Skip to main content

Kartar Singh, 1959, Pakistan

Originally written for EPW Blog

While Indian cinema of 1950s is mostly blank on the subject of Partition, poet Saifuddin Saif’s Kartar Singh (1959), a Punjabi film from Pakistan is perhaps the best specimen in which we can see the way Partition was explored in moving pictures by a generation that had been recently and directly impacted by the events of 1947.

The story is set in a village where Sikh, Hindus and Muslims are a well-knit unit. The world outside is slowly getting more violent (in the first scene we see local Hindu medicine man Vaid Prem Nath reading the news aloud and wondering about the sorry state of the world) but the village is an island of peace where words of Waris Shah sung by the local mendicant still bring solace to souls of worrying kind. The only sign of trouble in the village is a rakish young Sikh man named Kartar Singh, the antagonist from whom the film gets its name. Kartar Singh is introduced to the viewers as he attempts to abduct a young woman in the dark of the night to settle some old family grudge with another Sikh family. Yet, this violence is not supposed to shock the viewer and is presented as something part of the village culture. Umer Din, a young Muslim man thwarts Kartar Singh’s attempt. However, Umer Din in order to keep peace in the village does not give away the identity of the abductor to anyone. Umer Din has just returned from Burma front of World War II and carries a gun with him. Over the next few scenes (including a “Holi” song set to “bari barsi”), we realise there is a kind of testosterone driven tug war going on between ruffian Kartar Singh and upright Umer Din. However, peace always prevails due to timely intervention by older generation with their words of wisdom. Young women of the village - Sikh, Hindu and Muslim - sing about love and impending marriages. Old folks - Sikh, Hindu and Muslim - dream of marrying off their young ones. Everyone is planning a future. The village mendicant sings words of Waris Shah at all the right interludes.

Unlike the usual films about Partition, at the outset, there is not much mention of politics of that era. No flag waving, no speeches and no leaders. The village is a world in itself.

And then one day the new world knocks at the gates of this idyllic village. News of death of Kartar Singh’s brother in the “sheher” during a communal disturbance brings Pakistan to the village. Some Sikhs rejoice at the news because they know now Kartar Singh too will join them as they carry out random acts of violence in protest against creation of Pakistan. One night, Kartar Singh makes an attempt at Umer Din’s life but the presence of a gun in Umer Din’s hands proves a deterrent. The role of World War II and its impact on social fabric of Indian villages is often missed even in literature that deals with Partition and yet we find it here in this film. A similar phenomena was present in Poonch region of Jammu in 1947, were ex-soldiers rebelled against the Hindu King once the Partition violence spread from Punjab to Kashmir.

The Hindu Vaid tries to reason with Kartar Singh. His argument: if Jinnah and Gandhi are not killing each other, why are you young men ready to kill each other?

Of course, all such arguments are ignored. Soon, Muslims also organise themselves to defend themselves and their lands. News of violence in Bengal, Bihar and Punjab reaches the village. A Muslim mob tries to kill the Hindu Vaid but Umer Din saves him. The village is aflame. Kartar Singh kills the younger brother of Umer Din by stabbing him in the back even as Hindu Vaid tries to deter Kartar Singh. Umer Din goes mad with rage, picks up his rifle and seeks revenge. But the elders manage to stop him by reasoning with him: “Do not see the violence of the tormenters, see the tears of the innocent.” Something one would call today a very “Gandhian” approach. Umer Din is a reasonable man. When the violence ebbs, Muslims leave the village. This is Partition for the village. At this point, the film makes a masterful use of images, sound and symbolism to depict the meaning of Partition for Punjab. The village mendicant throws away his “tumbi” into a burning house, he has no more Waris Shah to offer. Waris Shah has been rendered mute. Instead, the mendicant sings Amrita Pritam’s Ajj Akhaan Waris Shah nu.

The caravan of people leaving for Pakistan is attacked by Kartar Singh’s “toli”. Umer Din gets separated from his sister and kid brother. An elderly Sikh man, a former soldier, would kill his own son to protect Umer Din’s sister. The melodramatics that lead a repentant and dying Kartar Singh to hand over the kid to Umer Din is the usual affliction that afflicts most of the popular cinema in this part of the world. But really makes this film stand apart is the intentional or unintentional manner in which it explains the meaning of nationhood.

The mendicant joins the people going to Pakistan and on reaching Pakistan is seen holding the flag of his new nation as he sings about blood sacrifice of Ghaznavis. The person who in his native village only had an ambiguous existence, in the new hard fought land has discovered a flag and a religion.



  1. There are so many films and works on partition but only few do any justice to the actual political and social scenario then. The ending does connote the entire ambiguous purpose of division nd creation of diff nations though.


Post a Comment

I always like to hear back :)
However, irrelevant comments and irrelevant links will not be published. Needless to say, same goes for abusive comment and spam. Leaving back links related to the topic is encouraged. I know it can be tempting but try not to leave your email ids, phone nos and CVs in the comment.

Popular posts from this blog

Famous Old Faces of Doordarshan

Some people recall the faces and some people recall the names. Here are images of some of the famous readers and presenters of Doordarshan down the years. If you recognize any of them, leave a comment. [ Update 1 : Most of the faces now have names thanks to helpful comments by olio-gallimaufry ] [ Update 2 : Included image of one of the earliest presenters, Gopal Kaul. Send in generously from personal collection by son, Ashutosh Kaul. Sept, 2010.] [ Major Update 3: Got a tip-off about a documentary about the famous faces of Doordarshan from the makers   of     “The Golden Trail , DD@50 :Special feature on Golden Jubilee of Doordarshan ” from which these caps were taken. I managed to catch the incredible documentary and am adding some more faces/name and part of the docu here. New ones can be found after the image of  Narotam Puri. 30th Oct, 2010]  Pratima Puri. Believed to be the first Doordarshan reader.

Indian Cigarette Vintage Ads

He put a cigarette in his mouth and, as a matter of silent routine, offered one to Gwyn, who said ‘No thanks.”Richard looked at him.”I packed it in.”"You what?”"I stopped. Three days ago. Cold. That’s it. You just make the life choice.” Richard looked up and inhaled needfully. He gazed at his cigarette. He didn’t really want to smoke it. He wanted to eat it. Almost the only thing that he still liked about Gwyn was that he still smoked…Paradoxically, he no longer wanted to give up smoking: what he wanted to do was take up smoking. Not so much to fill the little gaps between cigarettes with cigarettes (there wouldn’t be time, anyway) or to smoke two cigarettes at once. It was more that he felt the desire to smoke a cigarette even when he was smoking a cigarette. The need was and wasn’t being met… While it would always be true and fair to say that Richard felt like a cigarette, it would now be doubly true and fair to say it. He felt like a cigarette. And he felt like a cig

Woman by Arun Kolatkar

a woman may collect cats read thrillers her insomnia may seep through the great walls of history a lizard may paralyze her a sewing machine may bend her moonlight may intercept the bangle circling her wrist a woman my name her cats the circulating library may lend her new thrillers a spiked man may impale her a woman may add a new recipe to her scrapbook judiciously distilling her whimper the city lights may declare it null and void in a prodigious weather above a darkling woman surgeons may shoot up and explode in a weather fraught with forceps woman may damn man a woman may shave her legs regularly a woman may take up landscape painting a woman may poison twenty three cockroaches - a poem by Arun Kolatkar from year 1967. Translated by Adil Jussawalla. Found it in New Writing in India (1974) ed. by Adil Jussawalla.