Difficult and pessimistic, Ken McMullen's 1987 film Partition challenges its audience at most every turn. The narrative is barely accessible on a first viewing, as actors show up multiple times in the visage of different characters. Long takes with minimal dialogue and frequent cuts between colour and black and white do little to ease the viewer's confusion. Yet, it's a puzzle those willing to explore the depths of the longstanding rift between England and India will find rewarding.
Based on a short story by Indian writer Saadat Hasan Manto, Partition has the audacity to condemn the British and Indian powers that be in the 1947 division of the Indian subcontinent - which created separate countries of India and Pakistan - despite having been commissioned by the UK's Channel 4, where it premiered in August 1987. Now, sixty years after the separation of India and twenty since the film was made, McMullen's Partition makes its debut on DVD in an extras-laden edition from the Second Run label. Despite the feature running only 78 minutes, Second Run has outfitted its release with an audio commentary and an additional hour of informative, relevant extra features.
The film itself is a fascinating, challenging dissection of the days leading up to and following the partition, from the points of view of the leaders in charge and their counterparts at an asylum near the newly created India-Pakistan border. The same actors contribute to each setting and McMullen and screenwriter Tariq Ali make sure to position the so-called "lunatics" as the ones in possession of a much more humane, common sense approach to the partition. The men (and it's always men, isn't it?) who play with the partition in the film's main map room setting seem wholly unconcerned with the millions of subcontinent inhabitants. In reality, hundreds of thousands of persons in the region died in the partition aftermath, mostly poor and mostly unreported apparently. The resulting outrage is reserved for the disc's supplements, where multiple interviewees discuss the background and consequences of such imperial map making schemes.
That's not to say that the film itself isn't sufficiently inflammatory. It's an upsetting, unquestionably political examination of the evils and horrors inflicted on the Indian subcontinent. The rainy black and white scene near the film's end when the asylum principals are forced to cross over into the newly partitioned India is brilliant. Displaying a musical score repeated from a carefree party earlier in the film, the feeling is now transformed from joy into hopeless insanity as Partition shows the ultimate conflict between the lunatics and the police enforcers, sweaty, dirty and without reason. It's one in several affecting pieces of the Partition whole. Instead of surrendering to the men in uniform, an asylum inmate chooses to lay down on the street bordering the newly christened Pakistan and India border. In real life, viewing a similar situation inspired Manto to write his short story.
Manto himself, we're told in the helpful making-of special feature, had difficulty coming to terms with the partition and found himself in an asylum as an attempt to overcome the alcoholism that ultimately killed him at only 43 years of age, in the form of cirrhosis of the liver. Perhaps due in part to this, McMullen's film never portrays the asylum inmates as crazy or in need of psychiatric care. Instead, they're the sane ones in comparison to the civil servant leaders and, in particular, Saeed Jaffrey's tree monologue is given its full power by proving accurate, logical, and completely within the parameters of democracy despite being cloaked in the ramblings of a lunatic.
Partition is not without its flaws though. By only presenting one side of the story (the shameful one) we never really get to see every angle. The audience is left with a point of view instead of being allowed to make up their own mind. Perhaps there's only one side worth exploring to the partition argument, but I doubt it. Those in power are portrayed as incompetent, selfish bureaucrats ready and willing to do whatever it takes to divide the subcontinent as it best pleases Great Britain. Such a one-dimensional depiction could be accurate and I'm certainly not in any position to argue otherwise, but I can still spot a loaded deck when given the opportunity, regardless of my personal views. Ultimately, a film mostly uninterested in exploring multiple angles with the same level of dimension and characterization falls into the trap of propaganda. Manto, McMullen, and Ali see the situation as completely one-sided and the film is presented as such. No room is left for any possible rebuttal.
Still, we're left with a penetrating example of retaliatory, thought-provoking film at a daring level. The most startling example of Partition's ability to question and dare its audience is a blissfully long uninterrupted take where the actor Roshan Seth literally crosses over from his role as an Indian power source into an asylum patient via one continuous ten minute step though a mirror. The idea of mirrors, into the soul and into the truth, play a vital part in Partition. Another memorable scene shows Seth speaking with two colleagues through a mirror, where we see both the front and back of the participants. That the filmmakers even thought of trying such a trick is impressive and that they were able to effectively pull off the stunt is even more so. It doesn't come across as showy or boastful, but, instead, as integral to the plot's central theme of mirrors and ceiling fans and their cinematic position of recreating the dichotomy between the decision makers and the closely-related underlings, as the audience is haunted by the constant twitters of the fans and circling rhythm of what we see in the film.
