Gurvinder Singh’s great gift to Punjabi Cinema Part I

Waryam Singh Sandhu is a foremost Punjabi short story writer. These are his views on the film ‘Anhey Ghorey da Daan’. The author’s picture is by Gurvinder Singh.

by Waryam Singh Sandhu

A film based on Gurdial Singh’s novel ‘Alms for the Blind Horse’ (‘Anhey Ghorey da daan)’ is in the news. It has won a number of national and international awards. For the first time, Punjabi cinema has earned such honours. It has also won the national award for direction and cinematography. The film has come first among all languages in the national awards, and at the Abu Dhabi national awards, it has bagged the $50,000 award for direction and cinematography.

Recently, the film was shown at on the last day of the PIFF film festival at Rose Theatre in Brampton, near Toronto, Canada.

There is a big crowd at the theatre. I am told that the crowds were not so big for any of the previously shown films at the festival. When I enter the hall, the film has just started. The film is moving very slowly.There are no fast-changing scenes that rush through the film. The story is about the dalit community. In their everyday lives, there is nothing that is very dramatic that happens. So how could it happen in the story? Like the stagnant and stopped lives of those people, the story in the film too seems to move hesitantly.

In the row behind me, I can hear some folks from Toronto’s (Punjabi) press- some of them are associated with progressive organizations, talking in hushed voices. They don`t seem to find the story tying up. Slowly, there is a note of irritation that emerges from their murmurs. One of them sarcastically comments on a scene, ‘Now, now, this is all we needed!’ His colleagues laugh to express their agreement. I think to myself that they should not rush with their comments. After all, film critics and judges at many international and national film festivals have given awards and honours to this film! There must be something in this film.

In the beginning, I could not grasp the story either. The film starts with an old man of a dalit family asking his wife to make tea for him. At that point, the village guard comes to invite Dharma to attend a village panchayat meeting to address the issue of the demolition of Dharma’s neighbour’s house. Like others, I too wonder how the story that begins with the demolition of a person’s house reaches its logical culmination. Soon it became clear that this is not the story of one dalit family whose house has been demolished, but the story of all dalit families whose houses are demolished daily. The distress of the entire dalit community has been attempted to be presented in the form of a collage.

The film ends while moving at this slow pace. In the last scene, the daughter of this family, fatigued and tired, comes out into the alleys holding a flashlight. At this time, her brother Melu, who lives in the town, but who too is tired and fatigued from that life, returns to the house in the village and meets her in the alley. The audience claps to announce the conclusion of the film.

The film’s director Gurvinder Singh comes on the stage. Till now, he has shown the film only to intelligent international audiences associated with films. It is the first time that speakers of his native language have seen the film. He is probably optimistic of receiving praise. He asks innocently, “Please tell me, what did you find wrong with the film?” Three or four hands go up. The first one asks, “What have you tried to show in this film?” The second one says, “I and my wife sitting next to me have not understood the film at all.” Gurvinder looks crestfallen. How does he now explain the gist of the film? He tries to describe the story of the film in brief, “This is a different kind of film. Open-ended. I have not tried to explain anything in the film. You have to understand it yourself. You have to search for the meaning of the film yourself. I have made the film.”

I again start thinking about the last scene in the film.

The film that I could not understand till now suddenly becomes clear. The apparently broken and scattered threads of the narration seem to be coming together in my hands. I feel that injustice is being meted out to Gurvinder. No; the artistic sensibilities of us Punjabis is being mocked at. We are ourselves making a joke of ourselves. Even before fathoming the depths of art, our minds surrender. We do not feel the need to raise ourselves to art, instead we want to cut the height of creativity so that it matches ours. If that doesn’t happen, then we exclaim, “Leave this aside! Why should we waste our time on this!”

I want that I should speak up against this injustice. I raise my hand. But before I can speak, another person starts speaking, “You have made a wonderful film. Even Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was not understood by anyone. But Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Those that understand, they know what he is. As this film is understood slowly, its value will be appreciated.”

The audience that has heard the questions raised by the initial critics has made the silent audience inquisitive. They don’t seem to convincingly agree with those critics. That is why, when the film was praised, they welcome it by clapping. I had needlessly become critical of the perceived lack of appreciation of Punjabis. It seems that there are people in the hall that admire the film.

Now it is my turn. I stand up and raise my voice so that my voice can be heard in the entire hall.

“Friends! The kind of films we are used to watch a have linear storylines and are a special type of entertainment films, this one is really different from those. This is neither about those characters nor about their life. Neither was it the intent of the director to make a film like those. To learn about this film, to understand this film, one has to first step into the shoes of the class of folks that have been portrayed in it. It seems that it is not easy for those who live comfortable lives in Canada, to relate to the lives of those whose that are hell and full of injustice. For a moment, try to think like those people. Identify with their pain, and then see the story. Try to think how you would feel if this was your story. You will understand everything if you put yourselves in their place.”

