Tales of a vegetarian crocodile, gramophone owners who believe that the singers reside inside their device and how the word ‘sufi’ was derived are woven into Sapna Bhavnani’s Sindhustan. It’s an hour-long documentary that chronicles the Partition-era migration of Sindhis – the “largest in the history of the world” – through personal anecdotes. Interspersed with archival footage of burning buildings and families travelling by bullock carts are visuals of Bhavnani’s aunt cooking Sindhi curry and telling stories of her childhood.
For the first-time director, the challenge lay in balancing an intensely personal story with the responsibility of representing an entire community. “There has never been a film on the Sindhis, ever. So it was like being the first person to make such a film – I took on a lot. The documentary took seven years to make. I did five edits because they were just not good enough. There was a lot of pressure,” she says over the phone from New York, where the film recently won Best Documentary at the New York Indian Film Festival. In what she calls a “domino effect”, it’s now headed to festivals in Canada, Germany and then America once more.
The genesis of the documentary was a Sushila Raman concert she attended in Bandra around eight or nine years ago. On watching some fakirs perform, Bhavnani says she ran home mesmerized and googled ‘Sindh’ for the first time, questioning why the music had not travelled with the migrants. “When we came here, we left everything behind and when you leave everything behind, music and art won’t help you rebuild your life. We had to adopt the current environment, the new language and do everything possible to survive. We had to make businesses of everything – even things like making papad. Making this doc helped me answer that question,” she says.
“I never wanted to have my face in the documentary. I realised I’m well known in my other career, which is that of a hair stylist, so somewhere that would always seep in – there’s this celebrity stylist in her own documentary. I just wanted to tell this story through my legs.”
Given the massive size and scale of the historical event, Bhavnani says she took around two years to figure out how to tell this story. “I didn’t want to tell a story that Google could tell you. There’s a lot of information online, there are lot of books on Sindh. It would have to be personal anecdotes.” Finding locals who had witnessed Partition proved to be surprisingly easy, she says. She started with her own family, travelling to Pune to interview her 94-year-old great grand uncle. More family connections revealed themselves over the course of filming – Bhavnani, a hair stylist, discovered that her father was born in Hajampara, which literally means ‘barber’s place’.
The more people she found, the more they introduced her to. When one of the film’s financiers requested that spiritual guru Dada Vaswani feature in the documentary, she got in touch with him through an unconventional method – by tweeting at him.
Sindhustan never mentions which side of the border its subjects are from – a conscious decision aimed at making viewers realise we’re all one, says Bhavnani, who hit a roadblock when she was denied visas by both governments. “The Indian government started this whole thing where Pakistani actors could not work in Bollywood and in retaliation to that, the Pakistani government stopped visas (for Indians). So I couldn’t get to Sindh,” she says. Eventually, friends from Pakistan who produce Coke Studio put her in touch with a music director. The two met in Nepal, after which it took him a month to upload the interviews he had shot in Sindh and another month-and-a-half for her to download the footage in Bombay, she says.
Bhavnani’s legs, which she tattooed in the Sindhi Ajrak and Madhubani style just for the documentary, feature prominently in it. A limited budget, however, meant that she did not have luxury of getting the tattoos done over the advised two-year period. She did them in 10 days. “I never wanted to have my face in the documentary. I realised I’m well known in my other career, which is that of a hair stylist, so somewhere that would always seep in – there’s this celebrity stylist in her own documentary. I just wanted to tell this story through my legs.”
The accelerated timeframe meant that she had to check herself into the hospital for four days. It took a month-and-a-half to be able to walk straight again. Bhavnani, however, says it was worth it. “Some white guy sitting in America can now say, ‘Hey I want to get a Madhubani tattoo.’ or some German guy can think of getting an Ajrak tattoo. That’s the goal.”