'Sindhustan' and the transmission of trauma

Empty metaphors make Sapna Moti Bhavnani’s directorial debut, a personal documentary on postmemory of Partition, a curious but hollow watch

May 11, 2020 09:29 pm | Updated May 12, 2020 03:46 pm IST

Past continuous: What’s most appealing about the film, is the inclusion of women’s voices

Past continuous: What’s most appealing about the film, is the inclusion of women’s voices

At the start of Sindhustan , the documentary quotes Nisid Hajari’s Midnight's Furies , comparing the barbarity of the Partition to the Holocaust. Yet we, as a nation of storytellers, historians and filmmakers, have often struggled to spotlight and chronicle the trauma of Partition, especially in the mainstream, in comparison to Germany’s Erinnerungskultur (culture of remembrance). India’s first Partition museum was, after all, opened only three years ago. The onus, therefore, shifts heavily on personal stories, as artists ask themselves what their parents and grandparents were doing when India was violently divided. Sapna Moti Bhavnani’s directorial debut, Sindhustan establishes its narrative on similar lines of familial introspection, to tell a larger story of the loss, negotiation and re-establishment of land, identity, civilisation and culture.

“The best way, I thought, to tell a story is to become the story,” says Bhavnani, the narrator of the documentary, as she ruminates over her Sindhi identity, an aspect of her life she barely paid attention to before she turned 36. She uses an intriguing motif of using her tattoos as a tool of storytelling while paralleling chronicling the narrative in cinema. The concept has an element of novelty and there’s an attempt to revitalise a templated documentary format. But the outcome appears to be self-indulgent and distracting, and the half-baked visual metaphors (caves, fire, etc) are either hollow or laden with signs and symbols that are unable to communicate its intent. The film is torn between a narrative (which is poignant and delightful) and obscure metaphors which don’t serve a purpose.

As commendable as Bhavnani’s choice is, to break free from a traditional documentary format, the film falls in other, perhaps familiar, traps of unnecessary visual abstraction, which make the film so personal, that it ceases to have any universality to it, and becomes an artistic home video. There’s also something innately uncomfortable about the privilege of tattoos being contrasted against starkly opposite, working-class areas like Dhobi Ghat; and the juxtaposition of plush homes against impoverished Indian reality.

What’s most appealing about the film, is the inclusion of women’s voices. The sound and look of old age are endearing and melancholic, as the women reminisce about Sindh and recall the calluses of Partition. There is a deliberate attempt to draft histories through female voices, who are often relegated to the sidelines. As the women revisit their childhoods and youth, the film deals with postmemory, which professor Marianne Hirsch describes as “the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before — to experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviours among which they grew up”. Bhavnani — who confesses to having explored her Sindhi identity only much later in her life — grew up with these images, stories and behaviours, involuntarily. As she begins to understand her Sindhi origins, the documentary explores the trauma of a distant historical event that lingers on in the new generation, who have no direct experience of the past. Despite its narrative hollowness and discombobulating aesthetic choices, the film brings forth a pertinent idea — that trauma and memory do not die with a generation.

Sindhustan is currently streaming on MovieSaints (India and other parts of the world) and Amazon Prime (North America)

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