The audience probably agrees with me. The hall resounds with their clapping.

“To those friends who say that they haven’t understood the film, I would like to submit that the meaning of the film lies in the last scene of the film. Melu, the rickshaw driver had run away from the village to the town to find relief, but he could not breathe easy there either. He was living there in a death- like existence. Disappointed with life in the city, he returns to the village, where in the middle of the night, he finds his sister roaming in the alleys. The brother who has just returned from the city asks her the reason for being out at that time of the night. She tells him that she felt suffocated inside the house, she felt restless. Evidently, life in the village too is full of insults and disgrace. For this class of people, where is the place where they can breathe easy? They find solace neither in the village, nor in the city. Where do they go? It is midnight, the flashlight is dim, and the moon is under an eclipse. The alley is dark. This film is about the stationary lives of these folks who walk in dark alleys. It can be seen and understood only in this manner.”

The audience claps as if to say,” Now we understand it.” There is a smile on Gurvinder’s face too. He comments,” Only a writer can understand and narrate it thus.”

Now he has dug in his heels. From the other corner of the hall, an ultra revolutionary person states, “You have not explained in the film, which classes are responsible for this oppression.” He replies,”The village sarpanch is representative of the elected upper classes.” The other person is, however, not convinced. “No, you should have shown the uppermost echelons (of power responsible for the conditions shown in the film).” “I have not written an essay, I have made a film.” He is right.

Continue to Part II

Translated from the original in Punjabi by Bhupinder Singh.

7 thoughts on “Gurvinder Singh’s great gift to Punjabi Cinema Part I

  1. Thanks for sharing Bhupinder. I have not seen the movie as yet but have heard a lot of good things about it.

    My view is that people do understand art in whatever shape and form. But we can’t expect everyone to understand art. And I think it has nothing to do with level of Education or culture. Most of so called educated people do pretend to understand art better but that is not the case.

    People understand these kind of stories in their daily life. I think they are just baffled a little because file to them represents entertainment. The more Punjabis make and see these kind of films the more will they take cinema as a mode of expression rather than just a piece of entertainment. Seems like this movie is a great step forward in that direction.

    1. You are right, Amandeep. Making such films in any language is a rarity, more so in Punjabi because nothing like this has been attempted before. Among Indian languages, only select languages like Bengali and Malayalam have audiences that have substantial number of people interested in this kind of films. For most Punjabi speakers, this is something like a jolt.

  2. Gursharan Singh’s critics often confined him to the spheres of to theatre, Punjab and progressive politics. During his life, however, he often worked outside the boundaries of these areas. He was a publisher who introduced young writers through Balraj Sahni Parkashan. This publication is the best effort in the history of Punjabi literature to reach out to masses. The low priced mobile bookstall of Balraj Sahni Parkashan remained an integral part of Gursharan Singh’s performances. After the publication was closed down, the character of Punjabi language publication changed. Opportunities for new writers are no longer seen; neither are efforts to reach out to poor readers. Now Punjabi language publications revolve around established writers, universities and writers, who can pay to get their books published. Gursharan Singh edited two literary cultural magazines, Samta and Sardal, where creative writing and criticism were given liberal space. He was able to engage with the different shades of left politics and literary-cultural trends of the time. While aspiring for a revolutionary change Gursharan Singh never lost sight of reforms. He campaigned against the neglect of mothers when talking about children. This campaign resulted in the decision of Punjab School Education Board to include the mother’s name on educational certificates. Gursharan was always proud of this intervention and counted it among his achievements. He campaigned against foul language targeting women. He was very sensitive towards women, an awareness reflected in his theatre, speeches and writings. Gursharan Singh was puritanical in more ways than one. He used to claim that he had never tasted any drug, indulged in any dishonesty, or flirted. These claims have had not been contested even by his rivals and political opponents.

  3. I finally got to watch the movie after long wait. I had heard and read a lot about the movie so my expectations were really high but it couldn’t live up to those expectations. I got the message of the movie and i do understand the pace and gloominess of it. There were some wow moments and scenes in it but overall it gave the impression of bits and pieces added together loosely there was a missing link which was evident in the whole movie. It was a real good effort to chose a story like it and the presenting it in a beautiful manner in midst of all whats being produced in the area of Punjabi cinema. But movie and the hype around it shows Punjabi cinema has still long way to go and the movie regarded as a gift is sure an excellent effort in a good direction but failed to come close to cinematic excellence.

    1. I guess there is always a subjective element to art. I too felt that the film dragged on in the middle, but few minutes before it ends, it all seemed to tie in together. The emotive impact created was like the one created in films by Andrei Tarkovsky.

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