Film: Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters)
Written and directed by Sabiha Sumar
This film is set in a Pakistani village, which is shown as a microcosm of the pangs of separation that Sikh families had to bear when India was divided in 1947 to create Pakistan as a separate Muslim country in South Asia. This is also the story of how religious extremism, as a state policy, was enacted in order to stifle resistance against dictatorship and forestall the spillover of a socialist revolution that just occurred in Afghanistan across the border.
The film is set in Charkhi village of Pakistani Punjab, which had a mix population of Sikh and Muslims until 1947. The village is also home to the second holiest shrine of Sikhism after Golden Temple in Amritsar in India. In 1947, almost all the Sikhs fled the town—or were driven out—and crossed into India; but this flight from the newly created Muslim country was not peaceful, especially for women. Scores of them were kidnapped by Muslim zealots; some were killed by their own men in order to ‘save their honor’.
Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters) is a French-German-Pakistani co-production with a cast from India and Pakistan. It was filmed, just before the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., entirely in Wah town and Rawalpindi city of Pakistan. It depicts the rise of religious obscurantism in 1979, when a military dictator, Ziaul Haq, took over power in Pakistan by deposing — and then hanging — popularly elected Prime Minister Zulifikar Ali Bhutto. It was released in 2003 and has won seven awards, including Golden Leopard (Best Film), Best Actress and Best Direction at the 56th Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland.
This is the story of Ayesha, a middle aged woman, who unlike other Sikh women in 1947, had refused to commit suicide by jumping into a well and just ran away, only to be waylaid by frenzied Muslims. To save her life, she had no other option but to become the wife of a Muslim. For this to happen she had to renounce her own religion and accept Islam and thus became Ayesha from Veeroo. But soon she becomes a widow to raise her only son, Saleem, who as a young lad falls in love with Zubaida, a spirited school student.
Riding on military dictator Ziaul Haq’s rhetoric of making Pakistan an Islamic society, two young religious extremists come to the village with a mission. It goes sour for the local people, especially for Ayesha when hundreds of Sikh pilgrims descend on the town to visit and pray in their shrine, Punja Sahib.
The local landlord lends support to the fundamentalists and they start recruiting people for their Islamist cause. Saleem, a young, confused orphan, who looks for a social/political identity, joins their ranks—hesitant and more confused at first. But after gaining sort of identity by being someone whom people listen to, he becomes a religious bigot: he spurns his sweetheart and starts questioning his mother’s past. Under pressure from his fanatic friends, he starts at first doubting and then questioning his mother’s loyalty to Islam.
One day he asks his mother to accompany him to a public meeting where she has to proclaim afresh her Muslim faith in front of everyone. But she remains silent, having flashbacks from her painful past. Fearing the wrath of rising extremists, her co-villagers ostracize Ayesha. When going gets tough for her, she goes out and jumps in the same deep well wherefrom she had ran away 32 years back.
Her remorseless and un-repented son grows into a fundamentalist politician. Zubaida, who stood by his mother till last despite being rejected by Saleem, completes her education and becomes a workingwoman in a big city called Rawalpindi.
Director/writer of the film Sabiha Sumar comes from a family with mystical traditions of Islam. In Silent Waters she tries to highlight the mystical aspect of Islam, which is overtaken by an intolerant religiosity in 1979 onwards. Mystical lyrics and music have been used as soundtrack in the film.
Erving Goffman, one of the leading proponents of ‘symbolic interactionism’, believed that meaning is created through social interaction. This is exactly what happened to Saleem. The reality of religion, belief system, society at large and even ‘motherhood’ changes for him in a changed social interaction, which leads to the creation of new meanings and to reinterpretation.
After joining the ranks of religious fanatics, he develops a new concept of reality in which Ayesha is not just his mother, but also “the sister of a non-believer (Sikh)”. He is redefining the “object” of family in relation to the social category mother. Having roots in another religion sticks out more for him, then motherhood and the piety of his mother.
He faces a new reality in which his mother’s past becomes more prominent and important for him than her present. The very meaning of blood relation changes for Saleem. For Saleem, Ayesha is no more his mother—not even mother figure—but the proverbial “other”, a traitor in the ranks. While his former lover, Zubaida, becomes someone who tries to “mislead” and “disgrace” him by her love. He sees a threat to his masculinity in Zubaida’s ambition to complete her education in her pursuit of a decent job for a decent life.
Saleem undergoes a change in identity too. In fact, he finds a social and political identity for the first time after he joins the group of religious fundamentalists. Arguing with his mother, Saleem emphasizes that now “people stop and listen to me. I am somebody (now).” Saleem faces a new reality, which his social group creates for him by interpreting the same old symbols and events in a new light. Now that people stop and listen to him, he gets a sense of power too, which he exerts on making them listen to him but not question him.
