PolEcReMo. My Take

Movie Review: Khamosh Pani (2003)

Posted in Movies, Religion by Ali Athar on July 18, 2008

I pray too, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think.

Zubeida’s disappointment with her ex-lover Saleem described the essence of the film Khamosh Pani, or Silent Waters. The unending struggle between literalist interpretation of religion and a more moderate approach to it has been captured beautifully in the 1979 Charkhi village in the province of Punjab. The year also marked the advent of the Zia’s Islamic value system imposed on the country, which we saw being implicated in the small dusty Punjabi village. We see the simple lifestyle of the villagers being transformed by the politically-oriented city boys of Lahore.

Certainly, Lahori influence on the Charkhi village is not unprecedented. Islamic history is replete with such examples where the conservative literalists that advocated imitation of the Islamic jurisprudence clashed with the liberal reformers who supported broadening of the sources of understanding by reconciling Western philosophies with their Islamic counterparts. Where the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma’mun’s reign of religious and cultural open-mindedness catapulted Islamic arts and sciences and ushered the Islamic Golden Age, the later Abbasid Al-Qadir’s outlawing of Mu’tazili school effectively ended the philosophy in Islamic thought. The great philosopher Ibn-Sina’s (Avicenna) reconciling of Western thought with Islamic overtone was later challenged by Al-Ghazali (Algazel) who rejected Hellenic philosophy as mere heresy. Moorish Spain saw similar trends as Abd-ar-Rahman III’s reign featured freedom of religion, but the later invasions of the conservative Almohad Berbers saw Jew and Christians being persecuted and expelled from Iberian peninsula. Khamosh Pani portrays this classical scuffle in a Punjabi flavor in the modern post-partition era where Charkhi’s way of live is under siege.

Khamosh Pani, directed by Sabiha Sumer, a filmmaker of Pakistani descent, is a story of middle-aged woman named Ayesha who lives with her son Saleem in the village in central Punjab. After her husband’s death, she is left with her only son, who in turn is in love with the local girl, Zubeida. All is well until two religio-political students enter the village. With their sugar-coated message of spiritual rejuvenation, these two set in motion the process of religious partisanship based on their rigid interpretation of piousness. Later, these devouts storm the Sikh yatrees, who came to the village for their annual pilgrimage

One can easily denounce the methods of those two boys as self-serving and agenda-oriented, but seeing the locals turning into marauding machines (in one part, we see the local villagers armed with bamboo sticks charging through the market to threaten the Sikh pilgrims) can terrify just about anybody. May be this could help explain Veero’s loss of hope for his son towards the end of the movie as he too has crossed the Rubicon and she does the unthinkable.

The film is wedded with so many explicit and implicit incidents, that to interpret them in a single article is not possible. The local barber’s outburst at the mullah that “Do I need a kid like you to tell me what Allah has or hasn’t decreed,” the mullah’s raising of girl school’s walls so that “they could be confined to their homes, ” and the mullah’s rendering of VCR as “an American machine” speak volume of narrow-mindedness of the religio-political inclined mullah.

The film ends on an interesting, but cynical note. We see two advertisements; one says “crescent” and the other “liberty.” The former being the part of the national flag of Pakistan and its Islamic character and the latter being its true intention behind its founding. But, this idealism was crushed early on at the hands of inept rulers paving the way for more organized clergy to step in. Now, these two adverts could very well be the classical dichotomy undermining the existence of the country.


Movie Review: The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Posted in Movies by Ali Athar on April 9, 2008

It’s difficult to start a revolution, even more difficult to sustain one, and still more difficult to win one.

These were the words that defined the epic struggle of Algeria against the French occupation; captured meticulously on celluloid by Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo in his docudrama The Battle of Algiers. This 1966 black-and-white narrative was shot around the neighborhood of Casbah, in downtown Algiers, couple of years after Algeria gained independence from France in 1962. The gruesome recreation of French persecution of the Algerian populace to sustain control appalled the world and the film stayed banned in France for many years.

Many watchers will perceive Algiers’ vintage documentary style and finely crafted battle scenes to be actual war footage. In fact the realism of its skirmish settings became synonymous with guerrilla tactics of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The kidnapping and torture occurrences of Argentinean Dirty Wars were highly reminiscent of Colonel Mathieu’s methods of information extraction. Parallels were even drawn with the conduct of insurgents in the current Iraq War with FLN, the Algerian revolutionary group that fought the French. There was an official State Department screening of the film in 2004 to educate policymakers and intelligence officials about the urban warfare and stakes involved in it.

Based on the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, one of the military commanders of FLN or National Liberation Front, Battle of Algiers portrayed the resentment of the masses against the French colonialists that grew each day. The plot revolved around Ali La Pointe, an uneducated and unemployed youth, who became the symbol of revolution. His struggle inspired three women who stopped at nothing to emancipate Maghreb from the scourge of the west. Even the general public shared the mood of resistance, as women performed the traditional “ululation” after each tactical or moral victory against the invaders.

“Should France remain in Algeria? If your answer is ‘yes,’ then you must accept all the consequences.” This was the question Col. Mathieu asked the French people: Either we could glorify our colonial possessions or vindicate ourselves by ‘doing unto others (Algeria, et al) as we would have them (read Nazi Germany) do onto us.’ Sadly, the French chose the former and unleashed terror to tame dissent. Thus began the tit-for-tat; one force would launch attack on the other, which provoked revenge of greater intensity. But, the causalities of the deadly game were civilians: French and Algerian alike. State terror proved fatal and the French won the battle, but not the war. The seeds of discontentment were sowed, which eventually led to the expulsion of the French in 1962. Hail to FLN!

Alas, the euphoria didn’t last long. Three decades of FLN rule harbored corruption and obstructed democratic progress, which brewed antipathy towards the government. Casbah, the site of anti-colonialist forces now became the site of anti-establishment activities. However, this time the movement didn’t materialize in another form of Marxist-socialist revolutionary, but a religio-political entity called Islamic Salvation Front or FIS. Such was the popularity of the party that it won the 1992 general elections, but was denied to form a government by the military-FLN nexus. Thus, FIS resorted to guerrilla warfare; a period we now call the Algerian Civil War.

Gillo Pontecorvo visited Algeria in 1992 after three decades, and to his dismay the public vented anger on him for the European states indifference for Algerian military government’s suppression of political freedom and west’s mocking of the religion Islam. He had to clarify that he was a friend of Algeria and the director of one of the most important films about Algerian War of Independence; they say only an Italian could have made.