Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) is set in the aftermath of the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Communal riots are ubiquitous at this point, and everyone has a past, and a score to settle. We’re introduced to our protagonist Tara Singh (played by a roaring Sunny Deol), who is vengeful and murderous after he loses his family to communal violence in Independent India. He only looks forward to revenge – until a Taj Mahal souvenir at a train station stops him in his tracks. The flashback provides context, Tara Singh used to be a truck driver with a gentle disposition, and a passion for singing.
Trigger warning: This movie might not be your cup of tea if you're the type who prefers cute rom-coms over chaotic violence and eardrum-shattering screams.
Sakina, a Muslim girl played by Ameesha Patel — is a student at the New Era Girls College in Shimla. At the college, she has a penchant for mischief — she uses a violin bow to conduct a fake music class and is found performing a mixture of Bharatanatyam and Ballet for the college. But behind all her ineptitude is a righteous woman who stands up for Tara, and his talents, in front of a classist principal. Patel allows herself the excesses of a Hindi film heroine in full measure – no holds barred, no tears withheld. Reader, she is overbearing. That said, she looks beautiful even when she’s crying and strangely enough, also eases us into Deol’s bellows, which are overlaid with the audio of a lion’s roar.
The Taj Mahal souvenir is gifted by Tara to Sakina on her last day at her college (it is an unsubtle symbol of enduring love). He has yearned for her from a distance, but he thinks that Sakina is out of his league, since he is a truck driver without formal education, whereas her father is obscenely rich, and she studies at an English medium college.
Cut to the present, the dynamic has evolved and Tara has become a protector of sorts: He stands tall in front of Sakina, protecting her from a mob, and eventually offers to escort her to Lahore – this is done without any ulterior motive. Sakina, on the other hand, helps him find a way back to himself, and Tara, in her company, feels the appetite for vengeance upon Muslims diminish.
Gadar: Ek Prem Katha presents an audacious love story amidst the tumultuous backdrop of India's Partition, a narrative choice that intrigued me from the outset. The romance between Tara Singh and Sakina was handled with a sensitive awareness of their identities and its implications. But the initial honeymoon period collapses quickly as the two navigate communal violence. It must be tough to preserve the innocence of first love against the backdrop of violent historical events, but the film manages this with dexterity.
The film's portrayal of Pakistan as a multi-dimensional entity, rather than just as an antagonist, was refreshing to witness. Questionable and dramatic portrayals of cross-border relations still exist in Gadar…, but characters like Gul Khan (Mushtaq Khan), who are written with nuance, challenge our notion of not granting humanity to those on the other side of the border.
The central conflict of the film, thus, is reasoned well: Sakina’s father (Amrish Puri), whose blessing is sought for their union, has good reason to detest the likes of Tara Singh. It also puts you in a position that allows you to empathise with other Pakistani characters like Ashraf Ali (Puri) and his wife Shabana (Lillete Dubey). Ashraf almost fatally injures Sakina during a shootout between the two — his son was murdered by someone similar to Tara Singh during the communal chaos, and he finds it hard to digest that she would want to be with someone like him. But injuring the female protagonist is not a villainous act in the context of the film, it is explained through the prevalent mistrust due to communal chaos, and how hard it is to not succumb to it.
Gadar's… endeavour to present an inclusive story is admirable. There are, however, some issues. For instance, at one point, Ashraf Ali uses a transphobic slur – unfortunately, this wasn’t an anomaly in 2001. For a large part of the film, the otherwise empowered Sakina regresses into a damsel-in-distress, undercutting her own potential. At one point, she does break a door with a sofa, and also uses an assault rifle to shoot Pakistani army men, and that is the assertion of bravado that the film glorifies. There are certain places where she displays remarkable moral clarity and is an anchor for the film. But the film is insistent in not acknowledging the value of her inner strength, and this frustrated me, for it squandered an incredible opportunity – the chance to show bravery as more than just physical fits of aggression.
How Tara Singh evolves to deepen his understanding of the Partition and chooses to extend grace to himself and those he meets in Pakistan are my favourite parts of the film. Except for the time he’s on a killing spree, reasoned by manic rage, his potent expression of national pride and resilience doesn’t become jingoistic. He also comes around to say, “Pakistan Zindabad!”, and he has no reservations against converting to Islam for the love of his life. In a Partition story, this display of humanistic values is rare.
By the end of the film Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, for all its imperfections, offered a glimpse into the evolving ethos of Bollywood, and by extension, us as a collective. The film's attempt to humanise both sides of the border is commendable, but certain narrative choices and characterisations reinforced stereotypes, and acting performances, retrospectively, feel almost jarring (how do you get used to a man roaring like a lion?). The movie, in 2001, was a commercial and critical success. The sequel has been projected to have one of the biggest opening days in Hindi cinema’s history. Let’s hope it’s at least as entertaining as its first part.