Punjab 1984: A Pain Retold

Punjab 1984 is a compelling celluloid account of Operation Bluestar and its aftermath in terms of the anti Sikh riots. The movie is hardhitting, realistic and yes, violently graphic in many scenes.

The opening shot is that of scared people huddled inside a closed room, a child crying ceaselessly and a mother piteously asking someone to go and fetch water for him. All the men in the room sit silent. Finally, she gets up to go herself, at which point an elderly Sikh gentleman takes the glass from her. The next thing we know is he has been shot dead right beside the holy lake of Darbar Saheb. And thus begins a tale of terror and tears, skillfully woven through which is the abiding love between a mother and her son.

Satwant Kaur (Kirron Kher) dearly loves her only child Shivjit Singh Mann (Diljit Singh Dosanjh) a hotheaded yet ethical young sardar, whose father is killed unfairly during Operation Bluestar. Trying to save the family farm from being usurped by a greedy neighbour, he is falsely accused and imprisoned by corrupt police sub inspector Rana (Pawan Malhotra.) Eventually he escapes and joins the pro Khalistan movement in order to get justice, but not a new breakaway country; as he puts it, “We didn’t come here to be God, we came to fight for our rights” (translated) or “They should know what happens when a farmer leaves his plough and picks up a gun” (translated.) Power corrupts – and absolute power corrupts absolutely; the scene where we see a benign, grandfatherly sardar outline his greedy political schemes conveys the truth of this adage fittingly. Shivi’s heartbroken old mother is beaten by Rana and led to presume her son is dead, until hope is revived and she learns he is still alive. In the most telling, poignant climax, Shivi returns home after killing Rana; just before he can enter his home, he is shot dead by the new husband – also a police officer – of the girl whom he loved and dies in his mother’s arms.

A film has not gripped me so and had me break out into goosebumps since Passion of the Christ. Punjab 1984 is almost three hours long and yet, even the interval felt like an intrusion. One moment you are laughing aloud at the thet Punjabi banter, especially as Satwant Kaur goes, “oye bandhe da putt ban,” and the next, you forget to wipe your wet eyes as you sit chilled at the thought of how much hurt one human being can inflict on another. Punjab 1984 is not only about the riots…it is about the pain, the helplessness, the rage, the impotency one suffers as one is dragged through a mess not of one’s own making. Sikh turns against Sikh, Sikh turns against Hindu; these real-life incidents were nothing but a replay of Hindu turning against Muslim and vice versa during Partition. As one of the dialogues goes: “1984 is not an outcome of any religion, but of politics” (translated.) It is the politicians and religious leaders who have ever had the say in dividing people and make you forget who was once your kith, once your kin, to quote: “I knew I had to die one day, but that I will die at the hands of my own I didn’t know (translated.)

It is praiseworthy to note that consistency is maintained throughout; nowhere does this come out more strongly than in the scene where Shivi’s girlfriend (Sonam Bajwa) is left alone in the shop to choose her wedding dress. The lovers go away for a quiet talk where he tells her to go ahead with the wedding as he has nothing to offer her and, in the next scene, we see her aunt returning to the shop to find her sitting there docilely with tears in her eyes.

Punjab….the whole pind atmosphere, the kheti, the manjiyaan, the chula, the mud-baked floor, the cattle in the main compound…oh, it is all so vivid, so nostalgic and so beautifully portrayed. Cinematographer Anshul Chobey must be commended for such a realistic job. Indeed, the whole casting is superb and there is nary a flaw. In spite of the length of the movie, the editing remains taut and brisk; Manish More, a job well done. Music by Nick and Gurmeet Singh is apt; no jarring notes here, although some songs were redundant. Dosanjh has given the playback for the movie; “Swaah bnke” is a particularly mellifluous number.  The story is by Sumeet Maavi (credited with dialogues as well) and Anurag Singh and is, as evident from the review, a tale well told. Anurag Singh deserves to be unreservedly praised for directing this delicate subject with so much of perception – take a bow, sir.

Kirron Kher and Diljit Singh Dosanjh deliver impeccable performances and match each other scene for scene, nuance for nuance; it is almost like a choreography to watch them effortlessly lob the cue between them. Outstanding. Pavan Malhotra, looking trim and fit, brings out villainous dark shades to perfection; his habit of running his hands through his hair in agitation was a bit overdone, though.

If I were to play Devil’s advocate, I would perhaps cite the brutal violence as being too graphic, however, in defense of this point, it must be said that the movie aims at being hardhitting and telling it as it is. It can also be argued that this is only one perspective; sure, but that perspective has been examined in minute aspect and presented with very little cinematic license. In fact, at the end, during the rolling credits, various images of real-life people flash on the screen, each one holding the photo of a dead or still-missing son, brother, husband, father. Punjab 1984 is sensitive – not romanticised. It is a tale about human beings, not puppet figures. It is a must-watch for every Punjabi, every Sikh – nay, every Indian – to learn from and be ashamed of, the horrors that man perpetuated on man in the not-so distant past.

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