“God was a little late that day,” says Iqbal-ud-din Ahmed, before recounting how the terror of the Partition claimed the soul of his village (Ropar in East Punjab), as a bleak sense of terror hung in the air around charred houses and dreams doused forever.
Ahmed’s character is voiced by actor Salman Shahid in Child of Empire , the docu-drama directed by Delhi-based Sparsh Ahuja (24) and London-based Erfan Saadati (27), which premiered at the ongoing Sundance Film Festival.
In the 17-minute immersive animated virtual reality (VR) film, two men from the Partition generation — Ishar Das Arora (voiced by Adil Hussain), an Indian Hindu who migrated from Pakistan to India, and Ahmed, a Pakistani Muslim who made the opposite journey — share childhood memories of their experiences while playing a board game. And it goes straight for the jugular, sticking to the facts of the Partition itself.
“Our original plan was not to go the animated route,” says Ahuja. “But when Covid hit, we were left with no choice.” However, Ahuja and the team would realise that the animated format was a blessing in disguise: it was far better placed in mirroring the horrors of Partition.
The film was created by Project Dastaan — a peacebuilding initiative that reconnects individuals displaced during the 1947 Partition with their ancestral villages through VR — in association with Anzo films. “It is immersive, immediate, haunting, moving, and destabilising; one lives the days exactly as refugees in 1947 would have, fleeing, migrating, witnessing massacre and loss,” says oral historian and author Aanchal Malhotra ( Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition Through Material Memory ), one of the advisors on the project. “To be a listener of such stories is one thing, but Child of Empire may be the closest in imagining what millions of people experienced and survived.”
Another advisor, historian William Dalrymple, says that he was both “moved and astonished” by the power of the medium and the material itself. His son, Sam Dalrymple, is a co-producer.
The team at Project Dastaan had an ambitious target before them: to complete 75 interviews of the Partition survivors (across the UK, India and Pakistan in five languages) on the eve of India’s 75th year of independence. However, Covid-19 delays meant only 35 could be completed. “When we were sifting through the recordings, I was biased towards my own maternal grandfather’s experience,” says Ahuja.
In the documentary, the characters of Arora — based on the experiences of Ahuja’s maternal grandfather, Ishar Das Arora (who migrated from Bela, a village in West Punjab’s Attock Tehsil to Tilak Nagar, New Delhi) — and Ahmed — jointly based on the memories of the latter (who migrated from Ropar, East Punjab, to Lahore) and Jagdish Chandra Ahuja (Ahuja’s paternal grandfather who migrated from Dera Ghazi Khan in West Punjab to Tilak Nagar, New Delhi) — recount stories of crouching under the seat of a humid train as a mob lashes at it, with images showing candles turning into ransacked villages.
More than anything, both share how each was saved by a member of the other religion. For Ahuja, this was telling of a larger political shift in his own family. “My maternal grandfather was saved by a Muslim man but many in my family, who have now become fervent nationalists, had no idea that this was the case,” he says.
- Sifting through the many stories was challenging. Ahuja says that some interview subjects made up stories based on what they thought happened, even though there was no historical proof to back their stories. For instance, one woman claimed that Nathuram Godse taught her how to ride a bike! There were real stories too, more than the hearsay. Another survivor told the team that she had migrated from Lucknow to Karachi not because of safety or religious reasons, but because her lover was in Pakistan and she couldn’t bear to be in a different country. A spirited story came from a man who joined the Quit India Movement of the 1940s after he saw two British officers beat up an Indian man on the streets. He was later jailed in a Peshawar cell with Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as Frontier Gandhi.
Last year, Sparsh and the team at Project Dastaan had the rare opportunity of actually visiting Pakistan. And he managed to track down the family of the Muslim man who had saved his grandfather’s life. “This was in a small hamlet that goes by Bela,” he recounts. “The man had passed away a while back, but his family was overjoyed to see me.” He recorded the entire experience in a VR format for his grandfather to experience back home. “They wanted me to stay there for at least a week and even attend their cousin’s wedding. I collected some pebbles from the village to fashion them into wearable jewellery.”
But there was a surprising revelation at the heart of this experience: Ahuja would soon understand that this Pakistani family, much like his own, had sympathies for the extremists in their country — despite being happy for each other. “It’s strange and ironic how history plays out. In a different world, we would be a single unit.”
Throughtheeyesof a child
Nearly every frame of the docu-drama features a child — either crouching under a train seat, running away from a frantic mob, or simply sitting next to burning pyres. It appears that their presence is both a metaphor for the many children quite literally lost to us and a searing indictment of just how unfair it was that they were witnesses to our country’s blackest spot.
Ahuja believes that if we were to remove the two central narrators, Child of Empire would essentially parallel a single, tragic migration story. “It’s important to note that both the narrators are Punjabis,” he says. “They have internalised the political shifts of their time, which shows in the way they narrate their stories. When they recalled their experiences in the interviews, you could see the trauma in their eyes. It is that very experience that we want our viewers to come close to.”
The way Arora sees it, for the uninitiated viewer, Child of Empire provides just the right context to understand how multifaceted the Partition experience was. “The fact that both the characters have so much in common helps. We wanted the most moving and human stories to make it to the film from over two dozen interviews.”
Towards the end of the documentary, a soulful rendition of Subh-e-Azaadi — originally penned by the Pakistani revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, composed by Vasundhara Gupta, and sung by Amira Gill — beckons the viewer to contemplate the sheer human price of one of modern history’s largest and bloodiest forced migrations; and the price of freedom itself.
Child of Empire is currently screening on-demand at sundance.org, as part of the ‘New Frontier’ programming slate, which showcases works at the crossroads of film, art, and technology. This year, their ‘Spaceships’ programme allows viewers to experience the films by teleporting themselves to the festival using virtual avatars.