Animated documentary Lost Migrations presents the untold stories of the subcontinent’s partition years
Animated documentary Lost Migrations presents the untold stories of the partition years of the subcontinent
As India and Pakistan mark the 75th anniversary of their independence from British colonial rule this month, the spotlight will no doubt dwell on the painful partition of the subcontinent and the many geopolitical equations that have emerged through the following. Considered the largest such forced migration, the partition displaced 14 million people and caused the death of an estimated one million when British India was formally divided into two new dominions – India and Pakistan – in 1947.
Much of the literary and archival content related to this turbulent period in the history of the subcontinent centers on the division of the province of Punjab by British authorities in 1947 and the upheavals it triggered. But not much is known, except perhaps through oral accounts, about the desperation and abuses suffered by other displaced South Asian communities during partition.
sea birds. examines how displacement has affected the Chettiar community. | Photo credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT
Anthology in three parts
Lost Migrationsan animated documentary series from Project Dastaan, a UK-based nonprofit that reconnects refugees from the partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) with their ancestral homes and communities across the cinema and virtual reality, focuses on these untold stories told from the perspective of displaced people.
Funded by the British Council and supported by the National Geographic Society, the documentary is a unique collaborative project between the UK, India and Pakistan, with animation by Spitting Image, Bengaluru and Puffball Studios, Lahore. Project Dastaan was founded in 2018 by Sparsh Ahuja, Sam Dalrymple and Saadia Gardei as a student company for the University of Oxford. He uses an extensive network of volunteers to track down and film the childhood homes and villages of Partition witnesses, which are then streamed as immersive videos on VR headsets.
Dastaan’s three-part anthology premiered recently at the BFI Southbank cinema in London and has been made available for private viewing online at MetroMore. “Our goal is to showcase the diverse voices of the subcontinent in an engaging way, combining local artistic styles and traditions to celebrate the individuality of each community. These stories have never been brought to a popular audience before,” the producers say in the show’s notes. Lost migrations.
Each episode focuses on a community that has been excluded from South Asian literature and historiography: women, the chettiar diaspora, and stateless people. “Our goal is to showcase the diverse voices of the subcontinent in an engaging way, combining local artistic styles and traditions to celebrate the individuality of each community. These stories have never been brought to a popular audience before,” the producers state in the show’s notes.
Nameless scraps of paper
The first episode Paper rest, is based on the true story of Ghulam Ali, a refugee who is routed between India and Pakistan in an elusive search for proof of identity. Ali, born in India, finds himself stateless in 1947 and is driven from office to office with conflicting information about his nationality. Lacking the correct papers, he finds himself caught in a senseless chain of arrests and deportations, repeatedly crossing the border, and eventually losing his sense of belonging and identity.
The episode is inspired by Vazira Fazila Yacoobali Zamindar The long score, At Saadat Hassan Manto Toba Tek Singh and Franz Kafka The trial.
Nithya and her grandmother Umayal bond over food in sea birds. | Photo credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT
united by food
In sea birds, written by Omi Zola Gupta, the recipes are the unbreakable bond between generations of a Chettiar family, as eight-year-old Nithya hears her grandmother Umayal tell the story of their clan’s displacement from Singapore and Burma during the Second World War. The suddenness of leaving foreign lands that are more like home than one’s own homeland is seasoned with culinary imagery. “When we’re home together, what does the name of the place matter?” Umayal asks, soothing the loss and longing with shared memories of food.
Pearls in Peril
The third episode, The Sultana’s Dreamdepicts the shattered hopes and dreams of an elderly woman based in present-day Kolkata, through a series of flashbacks that occur in Lahore, Amritsar and Peshawar.
A strand of broken pearls becomes the leitmotif to symbolize how women have coped with the trauma of partition, particularly sexual violence and desertion from loved ones. Loosely based on Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain’s 1905 feminist masterpiece of magical realism The Sultana’s Dream, written by Urvashi Butalia and interviewed by Project Dastaan, this episode focuses on conversions and forced marriages during Partition, in the name of nationalism and clan pride. One is forced to agree with the main characters when they sigh: “If only freedom kept its promises.
A still of The Sultana’s Dream
| Photo credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT