Here’s a question; how many female film directors can you name? I’m guessing about a dozen or so. Because the glass ceiling is still very much in place in Hollywood, most tend to work in the art house sector. Unfortunately opportunities for women film-makers outside of North America and Europe are even rarer. Sabiha Sumar has spent most of her career producing award-winning documentaries, and Silent Waters (Khamosh Pani) is her only foray into fiction. It examines the aftermath of the partition of India and Pakistan from a feminist perspective. While a lot of works have covered this area before, this is one of the first (as far as I’m aware), to specifically concentrate on how events impacted on women.
The film is set in 1979 in rural Pakistan. This was a tumultuous period in the young country’s history. The Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been deposed in a military coup by General Zia-ul-Haq a few years earlier (and later hung), and the new government began encouraging Islamic fundamentalism as a way of cementing their rule.
Ayesha is a widow living quietly with her son. The tranquil life of the community has largely been unaffected by political events until the arrival of two radicals from the city begins to cause disruption. They quickly gain influence amongst the town’s young men and Ayesha’s son Saleem is swept up in this. Tensions are further heightened by a religious pilgrimage of Sikhs from India. Many of them used to live in the area before partition and their visit starts a chain reaction with unforeseen consequences.
Silent Waters was filmed in early 2001 so its exploration of the spread of fundamentalist Islam in Pakistan couldn’t have been more topical. It succinctly argues that however well-intentioned it might be, religion is often used as an excuse for nationalistic conflict, and also for men to oppress women in the name of God. It also questions why fundamentalism might be so appealing to young people despite its obvious drawbacks.
The central theme though is how social pressure can lead people to do the most appalling things to preserve their so-called ‘honour’. In this sense small town Pakistan doesn’t seem any different from anywhere else on the planet in terms of how conformity can quickly erode toleration and neighbourhood bonds. I highly recommend that if you watch the film you should also read some of the academic histories of partition, and in particular those that focus on the experiences of women. At the risk of getting into standpoint epistemology, I think far too often female voices are marginalised when recounting historical events.
The film is beautifully shot and acted, and it’s gratifying that in this day and age people are still willing to support artistic works like this, despite the fact that they lack obvious commercial potential. Thankfully its quality was recognised and it won a variety of awards in Europe and elsewhere. Since making Silent Waters Sabiha Sumar has concentrated on documentaries examining political and social issues in Pakistan and India. Considering the success of her debut it’s a real shame she’s not directed more feature films, as movies thrive on people with different backgrounds and experiences being able to tell their stories. This film is a great example of this and definitely worth watching.