Indian, Pakistani: Why Two Women Felt Compelled To Make This Partition Documentary

Posted: March 13, 2018

Two friends, an Indian and a Pakistani-American, decide to make a Partition documentary. Why? Here’s the moving story behind A Thin Wall.

I cannot remember when I first heard my grandmother’s story about her journey across the border. I don’t remember because she began telling me the story before I was old enough to understand it. She told me how she had been playing with her friends without a care in the world when she was suddenly told to join her family as they left their village in Dera Ghazi Khan (in Multan of present day Pakistan). At the time, she didn’t understand much of what was going on around her, and she had no idea about what lay ahead.

The one visual from her story which affected me most, as a child, was of the dead bodies she saw floating in the lake at Karnal (now in Haryana) once she had crossed over to the Indian side. Karnal was a place I knew well. It was a small town where we would stop for breakfast on the way to our yearly summer holidays in the hills. It was this one detail that made her story real to me. I imagined the place, which to us was a mere pit stop, as a camp for refugees where a 12-year-old girl once witnessed a horrific sight that she never forgot.

As I grew older, I began asking her about her village in Multan. She spoke with much affection about her time there. People on the other side had once been her own. There was an emotional cord connecting her to the land of her birth. Familial logic made me feel the same way. It was her memories and the way she recounted them, which, for the first time, made me feel the tug of my roots that lay on the other side.

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Mara Ahmed and I met in the Fall of 2007 when I was a fresh-off-the-boat graduate student in upstate New York. Mara was a local, living with her husband and two children near the city of Rochester, which I was to call home for the next three years. I was there with a single-minded determination, to become a documentary filmmaker. At the time, Mara had been working on her first documentary film about Muslims in America, and in the process, was taking some classes at my university. We found out about each other through students and professors who knew us both.

I had made many new friends in my university at the time. They were all from different corners of the world. The English language was a great equalizer, helping us all connect and find common ground. With Mara, who was Pakistani, the affinity was instant. I already shared another language with her – a language that brought with it a shared culture and history.

Mara Ahmed

Even though Mara and I knew about each other’s interest in the partition of India right away, our conversations in the early days centered around religion and religious fundamentalism. I had grown up with a deep sense of faith, and felt strongly about its appropriation by fear-mongering fundamentalists who came to the forefront in the early 1990s. A couple of months before I moved to New York, I had visited Ayodhya and had made a short documentary film around the conversations I had had with the locals regarding the Babri Masjid demolition. Mara’s engagement with documentary films also grew from a very personal interest. Her first film came up as her response to how life had changed for her family and community in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Mara showed a keen commitment to initiating a dialogue and searching for peaceful resolutions to highly complex issues.

The ease of interaction and exchange of ideas between Mara and me, be it on nationalism, fundamentalism, borders or religion, created a solid foundation of trust and understanding between us. Partition stories were very close to our hearts, with both of us having grown up with them. We both had always felt the need to document these personal narratives, even if it were for a personal family archive. Doing it collectively was an exciting thought that we decided to explore together.

Our first step was to share what we knew already. Comparing our impressions of life before partition, we realized that the stories we knew had many parallels between them. Our families had been well-to-do before 1947, and therefore had the means for a safe escape when all hell broke loose. In addition to that, luck had played a huge role – not only in our families being able to survive but also in how successfully they had rebuit their lives from scratch in their new homes. The fact that both of us, descendants of families affected by the partition, were living comfortably in the US was a testament to their resilience.

Surbhi Dewan

During one of these discussions, we realized how differently we perceived the event at hand. For my grandparents’ generation, the partition of India was a painful event, overshadowing the joy of independence from the colonial powers. Their hopes and dreams of freedom had come crashing down with all the bloodshed and the loss of lives and homes. Mara’s mother’s account was in stark contrast. The partition had led to the creation of a new state for Muslims who had felt disenfranchised by both, the British, and the Hindu leadership of the Indian National Congress. The losses of the partition were a sacrifice, to be taken in their stride, for a country of their own. These disparities in the narrative only made us more determined to weave our stories together.

