Neighboring countries India and Pakistan are, well, not great friends. It's not like a relationship where two neighboring homeowners have a fallout over a tree growing in the other person's yard and they are no longer on speaking terms-it's more like one homeowner clutching his shotgun
and daring the other to step one foot over the divide. But what if one of their sons had crossed inadvertently?
In "Ramchand Pakistani", one family paid devastating consequences. In this vividly colorful film directed by Mehreen Jabbar and written and produced by Javed Jabbar, her father, we are introduced to Ramchand, a young Pakistani boy who skips school and irritates just about all of the adults he comes in contact with. Ramchand is a troublemaker, but not in a dangerous way. He tries the patience of his eternally loving parents who deal with him simply as if it were a phase he would soon grow out of. But Ramchand would essentially never get the chance. During one of his defiant fits, he runs off by himself to pout and storm about, and without paying attention, crosses over the borderline that separates Pakistan and India. The line in the desert is a beautiful, desolate landscape marked by large white stones, a place that is absolutely quiet but feels incredibly dangerous to those unfamiliar. Ramchand's father sees his son wandering into India and runs off to fetch him, but not before the Indian border patrol captures them first. Based on a true story, the following series of events chronicles the father and son's life in prison, and the courageous mother who did everything she could to free them.
Photo credit: Tribecafilmfest.org
In reality, Ramchand and his father spent many years in an Indian prison. According to the film (and later, the filmmakers themselves), the Indian government made the humanitarian decision not to treat the two prisoners as cruel as the other enemies of the state. Ramchand's father of course endured his brutal rounds of beatings, but I got the feeling that once they had determined that their captives were not spies, they were content enough to let them rot in prison. They permitted Ramchand to stay with his father, and over time they became close to some of the prisoners and officers they were forced to live with. On the outside, Ramchand's mother (played by the gorgeous Indian actress Nandita Das) vowed to stay at her village until her husband and son returned. When money ran scarce and the other villagers were forced to pack up and work on farm some distance away, she stayed pat until she absolutely had to leave, a point in the story where things became a bit curious.
Ramchand is afforded certain liberties that other prisoners are not. He is commissioned a teacher to educate him, though she refuses to touch him because he is a Hindu, he soon develops adolescent designs on her. Back home, a local Muslim merchant falls in love with Ramchand's unsuspecting mother by going out of his way to do favors for her. There's also a resident pervert in the prison called The Professor who continually tries to lure Ramchand into dark corners by promising him biscuits.
It's the politics that backdrop the story that turn out to be the film's most intriguing points. Things like how Pakistan and India keep some fragile level of peace by swapping prisoners in exchanges, and there is one point in the middle of the film when Ramchand and his father are released from prison and go out high-fiving only to find out that there has been an administrative error. There's also a situation in which Ramchand's mother must decide if she is going to work off her husband's loan for three to five years-an assignment that basically provides shelter and food and nothing else.
On one hand it's very surprising to see a film made as generously polite as it was-in the hands of a Hollywood studio there would've been far more carnage and objectification-but as a Pakistani film made by Pakistanis I'm more astonished at how fair all sides are depicted: the Indian corrections officers for instance, aren't bad guys, they're just officers at a prison because that's their job. On the other hand, tensions run a bit light after the initial capture, and I never get the feeling that Ramchand fully understood the situation he was in. Maybe in real life, that was case. But the film overall delivers a strong message of love and humanitarianism that's enriched by the beautiful images we see on screen. The homeowners should take time out and watch this together.
My Grade: B
Running time: 105 minutes
Starring: Nandita Das, Rashid Farooqi, Syed Fazal Husssain
Written by Javed Jabbar
Directed by Mehreen Jabbar