of their loved ones, and that's been taken away from them by larger forces.
[Was away in Chennai for a couple of days and have had to miss a lot of Cinefan, including some promising panel discussions; will try and catch up this week. Here's the official website of Ramchand Pakistani.]