August-September 2018 mark ten years since the release of Ramchand Pakistani. Based on actual events, the story depicted the lives of three members of a Pakistani-Hindu Dalit (untouchable) family. A seven-year old boy in a remote Tharparkar village accidentally crosses the Indian border. His father, Shankar, goes looking for him after which both become prisoners in an Indian jail. The child’s mother, Champa, is left behind with no news for several years, agonized at the two absences, uncertain about whether she has become a widow. The film’s production process led to unusually positive collaborations between individuals and states. The film’s theme explored aspects of the impersonality of inter-state matters, of a religious minority’s identity and the vulnerability of a poor Hindu woman, especially when made suddenly single.
Work commenced 2006. Twenty Pakistani individuals of wide professional diversity, residents in their home country and the USA, with virtually no previous association with the cinema sector - except for the producer’s wife and the producer (this writer) who were two of the twenty - invested varied sums to mobilize the required budget. Two major corporations and the Geo-Jang media group also became sponsors, promoters and distributors. These persons and organizations - whose names appear at the start of the film - enabled the concept to attain actuality.
To one’s pleasant surprise, ministries and authorities in Pakistan and India gave unstinted cooperation. From security clearances to temporary work visas, from enabling on-site research at sensitive locations such as jails to permitting uncensored candour onscreen to the Prime Minister of Pakistan (Yusuf Raza Gillani) and an Indian Central Minister (Anand Sharma) attending premiere shows in their respective countries, Ramchand Pakistani became an ideal example of how otherwise two politically-estranged states, and professionals from different countries and fields can work constructively together to help create a shared narrative.
To foster goodwill between the two countries rather than compound acrimony, four Indians, exceptionally gifted in their own right, were invited to join the talent from Pakistan. Nandita Das portrayed the child’s traumatized mother with extraordinary sensitivity. Debajyoti Mishra of Kolkata composed scintillating music and songs whose evocative lyrics were penned by Anwar Maqsood. Shubha Mudgal’s powerful voice joined Shafqat Amanat’s nuanced sound in memorable melodies. Aseem Sinha, the ace film editor, introduced to us by Shyam Benegal, helped hone and polish the final cut. The excellence contributed by the Pakistani dimension was represented by Sofian Khan, the young Pakistani-American cinematographer working on his first full-length film; Rashid Farooqi, ably playing the father’s role secured the Best Actor Prize while the film also gained the Best Pakistani Film Prize at the Lux National Film Awards for 2008. Several exceptional Pakistani actors featured included Noman Ejaz, Maria Wasti, Adnan Ahmed Tipu, Saleem Meraj, Adarsh Ayaz, Zhalay Sarhadi and others, with Sonia Rahman Qureshi as creative consultant. Two boys, Syed Fazal Hussain and Naveed Jabbar (no relation!) captured the title character at different ages with engaging charm.
Three American technicians joined the crew at different locations in Pakistan. Filming on a meticulously planned schedule, it was completed in five weeks. Post-production in New York, Mumbai and Karachi took longer - about twenty weeks. No compromises were made on technical standards.
The ‘Critics’ Oscar’
At the New Delhi Osean International Film Festival, July 2008, the film won the prestigious FIPRESCI Prize, also known as the ‘Critics’ Oscar’ from the International Federation of Film Critics. Four top international prizes followed in Switzerland, London and Sri Lanka. Ramchand Pakistani was screened at over 60 non-competitive and competitive festivals around the world; the Museum of Modern Art in New York honoured the film with a week’s screenings.
Shortly after the film’s theatrical release in five Indian provinces came the major terrorist incident in Mumbai in November. This abruptly ended the film’s further release in most other Indian provinces. Audiences’ reactions around the world typified viewers’ warm responses across different continents and cultures. The reviews that came in boosted spirits.
Other bold films
Since the time when Ramchand Pakistani was screened, some new entertainment films - a handful of appreciable quality - have scored box office bonanzas. A few like Bol, Moor, Cake, Saawan and Motorcycle Girl have boldly ventured into new arenas. But the disproportionately low number of screens - only about 108 screens at 33 multiplexes and only 40 single-screen halls with outmoded technologies - prevents financial feasibility for higher investment in an increased number of productions and categories of productions appropriate for Pakistan’s heterogeneity and large, pluralist society .
A new film policy
A new film policy must persuade the provinces to spur cinematic creativity in multiple genres (and not only in commercially-driven formula films), investment in more screens and productions, coherence in censor policies, connectivity with new global distribution technologies and networks like Netflix, etc.
Status of Pakistani Hindus
Ramchand Pakistani was as much about the forced separation of a small family as it was about peasant Hindu Dalit women. The latter are a vital part of the backbone of Sindh’s agriculture but in terms of health, nutrition, education and human rights, the unfairly-called ‘lower’ caste women are among the most disadvantaged citizens. They suffer discrimination even within their own religious community. Champa in Ramchand Pakistani demonstrated admirable grit and character.
In the 10 years since Ramchand Pakistani’s release, there have been symbolic as well as substantive advances for Pakistani Hindus. After Mr Justice Rana Bhagwandas became Acting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 2007, he went on to become Chairman of the Federal Public Service Commission in 2009. His career illustrated how thousands of Hindus are successfully active in numerous professions. Though infant and maternal mortality rates in Tharparkar remain distressing, there have been palpable improvements in health, education and physical infrastructure in the region over the past decade. For the first time, a Dalit Kohli caste woman from a Tharparkar village was elected in March 2018 on a woman’s reserved seat in the Senate; Senator Krishna Kohli, representing the PPP, will serve up to 2024. Also, for the first time, three Hindu candidates were directly elected on July 25, 2018, on general seats -- not reserved, indirectly elected seats. Each of these three Hindu candidates secured significantly more votes than their Muslim rival candidates, even in PS-Jamshoro where only 3000 Hindu voters are registered. The winner obtained 34,000 votes whereas the losing Muslim candidate got 29,400 votes. These victories represent fundamental, positive changes for the status of religious minorities.
The Sindh Early Child Marriages Prevention Act was notified in 2014. This law has a particular relevance for segments of the Hindu community in which, following ancient customs, both boys and girls are forced to become husbands and wives first and adults later. In 2018, the Sindh Hindu Marriages Amendment Act, 2018 gives divorced or widowed Hindu women the legal right to re-marry six months after the change in their marital status.
Yet, regrettably, on the macro-political level, the much-lauded 18th Constitutional Amendment of 2010 introduced a new discrimination against non-Muslims, including Hindus, by making it obligatory for the Prime Minister to be a Muslim. The Constitution already requires the President to be Muslim. The struggle will have to continue to ensure equality of all citizens -- without contradictions -- as promised by Article 25 of the Constitution i.e. "All citizens are equal before law."
Directed by Mehreen Jabbar (certainly related!) with a fine subtlety, with screenplay and Urdu dialogue elegantly crafted by Mohammad Ahmed while this writer drafted the original storyline and served as the film’s producer, Ramchand Pakistani retains a unique position. It remains the first cinema film exclusively devoted to the saga of a family from the first and original Pakistanis - those who have lived on this land for centuries before the birth of the state of Pakistan.
- In his voluntary work capacity, the writer is founding president of Baanhn Beli, established 1985, the pioneer grass-roots organization of Tharparkar where about half the population comprises Pakistani Hindus, mostly Dalits. He also wrote, produced and directed the widely-lauded Pakistan’s first English language cinema film, Beyond the Last Mountain (1976) and several prize-winning documentaries & advertising commercials. He can be reached at www.javedjabbar.com.