The freshly released Sarbjit is just one version of the tale of innocents getting enmeshed in larger politics
Rashomon was about the many sides of the same coin; where a peasant, a priest and a wood cutter recount the story of a bandit’s trial involving a rape and a murder. What the classic Kurosawa tale tried to sensitise us towards was the fact that the real life situations can have multiple versions from multiple standpoints and the boundaries often get blurred. Sarbjit, the newly released movie about a man alleged to be an Indian spy, incarcerated for almost 22 years in Pakistani jails and eventually killed by some prisoners in 2013 presents us with the same problem.
Sarbjit, the movie, is one version of that tale and given its highly overcharged, high-pitched tone and a clear shift of emphasis from the prisoner to his sister who waged a long battle till the end arguing for his innocence and release, an Indian reviewer has rightly suggested its name should have been ‘Dalbir’, and not Sarbjit.
But this very issue takes us back to the same problem -- the problem of which version are we looking at, which version will win in the end or will there always be fractured versions of the same story given the fact that Sarbjit became a site for national jingoism between Pakistan and India?
One version (largely recounted in the movie) tells you that he was a small-time farmer, who strayed in to the Pakistani border from his village in Tarn Taran district in Punjab, after a night of binge with friends. The Pakistani police picked him up and slapped him with the charge of twin bomb blasts in Lahore and Faisalabad which had killed 14 people 3 months ago.
While his family was searching for him all over, he went through a series of trials and was convicted for the same, eventually being confirmed for capital punishment by the Supreme Court. His family got to know of his status after a year of his disappearance through a letter written by him and then began a long ordeal of mercy petitions, lobbying with the Indian and even Pakistani governments to get him released on grounds of mistaken identity.
While the movie goes through all these motions, including how there were few individuals in Pakistan trying to help him, it largely conforms to the narrative of an innocent man going through those horribly shown torture system of the military state of Pakistan. It also shows how the religious groups, students groups etc continued to ask for capital punishment even as the Pakistani state stayed his hanging indefinitely after diplomatic manoeuvres at the top level. There was even an announcement of his release till another round of protests apparently forced the Pakistani government to say that it was someone else getting released.
As the narrative demands, there were individual(s) who were nice to him, e.g. his second lawyer fighting a lonely battle, which merely ends up confirming the largely anti-Pakistani slant of the movie.
While Randeep Hooda playing the role of Sarbjit does manage to portray what can go horribly wrong with a man caught in the wrong circumstances, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, with her over-conscious attempt to speak with an authentic Punjabi accent, ends up re-affirming our ‘faith’ in all the Punjabi stereotypes, that whether they are happy or sad or agitated, they always speak in a hoarse, grating voice; when they are happy they also perform Giddhas and Bhangras, and when they want to protest, they sit at India Gate with candle lights. Oh, the last one is now a national pastime. A great actress like Richa Chaddha (watch her recent performance in ‘Masaan’) is mostly used as a backdrop to Aishwarya’s shouting and shrieking. It’s not that the movie doesn’t have its telling melancholic moments -- moments of utter loneliness for Sarabjit in the cell, loneliness of a family waiting endlessly for years on, which could have been shown more subtly without that ear-splitting background music, but they are far and few in between.
Coming back to the other versions of the Rashomon effect, the movie does elide some of the other facts like there were a couple of unconfirmed reports claiming he was a RAW agent or that human rights activists led by Ansar Burney in Pakistan did wage a long battle to get him released. But more importantly, while watching the movie, my thoughts kept veering towards the case of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri convicted and eventually hanged for attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001.
Just as there were apparently gaping holes in the case against Sarabjit (including the fact that the main witness changed his statement later on), Afzal Guru’s case remained contentious till the end. While the ‘mainstream version’ held him a terrorist guilty of the conspiracy, even the Indian Supreme Court while awarding him death penalty admitted lack of any evidence of his direct involvement in the attacks but justified his hanging on the grounds of ‘satisfying the collective conscience of the society’ -- whatever that meant!
The lawyers fighting the court case to get him released produced scores of evidence to show how he was used as a pawn by the Indian intelligence agencies eventually to be made the fall guy. It is not coincidental that it was his hanging which apparently led to Sarabjit’s eventual killing at the hands of a few prisoners.
So what do we make of these tales, especially where nation-states get involved wittingly or unwittingly? The movie also reminded me of that old classic John le Carre tale ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’, in which unsuspecting innocents become enmeshed in the larger politics of the ‘Çold War’.
The question for me would be: how do we continue producing other versions of the same tale, which expose the ironies of the ‘nationalist wars’? There’s a little footnote to the violent and miserable death of Sarabjit. Right after his tragic death, a Pakistani prisoner, Sanaullah Ranjay, serving his life sentence in a Jammu prison was attacked by another convict and died a few days later in a Chandigarh hospital. Time for another tale?