Direction and Story by Sabiha Sumar
Screenplay by Paromita Vohra
Silent Waters is an amazingly powerful tale of both personal struggle and historical significance. The year is 1979 when General Zia-ul-Haq seized power of the Pakistan government and pushed to make the country a model of Islam. The story is set in the small village of Charkhi in Pakistani Punjab and the main character is Ayesha, a widow who teaches the Koran to schoolgirls. Saleem is Ayesha’s 18-year-old son, who has no ambitions other than to play his flute and marry his girlfriend, Zubeida, who has ambitions to go to college and make a lot of money so she can afford servants. Everything is simple and peaceful for the Pakistanis in this small village until two Muslim fundamentalists arrive from Lahore. They begin to recruit young men who don’t have much of a future and give them a newfound purpose in Islam.
Ayesha is not happy to see Saleem join the men because she believes in a more tolerant version of Islam. She has witnessed the lengths to which religion can drive men. She lived through the 1947 partition of the Indian sub-continent when it divided into Pakistan, dominated by Muslims, and India, dominated by Hindus. The Muslims and Sikhs had previously lived together peacefully, but the partition awoke a long-forgotten bloodlust and created a civil war. These former neighbors killed each other and looted property, which is what the women were considered. The men’s pride far outweighed their intelligence and rather than have the women soiled by their enemy, they forced the women to commit suicide in order to save the honor of the family and the community.
Things become volatile when the government allows Hindu Sikhs to return to the village on a pilgrimage. They had violently been ejected during partition and the fundamentalists aren’t happy to see the “non-believers” in the village practicing their blasphemy. One of the Sikhs seeks out Ayesha. This upsets her son and causes the villagers, including her friends, to shun her.
Silent Waters reminded me of Satyajit Ray’s work. It’s an honest portrayal of the day-to-day lives of people in this region of Asia. The strength of the story lies in its uniqueness. I had not seen or read about characters like this before and knew nothing of the history or lifestyles of Pakistani villagers. With Pakistan all over the news since 9/11, I realize that we need to pay more attention to what’s going on in countries that never make the news programs now, so we’re not surprised when they do.
Kirron Kher gives a marvelous performance as Ayesha. She shows amazing courage as this woman who is torn between two worlds. How do you pick one a culture when neither sees you as anything more than an object? I would have been more angry and upset by her ordeal if I hadn’t been sent into a state of shock.
While the story is fictional, it is based on real events and can leave the viewer very sad, especially when you think that women might still be suffering the same fates where cultures clash. We might soon hear the tales of what women suffered in Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq. The world owes Sumar a debt of thanks for sharing this story of her people. Hopefully, everyone will learn from their history and not be doomed to repeat it.