Originally written for EPW Blog
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.