One Meditation on Partition: Ken McMullen in Conversation

By James Leahy

partition-ken-mcmullen.jpgPartition, 1987

British filmmaker Ken McMullen is a singular voice – innovative, engaged, enquiring – in international cultural life. Through his features, documentaries, plays, exhibitions and teaching he breaks down boundaries, between art and science, thought and action, life and its representation. Set in an asylum, Partition, his 1987 filmic collaboration with Tariq Ali, offers a unique take on South Asia’s turbulent twentieth century. Long unavailable, it has recently been released on dvd.

James Leahy: Can you say something about your fascination with mirrors? Here, I guess, there are some fairly obvious thematic implications to the mirror. For example, one can talk about the mad world of power and the bureaucrats mirrored in the sane world of the asylum, which is, I think, roughly how Manto (author of the original short story on which the film is based) saw things.

Ken McMullen: The mirrors extend the whole plane of action in Partition, doubling and then quadrupling the spatial possibilities. Furthermore the mirror, as Plato says, is the way the 'soul' identifies its true self. If a soul needs to know itself, first it must look into a soul, the friend and the enemy … you’ve seen him in the mirror! So the mirror gives the actor a way to play with what is not usually seen.... in the case of John Shrapnel’s character, it allows the articulation of deep misgivings about imperial policy.

JL: Mirror images, of course, turn up elsewhere in your work, but watching again the scene where Roshan walks through the mirror from the room of power (the map room) to the asylum, I felt very strongly that what was really important about it was the duration and the experience and feelings induced in the spectator.

KM: Yes, that’s probably the case. The power lies in the ability of Roshan to 'carry his head at a constant pace' whilst all around him massive changes are taking place, including his own clothes being ripped off and changed. It probably evokes a sense of the deep loneliness of aspects of the human condition. He was using yoga positions at the end, ultimately the 'corpse position’. This also probably evokes something well beyond conscious texts, a kind of 'off screen' response taking place in us the viewers.

JL: Can you talk then about your use of off-screen sound? The moment I like best here is when we see the cleaner/narrator throw the bucket of water, and the sound of it splashing down is off-screen.

KM: I wanted to suggest the idea that the consequences generated by the decisions and actions took place 'out of sight', that is to say off-screen. Elsewhere, the off-screen sound has in some ways to compensate for the confinement of shooting a film about India in a closed set built inside a dilapidated warehouse in East London.

partition-ken-mcmullen-2.jpgPartition, 1987

JL: Renoir often uses sound in the same way, evoking nearby crowds or actions without showing them, with moments in La Grande Illusion, for example, and The Golden Coach. Whilst this obviously saves money, I find suggesting something rather than showing it often gives a film an unexpected beauty. I was also wondering if you could say something about your music choices?

KM: The music, like the whole sound score in Partition, is actually a text in itself. Of course it had to evoke the time and place but it is often also there to signify events off-screen. Barry Guard composed, with a small chamber orchestra.

JL: Can you comment on the repetition of various verbal motifs? The notions of seeing India through a veil, and of 5000 years of cultural stagnation?

KM: The themes repeat themselves but when they do they’re always different. There is something very powerful about the repetition of certain texts and actions. We know them and yet we don't. And there is a reference to the idea of Marx, who suggests the notion of historical repetition, but of this being always in a different 'costume.' And of Freud, who tells us that we are attracted to the repetition compulsion in our psychic life.

JL: Why do you like making films in both colour and black and white?

KM: I don't make the distinction between colour and black and white. I make a choice based on the mood of the scene, the material, the condition, the emotional content.

JL: Do you agree there's no space in the UK these days for the production of a film like this?

KM: It’s highly unlikely that a director would be able to use the visual structure and the unique dramatic performances in today’s climate, but it is always possible for one or two films to sneak past the contemporary dominant idioms.

JL: One reviewer has referred to your ‘dreamlike direction’. What do you feel about this description of the rhythm of the film?

KM: I’m not sure. I did originally want to call the film Ten Meditations on Partition. In some way I think this film is a kind of guided, concrete meditation on the events of 1947, indeed on all imperial history.

James Leahy is a screenwriter and film historian.