In the summer of 2008, I shot the first set of interviews for our film in Delhi. Soon after I returned to Rochester, serial bombings shook New Delhi (13th & 27th September, 2008). When one lives away from home, the life one leaves behind can often seem more pleasant than it actually is, and when disaster strikes, the chaos can just as easily become magnified from a distance. The rising anti-Pakistan hysteria, which I had managed to dismiss all those years living in India, sounded louder when I was in the US. Even though the Mumbai attack of 2008 would later grab global attention, the serial bombings that took place a couple of months before, were barely covered by the international media. The maniacal news commentary, which I would mute back at home, was now my only means of knowing what was happening. It was around this time that doubts were raised about our film project – “Will this be safe?”

No matter how similar we were, or how well we understood each other and how close our friendship was, the world would see us, first and foremost, through the lens of our nationalities – and how our nationalities had always been, and still were, at loggerheads with each other. But that is why it was important for us to be heard – an Indian and a Pakistani living a different reality, choosing to remember a time before the two nations were born, and to imagine a new narrative for the future. Our voice, no matter how feeble in comparison to the jingoistic media frenzy, had the right to be heard. So we trudged along – thinking, talking, listening, shooting, writing and sharing. In 2011, I moved back to New Delhi but our journey continued.

Over the years, many others came along with us on this journey. We were joined by exceptionally talented individuals from across the world who believed in our vision for the film, and wanted to contribute their art and their stories. In 2014, we decided to open up our project to crowdfunding and were able to raise over 12,000 USD within six weeks. Now, we had many more supporters who believed in the film and couldn’t wait to watch it.

Seven years after the seed of the idea was sown, the film was finally completed. Now, after two years of numerous screenings around the world, at film festivals, cultural spaces and universities in the US, UK, Europe and Australia, A Thin Wall has finally arrived in India. With only a few screenings behind us, and many more planned across cities over the next few months, the journey feels like it has just begun.

The film has taken on a new life now that it is out in the world. People have responded to it with emotion and reason, and many have been moved to tears as they connect to certain characters in the film. For some, it is a cathartic experience, having held back the same stories inside them for 70 years. Amongst younger audiences, I have been told that they never realized the implications of the partition, or in some cases, the value of their grandparents’ stories of the partition, until they watched the film. To me, this makes all our efforts worth the while.

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Looking back, I fondly remember the time I spent with Mara in Rochester. She had invited me over for lunch one afternoon when her mother was visiting from Lahore. I still remember feeling absolutely charmed by both of them as they prepared the meal together while standing in the kitchen and singing old Bollywood film songs. They were singing a K.L. Saigal song while trying to imitate his nasal voice. The kitchen had filled up with their laughter, and I had felt like I was home.

My friendship with Mara continues to grow despite the fact that we have not seen each other since 2011. I feel that I have lived through a very unique experience with her, and no matter what happens, we will always have that. My hope is that one day soon, both of us can travel to Pakistan and she can visit India, to present our film together. Nothing happens unless you dream it first.

A Thin Wall is a documentary about memory, history and the possibility of reconciliation. It focuses on the Partition of India in 1947, but derives lessons that remain urgently relevant today. Shot on both sides of the border, in India and Pakistan, A Thin Wall is a personal take on Partition rooted in stories passed down from one generation to another. It is written and directed by Mara Ahmed and co-produced by Surbhi Dewan. Both filmmakers are descendants of families torn apart by Partition. The film is also a work of art infused with original animation, music and literary writing.

To know about our upcoming screenings, follow us at www.facebook.com/AThinWall

To organize a screening in your city, write to me at d.surbhi@gmail.com

Top image is a still from the movie. All images courtesy the author

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Surbhi Dewan is an independent filmmaker. Her films connect personal portraits to larger socio-political

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