By Sean Kaye-Smith

partition-ken-mcmullen.jpgPartition, 1987

Ken McMullen’s film Partition – a commission from Channel Four – was made in 1987, forty years after the events it explores, namely the handover of power by the British in India and the partitioning of the Indian sub-continent into the Dominion of Pakistan and the Republic of India; the DVD release by the excellent Second Run has followed sixty years on.

The film, scripted by Tariq Ali from a short story by the controversial Indian writer Saadat Hassan Manto (1912-56), avoids large-scale historical reconstruction in favour of occasional glimpses of contemporary newsreel and an intense interest in the lunatic asylum setting of Manto’s original story. There is also a bold reliance on the faces of the actors and, of necessity for this degree of focus, McMullen has assembled a particularly strong cast who clearly relish the opportunity to work in this way on such subject matter. ‘Partition’ self-consciously offers an alternative take on key events in Indian history from glossy, big-budget presentations like Ghandi (1982), A Passage To India (1984) or the TV series The Jewel in the Crown.

The mood of the film is clearly established in the opening scenes. It opens with a precisely-timed scene of a sweeping woman filmed through a veil which she removes after exactly two-minutes of screen time to reveal the inmates of the asylum wandering in the central courtyard of the building. Clearly the visual message is that we are to look through the veil at something closer to the truth, and not merely the truth of facts and events but of the experience of those involved in these events.

This is powerfully established in the next scene when we cut from the dusty, almost monochrome view of the asylum, to a shot of the striking British actress Leonie Mellinger - who had worked with McMullen before, notably as one of the two leads in his earlier film Ghost Dance’ (1982) – seated at a grand piano in a vivid red dress as she wistfully ponders on the future fate of the ‘million British graves in India’. McMullen’s interest in mirrors, which features significantly in Partition, often to gently disorientate the viewer, comes in here as the ‘imperial’ face of the actor John Shrapnel, and soon its reflection too, fills the screen, as he meditates on the handover of power and its probable consequences. The mood goes beyond melancholy to a kind of stasis which persists throughout much of the film. What comes to mind is the brilliantly minimalist performances, particularly of leading man David Beames, in Chris Petit’s extraordinary British road movie Radio On (1979), and even, at times, the almost frozen forms of the hypnotised actors in Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass; the latter is particularly true of some of the bizarre asylum scenes.

partition-ken-mcmullen-2.jpgPartition, 1987

Shrapnel’s performance has an intensity and seriousness which powerfully carries the complexities of the British experience of these events. The Indian situation is equally powerfully conveyed by perhaps the strongest ensemble of sub-continental actors it was possible to convene at the time. Apart from some harrowing pieces of newsreel we see little of the violence and bloodshed referred to in the text; the horror of the situation is more than effectively conveyed by the actor Saeed Jaffrey, in the guise of one of the asylum inmates, as he rants and screams about the state of the country from a tree in the courtyard – in many ways, this is the key scene in the film. Apparently this sequences was very important to the actor, so much so that he asked for it to be shown when he was the subject of the popular television programme This Is Your Life, causing a considerable stir, and apparently some distress, at peak viewing time on ITV. As in some other memorable films, such as Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man, certain key cast members play more than one role, a clever device which encourages us to think more deeply about character, role-playing and duplicity.

Perhaps the most fascinating and sympathetic character is played by the distinguished actress Zohra Seghal. McMullen and writer Tariq Ali refer to this character as ‘every woman’; she wanders the spaces of the film performing various menial tasks and commenting on the action like a Greek chorus, sometimes directly to camera. Seghal is perfect casting, her face conveying the experience and durability of some of the indigenous population during these events, and this is never more apparent than when we see her full face, polishing a mirror, inviting us to a clearer and clearer view of the action.

partition-ken-mcmullen-3.jpgPartition, 1987

The director John Boorman once said, referring to Hitchcock, that “in a film the camera tells the story and the dialogue is part of the atmosphere”. This is particularly true of Partition which leaves a very powerful impression stylistically. McMullen’s film is much closer to Tarkovsky than Merchant/Ivory or even.Satyajit Ray. As with Tarkovsky, we are given time to look, as the camera slowly travels around the film’s spaces, and the asylum set - the whole film was shot in the studio in the East End of London in ten days – is particularly evocative under this kind of scrutiny. The monsoon rain recalls both Mirror and Stalker, and yet McMullen, as with all his work, has made the film very much his own. In one truly extraordinary set piece, the actor Roshan Seth walks from an interior shot to the asylum courtyard in a continuous take, changing character, and somehow clothes, along the way. This is virtuoso film making – which unwittingly exposes the paucity of the current obsession with CGI - and is evidence of the care and skill which has gone into the making of the film, with particular praise being due to production designer Paul Cheetham and cinematographer Nanci Scheiesan.

Ultimately Partition is a haunting cinematic experience; its take on terrible events and those involved has inevitable contemporary relevance with the prevailing situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a film which sends us back to the history books in another attempt to learn from the past, and Second Run deserve much credit for making this important work available again.

More information about Second Run can be found here.

Sean Kaye-Smith teaches Media and English at Ashton Park School in Bristol. He regularly watches King’s Lynn F.C.