Movie Review: Partition

Pakistan and India split apart at midnight on August 15, 1947.

One of the last acts of the British Raj before they decamped for England was to partition the country with Sikhs and Hindus given India and Muslims a new country, Pakistan, on the northern border.

Over a million people died in sectarian violence during the transition and the whole sorry chapter remains today as the Empire’s parting gift to the world.

Vic Saren’s ‘Partition’ is the intimate story of two people set against this turbulent time. 

This Canadian production was shot in India and British Columbia.

The leads are all Canadian. Neve Campbell (‘Scream’ ‘The Company’) is Margaret Sitwell a sympathetic British woman who stayed in India when her countrymen left.

Jimi Mistry (‘Blood Diamond’ ‘The Guru’) plays Gian Singh, a taciturn and burnt out Sikh soldier who fought with the British and returns to his farm and Kristin Kreuk (Clark Kent’s girlfriend Lana Lang in TV’s Smallville) is Naseem, a young Muslim whose life becomes intertwined with the others.

Sarin’s voluptuous and ever-moving Indian tapestry is the best thing in the movie. Sarin is a long-time Canadian director of photography (he also shot the film and wrote the story) who, in recent years, has turned with some distinction, to feature and made-for-television directing.

He was born in India and he has an obvious love for its visual splendor. There is no sky that does not glow, no river that doesn’t reflect back luminous pictures. He also captures the vibrant life of the sub-continent as vast rivers of people move within his frame. 

Sarin opens a door to a vivid and dynamic world seldom seen in movies in the west.

After some well-shot and bloody war footage, things quiet down as Singh returns to his farm in the Punjab as much to relocate his soul as to plant his crop. ‘The Partition’ is in full swing and a bedraggled group of Muslim refugees are set upon by local hotheads and massacred.  Later a train stops at the local station.  Everyone on board has been slaughtered by Muslim extremists.

Saren is not interested in laying blame on one side or the other – spreading it evenhandedly.

Singh will have none of it but finds the traumatized 17-year-old Naseem hiding in the woods after the massacre. He takes her in – much to the horror of his neighbors. He kindly looks after her until nature takes its course and the two marry and have a child.

Meanwhile, she is trying to find what became of her family. With the help of the Memsahib Sitwell, they are located in Pakistan. Naseem goes to them but is held prisoner by her fanatical brothers.

So, Singh (and for reasons that don’t make sense – except for cinematic convenience) takes his young son, sneaks across the border, and goes looking for her.

From here the film moves inexorably toward its Romeo and Juliet climax. 

Saren has not made a particularly complex picture, taking his time, marinating us in Indian culture, occasionally slipping over into Bollywood style melodrama. 

Campbell is OK as the Memsahib who seemingly has the hots for the farmer herself but nonetheless helps the lovers out. Kurek, who comes from Vancouver, is a revelation as Naseem. She not only captures the accent and authentic feel of a daughter of India but, of the three leads, is the only one to find a spirited inner life.

Jimi Mistery has enjoyed a busy career as a film comedian. He’s a handsome fellow – in fact, too good looking. He comes off as an action figure from one of those old MGM sword-and-sandal epics. His beard is kempt, his clothes look like they just came off the rack in the local market. His nails are clipped. His brow is not flecked with sweat. He certainly does not look like a man who spends his time walking behind oxen while plowing his fields by hand.

He is also an inexpressive actor. Sarin lingers on his handsome face as if there is something going on in those passive brown eyes. Mistrey seems to have two default emotions – a sensitive pained look and a squished brow that signals inner turmoil.

Or maybe constipation. 

The supporting cast, made of practiced Indian actors, are all superlative and look right at home.

‘Partition’ is a film worth seeing. It tells a story about the evils of racial and religious intolerance and humanizes it by showing how it can destroy the innocent. 

And it gives us a glowing panorama of India in all its eye-filling splendor.

Opens in Canada February 2, 2007