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In a Pakistani village in 1979, a mother watches in sorrow as her teenage son becomes indoctrinated into a group of radical Islamist militants bent on converting the entire country to Sharia law. As her relationship with her son crumbles, she experiences flashbacks from her childhood in 1947, another time of political unrest when the country of Pakistan was forming. In Silent Waters (2003), director Sabiha Sumar explores violence and unrest through women’s perspectives, who often stand to suffer the most as its result. (RMM: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan
In the village of Charkhi, Pakistan, in 1979, a mother named “Ayesha” (Kiron Kher) lives with her teenage son “Salim (Aamir Ali), who she loves very much. An ambitious young man, Salim wants to do more with his life than toil away in the fields like the other village men. He is in love with the young “Zubeida” (Shilpa Shukla), who he meets with every morning before she goes to school. Also ambitious, Zubeida wants to attend college so that she can become an intelligent, educated woman who will work later in life. Until then, she enjoys listening to Salim play his flute and talk about their future together.
At a wedding, guests break out into song and dance as they celebrate the start of a new family in the village. Salim’s friends tease him about his crush on Zubeida, and the whole scene carries a light, mirthful air. There we meet two men who have come to Charkhi to spread the rhetoric of jihad, which means a struggle or fight to defend Islam, but it takes on a more radical meaning in this context. When Prime Minister Bhutto is hanged, the two men – and other militants – intend to instill Sharia law (Islam’s legal system that acts as a Muslim code of conduct) as the country’s official law.
Knowing Salim’s nature and his desire to hold influence in matters of work and life, it’s almost too easy to see where his story will go. These men take him in and sell their ideology well, slowly but effectively indoctrinating him to their cause and quickly turning him against his own mother, who he treats with more and more hostility. Feeling unappreciated and disrespected by both his mother and Zubeida, who openly expresses her dislike of the militants, Salim turns away from them both, choosing to enter this new life wholly and without them.
Tensions come to a head when a group of Sikh men comes to town from India; they had historically lived in Charkhi but were driven out in 1947 when Pakistan was established. The state has allowed them safe passage to pray for several days at their shrines. Soon, when a Sikh man starts looking for his long lost sister, we discover that Ayesha (the sister) was originally a member of the Sikh community but fled from her family and became a Muslim in order to survive. Throughout the film, she has flashbacks to the painful memory of this experience. Salim, now fully entrenched in the militants’ ideals who openly hate the Sikhs and all those against the Muslim faith, feels betrayed.
In Silent Waters (2003), director and writer Sabiha Sumar demonstrates an understanding of the complexities of religious expression, freedom, and acceptance. I very much appreciate this because it communicates to the audience that in this situation – and in many cases – there is no clear “good side” or “bad side.” Within both the Muslim and Sikh communities, there exist those who choose to live their faith through love and those that commit terrible acts in the name of that faith. Muslims like the local barber want peace and the freedom to live their lives as they choose while fulfilling their religious duties. The Islamist militants, however, communicate dedication to their faith by expressing hatred towards non-Muslims like the Sikhs.
When those Sikhs come to town, they only want to have the freedom to practice their religion and honor their god. Yet, we also learn that back in 1947, when forced to flee the region, they shot and killed their women rather than allow them to fall prey to the coming Muslims. Ayesha, who was told to jump in the local well and kill herself at the time, did not want to die. So when her brother asks her to come see their dying father for his peace, she retorts that “he wanted to kill me for his peace.” Furthermore, we cannot blame all Muslims for the displacement of those Sikhs. We must sit with the ambiguity of blame and the co-existence of happiness and pain. A Sikh man is sad that he lost his home; a Muslim man is happy to find a new one. We must refrain from viewing matters in black and white and get used to the fact that many conflicts exist in shades of grey.
While watching the film, I was unsettled by my realization that progress is frequently not linear. As the militants become more powerful, they begin enforcing rules that strip previously enjoyed freedoms from the village people. Whereas business owners could remain open during prayer times and pray from their shops or houses, they must now close and worship only in the mosque. As right after right are stripped from these people, they – and the audience – feel their society being brutally yanked back into a sort of darkness. Such a regression reminds me of films like The Breadwinner (2017) and The Swallows of Kabul (2019), in which the people of Afghanistan feel the flight of their freedom as the Taliban takes hold of their lives.
A particularly heartbreaking element of this story is the dissolution of the relationship between mother and son. From the beginning, Ayesha’s love for Salim – her only family – is clear. I cannot fathom the pain she must feel in watching him drift further and further away from her, becoming so radicalized in thought and intolerant that he becomes unrecognizable. Children nearing adulthood might yearn for more freedom than their parents are ready to give, but Salim’s journey for self-fulfillment and independence destroys the bond he once had with Ayesha.
After watching, I wonder if a person’s level of susceptibility to radical ideas can be attributed, in part at least, to something already within their character. Even before Salim met those men, he exhibited vanity and pride. He refused to accept the offer for a manual labor job that Ayesha accepted on his behalf and scoffed at the idea of becoming a farmer. Having ambition is not bad, of course, but it must be tempered by humility gained through experience. Salim presented an easy target for the militants because he had already expressed a desire to hold influence and have direction in life. When given a direction, though a radical one, he latched on almost immediately. Watching his subsequent cruelty towards his loved ones (Ayesha and Zubeida) both shocked and saddened me.
Sumar gives us much to ponder about family dynamics and religion, offering us an informative window to history in the process.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (11/12/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Ayesha and son Salim at home one night.
Photo Credits: First Run Features
Q: Does Silent Waters pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Ayesha and Zubeida discuss life, as does Ayesha and her trusted friend, “Shabbo” (Fariha Zaheen).