'Straight.com' - Love and War
By Ken Eisner -- February, 1st 2007
Partition’s Vic Sarin layers troubled love between a Sikh and a Muslim over India’s explosive breakup 60 years ago.
For veteran filmmaker Vic Sarin, Partition is more than just another movie. Sure, every director falls in love with his latest baby. But Sarin wrote the original screenplay for this historical drama more than a decade ago, and the resulting effort is both epic in scope and in personal drama, as it connects mightily with its maker’s own background and his aspirations as a storyteller.
The handsome effort, which opens here Friday (February 2), tells the tale of one couple battling against religious, political, and tribal odds in the context of India’s historic division of 1947. That was when the subcontinent’s short postcolonial honeymoon turned into a nightmare of sectarian violence, resulting in the breakup of a multicultural state into India and Pakistan. (Eventually, East Pakistan would turn into Bangladesh, too, with its own bloodstained future. For more background, see the sidebar below.)
Sarin set out to use this volatile setting as a backdrop for the troubled love affair and marriage between a bearded and brooding Sikh warrior, played by London-based Jimi Mistri, and an innocent young Muslim woman, played by Vancouver’s popular Kristin Kreuk.
Born in India’s region a little over 60 years ago, Sarin spent his teenage years in Australia, where his father, a career diplomat, gave him a 16mm camera. Starting as a camera operator (something his grown son, Tobias, now does for a living), the adult Sarin was already a mainstay in Canadian TV by the early 1970s. He did every kind of globetrotting for CBC and other outlets, shooting documentaries, dramas, and historical pieces.
The veteran filmmaker is now best known as the inventive cinematographer of such famous Canadian movies as Loyalties, Bye Bye Blues, Whale Music, and Margaret’s Museum. But in the ’80s, he also began directing TV movies and series, with a special emphasis on fact-based dramas, such as Trial at Fortitude Bay and The David Milgaard Story.
While undertaking all his recent projects, Sarin kept Partition bubbling away in the background. A self-confessed visualist, he had never written anything significant until attempting to depict the postwar Punjab, and he eventually enlisted writer Patricia Finn (who worked on the Madison series) to help him smooth some of the narrative bumps in a story—told entirely in English—that remains more pictorial than verbal.
“Well, this is pretty much the way I always saw it,” the director said over tea at a downtown Vancouver hotel. With his long white hair and salt-and-pepper beard standing out boldly against a dark suit, he has come into the city from his family home in Horseshoe Bay to meet the press. Just the night before, he attended the film’s local debut at the Ridge Theatre, and he is still recovering from the “pandemonium”, as he called it, of an event attended by cast and crew and many more.
“They turned away almost a hundred people,” he said, juggling pride and consternation with a very slight accent. He has attended quite a few other test screenings—generally harrowing events for writer-directors—and been unexpectedly thrilled by the results. Of course, there were many times over the years when it seemed that Sarin would never see his own movie completed.
“I believe I made Partition for two main reasons. The first is that we, as human beings, have created so many divisions. Why do we need all this anger in Bosnia or Iraq? It’s not created by God but by us.”
The other motivation was connected with his childhood and the tale his father told him of a boyhood friend who committed suicide with his Muslim girlfriend when local elders wouldn’t allow them to be together. The story came up again when Sarin sat with a dying parent about 10 years ago.
“I thought to myself at the time, ‘What would I want if I were laying there? Money? Women? Power?’ No, the only thing I would hope for would be that the hand I am holding belongs to a person I love.”
That determination helped drive him to complete the ambitious project, and the commitment to focus on the love aspect also caused him to tone down sectarian violence that was, historically, even more brutal than what he depicted.
“That was a conscious decision,” he said after a long pause. “I didn’t want the audience to get so caught up in bloodshed that they couldn’t see the beauty.”
Indeed, the film, which Sarin also shot, is gorgeous to look at. Logistically speaking, it is striking for the way it blends footage taken in India and here in B.C. (That’s certainly one of many ways that Sarin’s experience with lighting paid off.)
For young Kreuk, the experience of filming in two countries was surprising, and not just in the usual ways.
“When we got to the Punjab,” she recalled in a recent call from Toronto, “we said, ‘You know what? This really does look like Langley.’ But that’s why people shoot in B.C., isn’t it?”
The Vancouver-based actor, a multiethnic beauty best known for her work on the Smallville series, figures that Sarin’s vision made the whole thing work.
“Vic’s passion for this film was really obvious. The whole process was very close to his heart, which is both a wonderful thing and sometimes a challenging thing. He put so much into this, and we all worked so hard to make it right. But when that’s the case, if things start to go just a little bit wrong, well, that can be really hard for everybody. That said, he’s such a fascinating guy just to spend time with. He’s travelled all over the world and tells all these crazy stories. And I like to listen.”
A favourite of current lad mags and users of Neutrogena products (for whom she frequently models), Kreuk admits that sometimes she’s a better listener than a speaker, at least when it comes to prep time. Here, there wasn’t a lot of time to prepare for an emotionally demanding role—one that found her character beat up, held prisoner, threatened, and deeply in love—all with a lot of crying involved.
“I was kind of on my own in a lot of ways, which was actually a lot of fun for me. Smallville is a very structured environment, and there isn’t much time to play with things. In a way, it was good that we didn’t rehearse that much, because I’m not that great with rehearsal; I tend to hold back and then the director doesn’t know how much I can deliver when we actually shoot. In any case, this was a character that had a well-defined arc, and I sat with it, and the script, for two years before we actually shot. It was a part of my being the whole time.”
The experience for Mistri was entirely different. Born in England 33 years ago to Irish and Indian parents, he is primarily known as a comedian and comic actor, seen in romps like The Guru and Things to Do Before You’re 30. Somehow, Sarin pictured him as leading-man material, and Mistri, who came later to the project, is the first to suggest that he needed to be coaxed into finding his serious side. (Although Kreuk says that didn’t stop him from constantly cracking wise between takes.)
“This was really, really difficult,” said the tall, English-accented actor, clean-shaven, with his dark hair now short and slicked down. “I don’t know why Vic chose me for this, but I’m glad he did. We spent a lot of time every day, talking through the part and trying different things. I mean, unlike me, this character is a guy who takes things hard and doesn’t really open up to people. And you still have to convey that to an audience.”
Mistri still seems a bit dazed by the project, which wrapped last year, but he was entranced by the opportunity to leave London and shoot in Northern India and Vancouver. Now, as a result, he’s looking for more opportunities to work in Canada.
When it comes to evaluating Partition’s importance, aside from actorly ambition, Kreuk thinks the project needs to be embraced on several levels.
“I just feel that this is the kind of movie we need to be making in this country. Sure, it’s great to have stories about people on the prairies, but it’s crucial for us to get out into the world and tell bigger stories that say something about how we got here.”
The into-the-world experience was so big for Kreuk, in fact, that she returned to India last Christmas for pleasure, just in time for her 24th birthday; Partition’s costume designer, Dolly Ahluwalia accompanied Kreuk. In that way, as in many others, the movie keeps opening doors for everyone involved.