The film is depiction of a male-dominated society where masculine power plays out on the body of the woman, just like Michel Foucault’s description of how the body of the prisoner used to be a spectacle of exercising power through punishment. Women are visible in the film only inside their homes, cooking, sewing and washing clothes—all unpaid labor, which is gender inequality. They only time they are shown outside their homes are when they go to fetch water from a public well, or as children when they go to school.
It is also a depiction of a patriarchal society where women have no capacity for moral reasoning and agency. Saleem tries to impose himself on his mother by making moral arguments with her and she is shown as speechless when he questions her loyalty to Islam. Women, both collectively and individually, constitute the honor of their men. When men talk about nationalism and honor, they make frequent reference to their womenfolk. For example, when a group of Sikh pilgrims in their shrine in Charkhi village reminisces about their life in that village before the partition of India, one of them asks about any Sikh woman left behind. This mentioning flares up the emotions of another Sikh pilgrim, for he feels his honor has been injured.
He cannot stand the fact that any woman of his community might have ended up in the hands of a Muslim. He riles and assures everyone that his uncle had killed 22 women of his family with his own hands “to save our honor”.
“We saved our honor” by killing their ‘own’ women, the Sikh pilgrim announces with a pride. In another scene, Muslim fundamentalists taunt their fellow Muslims in these words: “Indians would come and pick our women to dishonor us, while you will be worrying about day-to-day life.” Women are also subjected to structural oppression because not every woman faces the same discrimination. Women, who are Muslim by birth, don’t have to worry while Ayesha, who had been forcibly converted to Islam, is being oppressed by her own son.
There is also gender inequality at play: those men of Charkhi village who had embraced Islam — willfully or under coercion — are not suspect any more. And nobody from his earlier [Sikh] community tries to locate and contact them. Sikh people try to locate their women, not men, left behind to somehow restore their honor. A converted Muslim man is spared all the travails that Ayesha goes through, just because he is a man and she is a woman.
The two fundamentalists come to Charkhi village where they are provided boarding and lodging by the local feudal. The landlord gathers the local people in the village mosque and introduces the young fanatics as someone who want to ‘strengthen’ Pakistan and ‘save’ its society from ‘evils’. He asks the people to listen to them and heed their call.
In this scene a nexus of power — feudal, religious figures, and politicians — is all visible. They play out their power on the body of common people. The religious fundamentalists do not challenge the power of the feudal, who is shown as having an extravagant and profligate life among people who hardly manage to make both ends meet.
Ironically, the profligate life of the feudal, who throws a sumptuous party at the wedding of his son, hosts dance parties at his place where a young lady dances to an all-male audience with cups of wine in their hands, is looked at as a friend. While Ayesha, a practicing Muslim who teaches the Holy Quran to the village children and ekes out a meager living, is looked upon as a threat to the society and country.
The film shows how power-holders, feudal and religious figures, display their power to create a social order where the poor and women are ‘disciplined’ to create a social order. The film also shows how ideology and nationalism, supported by the state, cuts across human relations through coercion and power. Saleem’s relations with his sweetheart and his own mother are transformed once he succumbs to the power of ideology and nationalism, which gives him an identity but robs him of human passion.
Khamosh Pani depicts a society, which is in the throes of transition. However, this transition does not change the power equation; rather, it solidifies the power of those who already wields them and subjects common people into further subjugation by giving them a new slogan. Religion. Those who already have a disproportionate share of resources, which ensures their power is well ensconced, don’t have to change themselves.
Only the common people have to re-align themselves to the new realities of life as power resides in the same old sources.
However, the film lacks some background information. The fundamentalist guys frequently refer to ‘Lahore,’ which is understandable for Pakistani audience. But for those who are not familiar with Pakistan, this can be an unanswered question and confusing too. The background is that Pakistan’s main fundamentalist party, the Jama’at-i-Islami, was the force behind rising extremism in Pakistan. Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship worked as a front for the spread of Jama’at-i-Islami’s ideology. It has its headquarters in Lahore. So when the young guys say ‘Lahore,’ they mean Jama’at-i-Islami’s headquarters in Mansoora, Lahore.
The movie makes a good depiction of how extremism and religious fanaticism made inroads into Pakistani society. The extremist forces look for people in the low socio-economic strata, who generally go through a crisis of identity in a feudal society. Being a tolerant and peaceful citizen makes them into non-entities and open to exploitation and coercion. By joining a puritanical and radical organization they get a voice and a recognition, which translates into power for them. By having a nuisance value, they become ‘somebody’ from nobody. This is how ideology, nationalism and hegemony work.
The author teaches journalism at the University of Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan. Currently, he is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of Communication. His dissertation research is focused on the discourse of militant organizations in Pakistan. Tweets @faizjan