Guest post by VIRINDER S KALRA
Milange Babey Ratan De Mele Te (Let’s Meet At Baba Ratan’s Fair); Length: 95 minutes, Year 2012; Directed and Produced by Ajay Bhardwaj
Ajay Bhardwaj’s third documentary film based in East Punjab, India, takes us into a deeper exploration of some of the themes touched upon in his previous works: Kitte Mil Ve Mahi and Rabba Hun Ke Kariye. Indeed, at one level Milange Babe Ratan De Mele Te is about a journey of an impossible return to a pre-Partition Punjab in which religious identity was fluid and the sacred and profane intermingled and fused.
As Arundhati Roy has so poignantly remarked on the film: “Close to a million people lost their lives and several million lost their homelands forever when India and Pakistan were partitioned. In the midst of the horror that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs inflicted on each other there were also redeeming stories of the love that bound these communities together—stories we cling to, so we may retain our faith in the human spirit. Milange Babey Ratan De Mele Te is one such story. It is the story of how love survived a holocaust.” The affection that the main characters in the film have for the departed poet Rajab Ali and the devotion with which Sufi shrines are attended to pay witness to the fact that despite partition the cultural landscape of Punjab is pervaded by a piety and spirituality which is resilient. Professor Karam Singh’s histories of Bhatinda, where the Baba Haji Ratan shrine is located, and his understanding of a pre-partition Punjab provide a running theme through the film.
The first half an hour of the documentary introduces the main characters, not only human, but also the landscape, the shrine and the music. Each of these plays a role in unfolding and developing, not a single narrative but a complex weave that does not adopt a linear historical form but takes shape by looping back on itself and often leaving threads dangling. Names of people merge with the names of places and the changes in visual appearance are matched by adoption of names in liminal space. The lead character Machandar Khan Miskeen, is visually (mis)read as a Sikh, his utterances those of a poet, his laughter of a faqir. His opening words set the scene of a world in which those who have social value place no value in God. A commentary on the contemporary, yet also a long standing starting point of for those about to launch a critique on that very contemporary. Who is this God that is neglected? Machandar goes on to tell us in a mixture of Vedanta/ Waji ul wajood philosophy that it is none other than our fellow beings, that this God, resides in us all. If that is so then the neglect is of for one person for another, not of a distant, powerful and fearful being. This God does not reside in temples or Mosques, Machhandar goes on to tell us, but is waiting to be realised in all of us. Indeed, he tells the story of Majnu, a character from a popular folk ballad, being called by a messenger of Allah to meet him, Majnu refuses to go, saying: “Send me Laila and I will fall in love with her and through that find Allah!”
In the bedazzling, commoditised world of South Asia, the figure of the male, turbaned, bearded Jat Sikh has become synonymous with Punjabi, popularly represented by global bhangra, Bollywood adaptations and in its most violent form, the Indian army. This hypermasculine figure comes to represent the pinnacle of consumer capitalism, Indian style, in contemporary representations of the Punjab. Even in Pakistan, the ‘true’ Punjabi is considered to be the Jat Sikh male with accompanying values of loyalty, erratic but passionate emotions and unbridled masculinity. This is not the world of Bhardwaj’s film. Here a Fateh Chouhan cries when reading about the partition, a woman devotee refuses to be filmed, a soldier of the Indian National Army describes his families shrine. These characters are not presented as counter figures to the overwhelming crushing forces of modernity, not a comfort for those seeking nostalgia or refuge in the past. The tractor, combined harvester and passing sounds of truck horns are constant reminders that we are watching images set in the twenty first century and the associated troubles of modernity are co-terminus with the invocations of other times. Though never explicitly mentioned it is the social crises of Punjab; female infanticide, water depletion and drug addiction are exposed by the focus on the fracturing caused by partition.
A central strand running through the film is the way that people’s practices cut across formal religious boundaries running counter to the hegemonic ordering of Punjabi society in both India and Pakistan. Beginning at Baba Ratan’s shrine we are led on a pilgrimage that tells us how he becomes a Hajji (someone who has performed pilgrimage to Mecca) and his relationship to the King of the snakes, Gugga Jahar. This is the not so much the meeting of the two great rivers of Islamic and Vedic civilisations, but the overlapping and entwining spirituality of people’s practices and narrative making. Baba Rattan is a Brahmin called to make the astrology chart of the Prophet Mohammed at his birth, when he returns to India his place of death, his tomb is named as Baba Hajji Ratan because of this pilgrimage. Gugga Jahar kills his brothers in a feud and his mother Bacchal rejects him and in his grief wishes for the earth to swallow him. But the mother of the earth will not take him because he is not meant to die in that manner. So he goes to Baba Ratan and is told to read the first line of the kalma, La il allah la il, and then the earth will accept him. In this way he becomes Gugga Pir. These are the stories of the Nath yogis, who punctuate the spiritual landscape of Punjab. Sometimes they appear in Sufi texts, they are always present in hagiography and Guru Nanak has a long discourse with them that is present in the Ad Granth. Yet these Nath’s themselves are as much victims of partition as the rest of the characters in the drama that is Punjab. Yogis themselves got left in West Punjab and it is only their stories in the love stories of Punjab that bring them to life.
Bhardwaj’s film though shows that the irrepressible activities of people maintain and sustain traditions even as they are often trod upon through rewritings and re-imaginings. The overtly politicised realm of religion in the politics of East Punjab is refuted and turned away from in spaces in which there are no rule setters and where performance and expression are the norm. This is not a film about Gurdwaras, Temples or Mosques, where rules of dress, eating and prayer create identities of religion. Rather here the rules are made by those who come to worship, it is there inner convictions that determine the nature of the ritual. Nothing is sacred, nothing profane, the business of running a shrine is the same as that of running a life. All that is necessary is the right attitude and perseverance. Visually compelling and ultimately uplifting Milange Baba Ratan De Mele Te is an antidote to the overtly righteous tones and hues that religion has adopted in postcolonial South Asia.