Ramchand Pakistani is about a lost little boy. The boy is a Dalit Hindu, of a tribe in the Thar desert of Pakistan. Ramchand, for that’s his name, is angry at his mother Champa (Das), and in a fit of pique, such as the very young have, walks away from his village Bhimra, and across the India-Pakistan border. There he, and his father Shankar (Rashid Farooqui), who comes after him, are captured by the Indian border patrol and jailed. Their fellow detainees are mostly people who like them, have walked unwittingly across the border (what is it but large white rocks placed at regular distances ?) and have remained incarcerated for many years, some losing their minds and others losing hope. Amid despair, red tape and the bureaucracy of two nations almost at war, Ramchand and his father remain hopeful . . .
It is a simple story, detailing lives lived in waiting. While Ramchand and his father wait to be released, Champa waits for her son and husband to return home. They are all innocent people, swallowed and chewed up by the monster of suspicion. They are helpless, and at the mercy of the state. The state is personified by well-meaning, if straight-jacketed male prison wardens, and one female warden, who is made responsible for Ramchand’s education. She sort-of mothers the hapless child, although will not touch him because of his caste. Ramchand weathers his time in jail, among adults (he is the only child) mopping floors, learning to read, and somewhat indulged by fellow prisoners.
Syed Fazal Hussain plays the 7 year old Ramchand, with an innocence and naivete that strums the heartstrings. He is a mischievous little child who won’t go to the rudimentary village school, sasses his mother, and demands the full cup of chai that his father receives. Hussein puts in a finely nuanced performance, and pretty much carries the film. His mother’s role, essayed beautifully by Nandita Das, is of a rural woman, who waits for years for the return of her husband and son. Distraught as she is, she refuses to give up hope, even when everyone else (including her husband’s brother) does. Das, clad in colorful clothes and arm-lengths of bangles, masterfully underplays her character.
Farooqi is Shankar, a poor farmer, living in poverty. He is also the father caught in a no-win situation, watching his life wasting away amid the narrow confines of a prison cell. He is anguished, sorrowful, and at times angry, at the drone-like officials, who won’t let them return home, and at his son, who started it all. Maria Wasti, who looks a little like Sameera Reddy, plays the prison warden, and does well.
Mehreen Jabbar does an adequate job of direction. The storyline is fairly straight-forward, and emotion is built up by delving into details of village life, prison life, and the travails of both. Whereas the lonely Champa cleans, cooks, and works in the fields and refuses to move from the village when other villagers move in search of work, Ramchand pines for his mother, and cannot understand why the prison guards won’t let him go home. He also learns many new things in the prison. There is some education, yes, but there is also a worldliness, an introduction to urban life (such as it is within the confines of the jail).
This is not a fast-paced film, and the characters are built up carefully. We feel for the protagonists because they are the common man, poor and desperate, wanting only to be free, but kept captive for crimes they haven’t committed. It is the case of the little man against the bloated, bureaucratic state, a state which keeps innocent people hostage because of mere suspicion.
The characters are also very “human”, in the sense that they have their own little quirks. The female prison warden, is partial to Sridevi films, which she lets Ramchand watch, and he then, just stepping into adolescence, develops a crush on her (the warden). Ramchand’s mother, Champa, alone, although living with her brother-in-law’s family, develops feelings for a local merchant. Her hopes, however, are thwarted by class and caste barriers. She is never allowed to forget her presumed-dead husband, as depicted in a scene where she buys herself new clothes, but is reprimanded by her brother-in-law, “for dressing up like it was Diwali”.
The film does not take sides, it is not preachy - it simply tells a tale, and let’s you judge. There are no rants about one country being better than the other, and there is no pointing of fingers, or shifting of blame, which lets us, the viewers focus on the human story it tells. It’s a poignant tale, and a moving film (I wept buckets).
Ramchand Pakistani is not your average Friday-night entertainer - it is infact a sad film, the way films are when they speak of anguish and suffering. It is based on a true story, and while it is only Ramchand and his father that we care about in this film, it is well worth noting that there are many such "prisoners" rotting away their lives in the jails of India and Pakistan. For getting out the message on them, and their pitiful condition, this film is to be commended.