Written and directed by Vic Sarin, Partition tells the story of two lovers from different, warring cultures at a pivotal point in Indian history. Taking place in the years between 1941 and 1949, the film follows the partitioning of the formerly integrated India into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Citing the atrocities on both sides, the Partition isn’t the sole focus of the film, but rather the impetus that drives its love story.
A Canadian production that was filmed in both British Columbia as well as on-location in India, Partition borrows several pages from a Bollywood predecessor, the 2001 film Gadar, which follows the star-crossed love story between a Sikh man and a Pakistani woman. Although the film’s plot bears a striking resemblance to Gadar, in the documentary portion of the DVD, “The Making of Partition: A Journey of the Heart”, Sarin noted that the inspiration for this film has been one that has stayed with him most of his life, based from a true-life tale of a young Sikh and Pakistani Muslim couple his father had tried to help, but unfortunately, ended tragically.
The 2007 film initially came under fire for its casting of actors of different ethnicities than the characters portrayed, particularly the film’s lead actress, Kristin Kreuk, who is of Chinese and German descent, in her role as a Pakistani woman. Kreuk’s portrayal is adequate, but certainly not mind-blowing.
Overall, the caliber of acting in Partition is good, considering what the actors have to work with. Rather, it’s the script that suffers from attempting to cram too much of a story into too small of a space. In doing so, the characters seem to be one-dimensional archetypes utilized to tell a story that has been retold many times over. In a sense, this particular generic trait works well for the film, making this story more of a universal tale and showcasing the universality of forbidden love and the effort those involved will go through to be together.
One of the film’s more redeeming features is its gorgeous cinematography, painstakingly shot by Sarin in vivid, almost surrealistic colors with almost perfect lighting illuminating the actors and making the scenery an integral part of the story itself. The only distracting aspect of the film’s beautiful visual composition is that everything seems too new and fresh, with little demarcating the year of 1947 in a war-torn nation. On one hand, this works to symbolize the beauty of youth and innocent love and the timelessness of struggle. As a historical tale, however, Partition falls short of the mark.
The film’s main protagonist is Gian Singh (Jimi Mistry), a Sikh soldier who goes to war in 1940s Burma alongside his British friend, Andrew Stillwell (Jesse Moss). Although Singh has told his friend’s sister, Margaret (Neve Campbell) that he would keep her brother safe, Stillwell dies overseas and Singh is haunted by guilt.
Affected by the horrors of war, Gian retires from the army to his village in his war-torn homeland, attempting to stay out of the Partition-era atrocities being waged by Sikhs and Muslims on one another. As Gian is attempting a life of pacifism, a group of Sikhs attack a cortege of Muslims attempting to cross over to Pakistan, killing several in their wake. A young girl named Naseem (Kristin Kreuk) manages to escape the carnage, leaving her family behind. Gian happens upon the girl and takes her back to his village in an attempt to hide her from the angry Sikhs. With both Gian and Naseem believing her family to have perished, he takes pity on her and allows her to stay with him.
Eventually, Gian’s family and fellow villagers discover he is harboring the girl. With many of the Sikh villagers having had family members slaughtered by Muslims, they do not take kindly to this, shunning Naseem and taking their ire out on Gian.
In a matter of a few scenes, somehow, Naseem manages to win over most of the village women by helping a fallen Sikh woman to her feet while gathering water from a local well. Before long, Gian’s mother (Madhur Jaffrey) who was initially resistant to Naseem, defends her from a fellow villager who lost most of her family in an attack by Muslims.
A few short scenes later, Gian and Naseem find themselves madly in love with each other despite their cultural differences, and soon they are happily married with a young son. And a few more short scenes later, Naseem, deliriously happy with her new life and family, decides that she wants to search for any remaining family members who may still be alive.
Gian requests the help of his deceased British friend’s sister, Margaret, to assist in tracking down Naseem’s family. The search reveals that Naseem’s mother and two brothers are still alive. After making contact with them, she crosses the border into Pakistan, promising her husband and son that she will return within a month.
Naseem’s family — while elated at learning she is alive, happy, and reunited with them — are less than enthusiastic that she has married a Sikh and hold her against her will in their home. When she fails to return home, Gian goes to great lengths to get his wife back.
This conflict and its eventual resolution is the main focal point of the third leg of the film. In an effort to abstain from The Winds of War miniseries proportions, Partition speeds through some of the more intriguing aspects of the story to use this conflict to arrive at the film’s message: true love can still flourish in spite of differences and ignorance is a destructive force. While these are noble sentiments, the story’s construction is rather one-dimensional and laborious to get through in order to set up nailing these points home to its audience.
The secondary characters in Partition are truly secondary, marginalized to the point that merely serve as plot devices to further along the love story between Gian and Naseem. A (very) vague insinuation of Neve Campbell’s character of Margaret Stillwell harboring an unrequited love for Gian is never fully explored, nor is the faint implication that there is or was some sort of romantic feelings between Margaret and the character of Walter Hankins (John Light), another friend of both the Stillwells and Singhs who assists the young couple in their plight.
While most of the lead and supporting actors are to be commended for their subtlety in conveying something more than what the film’s dialogue fleshed out, once again, a more well-rounded, complex story could have been told here without rehashing something that has already been done before.