Otherwise, McMullen's television film is much closer to a theatrical play than a cinematic undertaking. The use of characters speaking directly to the audience is mostly a theatre device and occurs a few times in Partition. With much of the film showing the actors talking or looking, either while standing still or seated, there's relatively little action or movement. McMullen and Ali mention in their commentary the desire to give the audience space to reflect on what they've seen. They do this in the form of long, often static shots leaving the viewer to stare at inactivity. It does force those watching to think, maybe about what they've been seeing or maybe about what they want for dinner. Even if Partition feels like a filmed play unseen on the stage, it still makes its point loud and clear, inspiring viewers to further educate themselves about the 1947 partition.
Second Run's DVD is a perfect starting point for such enlightenment. Beginning with an informative, if sparse, audio commentary featuring director Ken McMullen and his co-screenwriter Tariq Ali, the disc engages further with exemplary special features that help the viewer appreciate both the film and its connection with the Indian subcontinent partition. A making-of piece (17:34) from the movie's original production focuses on the author Manto and features interviews with translator Kahlid Hasan about the writer's life and the film's gestation. An informative interview with Tariq Ali (15:33) follows and discusses more historical aspects as well as his own personal association with the partition. Also included is a conversation between McMullen and actor Saeed Jaffrey (8:59) where Jaffrey seems genuinely happy with his involvement on the film and McMullen has nothing but praise for his actor.
Additionally, there's a telephone interview (12:46) initiated by McMullen again with the actor Roshan Seth where the interviewee talks about the incredibly long tracking shot of his bureaucratic character disappearing into a mirror and coming out the other end dressed differently in the asylum, only to position himself in the "death pose." A short featurette (5:35) with production designer Paul Cheetham rounds out the disc's supplements. Finally, Second Run has included a sixteen-page booklet featuring the original short story by Manto (occupying six pages) and a two-page interview between McMullen and film historian/screenwriter James Leahy where the director discusses the use of mirrors and his distinction between black and white and colour on the film. Film stills and credits make up the remainder of the well put together booklet. A 2006/2007 Second Run catalogue is thrown in for good measure.
Second Run's Partition release is encoded region free PAL, progressive, and dual layered for "optimal quality." The film is separated into ten chapters, along the time line points shown in the movie, and is presented in its original full frame, 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The picture quality looks acceptable, though far from ideal. There are frequent specks of dirt and grain, most noticeable in the initial black and white portion, that never prove distracting. The colour and black and white segments look equally good on the DVD, both somewhat inherent to the TV origins and sharpest during close-up shots. Colours are also a tad dull and faded, but seem natural both for a television production and the geographic setting. Stock footage used in the film from the events surrounding the actual partition looks very rough, basically how one would expect forty-year-old stock footage to look. Regarding the extras, the Jaffrey and Cheetham interviews do look quite poor and grainy. Still, there's nothing in the video to resist a hearty recommendation of the DVD package.
The original mono audio has a consistent and even volume, without noticeable problems. The only lacking element is found in the special features, where volume and quality can vary in quality from supplement to supplement, including the aforementioned phone interview between McMullen and Seth, but never anything of much concern. The biggest problem I have with the technical aspects of the DVD is Second Run's failure to include English subtitles on the film or supplements. Instead, we're left with only the option to view French subtitles on the feature, and none on the extras. Aside from alienating the deaf contingent, this omission also leaves out those unable to understand some of the more difficult to hear dialogue. Luckily, most of the film consists of easily understood phrasing from the English and Indian speakers, with the whispering Everywoman narrator possibly causing the volume to be bumped up a notch , but that's still no excuse to deprive the viewer of the English subtitle option.
Despite the relatively minor flaws in the package, Second Run's DVD is a highly recommended affair packed with informative extra features that touch on most of the question marks the viewer might have after watching this somewhat inaccessible and challenging feature. Like their spine number brethren at the Criterion Collection and Masters of Cinema, Second Run have packaged the disc with much love and care, giving Partition, labeled number 030 in their series, the attention usually reserved for giants of cinema. Even if the film doesn't quite approach that level, Second Run's DVD is a persuasive argument that Partition should be seen and recognized as an important piece of daring, uncompromising filmmaking.
(Note: For approximately three months, Partition will only be available through the online retailer Moviemail. Presumably, other stores will carry the release near the end of November.)