Consider Canadian filmmaker Vic Sarin’s latest film, Partition, to be a labour of love.
Sarin, who was born in Kashmir, sets his film against the tumultuous backdrop of the 1947 division of India and Pakistan. The film focuses on a classic Romeo and Juliet story of forbidden love between a Sikh man, Gian, and a Muslim woman, Naseem. The characters are based on friends of Sarin’s father, whose tragic story, which ended in double suicide, stayed with him as an adult.
The partition of India is a violent piece of post-Second World War history that is unfamiliar to many people, particularly in the West. British actor Jimi Mistry plays the lead role of Gian in Partition, and admits that prior to landing the role his knowledge of that part of Indian history was limited. “I was aware of it, but I didn’t know much about it. Most of the people outside the community don’t know much about it. It’s unbelievable, the number of people who were displaced and actually killed at that time. It’s quite horrific.”
The horror of the massacres between Sikhs and Muslims is depicted in the movie, but not focussed on. Instead, Sarin seeks to show the prevalence of love and humanity in even the bleakest settings. Gian, a recently returned soldier, finds a young Muslim woman hiding in the woods after she has escaped an ambush. He takes her into his home and hides her from his friends and neighbours, who are trying to recruit Gian to join the fight against the Muslims. She is eventually discovered, and Gian risks his own life to protect her. His kindness leads to a romance that is strong enough to find acceptance in his Sikh village.
The film offers a message of tolerance by focusing on what is similar between all people, and what brings us together. Though set 60 years ago, the subject matter is acutely relevant today. Partition is a Western movie set in India, and tells the story of a Muslim and a Sikh with no stereotypes. Instead, it offers western audiences a chance to connect with characters that are largely misrepresented or ignored in movies. Both Mistry and the female lead, Canadian actor Kristen Kreuk, invested a lot of time in researching their roles and becoming familiar with the faiths of the characters.
Mistry, whose father is from India, but who was raised Catholic, visited Sikh temples in preparation for his role. “I had to understand the Sikh culture for such a big role, and an important one. It’s very important to embody him. You can’t just put the costume on.”
Often cast in comedic parts, the star of films such as The Guru and A Touch of Pink saw an opportunity to establish himself as a dramatic actor with this strong male lead.
“I felt very honoured,” says Mistry when asked what it was like being a part of such a personal film for director Sarin. “I’d known Vic for a few years before we actually made it, so I know how hard he’s worked on this. I was honoured that he felt that I was the right choice to portray the character.”
Mistry was also impressed with the performance of his young co-star. Kreuk, of television’s Smallville and Edgemont fame, is essentially making her big-screen debut with this emotional and challenging role, at a time when other young actors are starring in teen comedies and slasher movies. “She’s a very good actress. I think it’s quite brave to approach a role like this. She chose to make quality.”
Also appearing in the film is Canadian star Neve Campbell, who, in recent years, has been working in independent films such as When Will I Be Loved and The Company. She plays the role of Margaret Stilwell, a character who represents the British population living in India at the time. Margaret adds a subtle triangle to the romance in the film, as she harbours her own unspoken feelings for her friend Gian.
Partition is a simple and familiar story set against a complicated and unfamiliar backdrop. Much as the main characters are united by what they share in common, Western audiences can feel connected by universal themes of love and courage.
“The greatest tragedy is when the freedom to love who you choose is imposed by outside forces,” says Sarin. “I hope after seeing a film of this kind, people will reconsider some of their values and priorities in life. I think at the end of the day, all that matters is who you reach out to and touch in your lifetime.”
Partition opens Friday, February 1.