(Khamosh Pani)

Directed by Sabiha Sumar. 2003.

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In 1947, the Indian sub-continent was partitioned into Muslim East and West Pakistan (later Bangladesh) divided by Hindu-dominated India. Families were uprooted and mass migrations of Muslims and Hindus led to violence, rape, looting, and abductions of women on both sides. The official estimate of the number of abducted women was placed at 50,000 Muslims in India and 33,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan. Some of the women were forced to commit suicide to protect the family "honour" while others ended up marrying their abductors out of self protection, a theme dramatised in Silent Waters, a film by U.S. educated Pakistani director Sabiha Sumar. Sumar has taken the film all over Pakistan, to cities and small towns alike, in hopes of stimulating a debate about the nature and causes of Islamic extremism.
Set in Pakistan in 1979, the film traces the roots of fundamentalism in Pakistan to the overthrow and execution of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the ascension of fundamentalist General Zia ul-Haq. It tells the story of a Muslim widow Ayesha (Kirron Kher) who is losing her son to a group of Islamic extremists and the tragic consequences in her own life. Saleem (Aamir Malik, a Gael Bernal look-alike) is a carefree 18-year old courting Zubeida (Shilpa Shukla), an intelligent and ambitious teenager. When his girlfriend goes away to an all-girls college, he is left at home to think about his future and dreams of a life of doing more than working in the fields. Ultimately, his harsh poverty, peer pressure, and a sense of unfulfilled ambition make him a vulnerable target for the Muslim clerics. 

Recruited by the zealots in his own village, he quickly becomes an aggressive jihadist, abruptly turning his back on his mother and his girlfriend. Several scenes show the growing fear and intolerance the movement spreads in the name of racial purity: the sudden building of a brick wall around a girls school playground, and the bullying of shop owners to close their doors during prayer time. According to Sumar, "There was just a kind of fear that led people to stop thinking. When fear becomes pervasive, you stop questioning." Ayesha becomes haunted by flashbacks, a recurring dream of a young girl screaming and running from a well. When a group of Sikh pilgrims come to town to pray at the village mosque, enmity flares up again and Ayesha is forced to confront a dark secret in her past and a little-known chapter of violence against women in Pakistan's history.

Silent Waters is a strong indictment of the intolerance and the abuse of women caused by religious differences, yet it's potential is not fully realized. Aside from the introduction of Bollywood-style songs and dances at the beginning that feels out of place, both good guys and bad guys are shown without any nuance or dimensionality, especially the militants who are little more than caricatures and the motivation behind Saleem's easy recruitment is unclear. In spite of these aesthetic considerations, Silent Waters is an important film that helps us to better appreciate the vulnerability of women during times of political crises and the factors that may have led to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. If it encourages us to learn more about the history and times, it will have served an extremely useful purpose. It just could have been so much more.


Howard Schumann
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