EmptyOpens: August 1 in Pakistan, India
CHENNAI -- "Ramchand Pakistani" sails on historic and curiosity value. The first slated to open simultaneously in India and Pakistan, it has been helmed by a woman director, reportedly a first in Pakistan, who dares to have Hindus as her central characters. Already shown at Tribeca, Seattle and New Delhi's Osian's Cinefan, it should travel to more festivals with a good possibility of attracting reasonable crowds in India's urban multiplex cinemas.
Set in 2002, during heightened tension between the two South Asian neighbors, the movie dramatizes this through the trauma suffered by one low-caste Hindu Dalit (i.e., untouchable) family living in Pakistan just across the then open border with India. (The border has since then been fenced.) Eight-year-old Ramchand (Syed Fazal Hussain) in a fit of temper walks into India, and his father, Shankar (Rashid Farooqui), who goes looking for him, is mistaken for a spy and arrested by Indian soldiers. Both find themselves in an Indian jail in Gujarat. Ramchand's mother, Champa (Nandita Das), has no way of finding what could have happened to the two. Living as an untouchable Hindu in a country where 97% of the population is Muslim, she is not even allowed to file a missing report with the local police.
A haunting musical score and lyrical camera work enrich the work set mostly in Pakistan's Thar Desert. The prison scenes were shot in Gujarat for authenticity. Despite continuing hostilities between India and Pakistan, considerable cooperation came from both governments that made exchange of talent possible. Das, composer Debajyoti Mishra, singer Shubha Mudgal (whose vocals are featured) and editor Aseem Sinha are well known in the Indian industry.
A major flaw of the film is its failure to develop some of the secondary characters (including Kamla/ Maria Wasti, the policewoman who takes care of Ramchand in the jail) with the result that they appear no more than caricatures. Though Das performs with elan, the attempt to doll her up in bright costumes seems clearly unsuited for a woman agonizing over the long absence of her husband and son. However, Farooqi and more so Hussian make up for this with riveting performances as finely etched characters.
Production companies: Project One and JJ Media. Cast: Syed Fazal Hussain, Rashid Farooqui, Nandita Das and Maria Wasti. Director: Mehreen Jabbar. Screenwriters: Mohammad Ahmed, Javed Jabbar. Producer: Javed Jabbar. Director of photography: Sofian Khan. Music: Debajyoti Mishra. Editors: Mehreen Jabbar and Aseem Sinha. Sales Agent: Namak Films, New York. No rating, 103 minutes.