Director: Ram Madhvani
Cast: Martin Bishop, Lena Hodgson
There’s much to be conflicted about when history is artistically depicted. Should the filmmaker communicate or preach? Can his own voice be heard amidst all the weightage? Can his beliefs and opinions and leanings be seen through his images and tones? Should he be mundanely accurate or creatively respectful? Is dramatic license the same as truth distortion? Is there a middle line at all?
If there is, it’s a bloody one. One that has no definite followers or adversaries. One that is a manifestation of an age-old cinematic/storytelling debate between fictionalized facts and factual fiction. Neerja director Ram Madhvani’s introspective short This Bloody Line embodies the uneasy spirit of this line; though it depicts an important and perhaps forgotten footnote of India’s controversial Partition history, one senses its muted artistic form (merely a single scene) to be more a mark of enlightenment than a craft-ridden statement.
Here, a retired British lawyer (Martin Bishop), one of the most famous – or infamous, depending on how you look at it – names of India’s rushed post-independence reforms, has a conversation of significant angst with his wife (Leda Hodgson), almost twenty years after his defining “job”
This film reimagines a particular morning that may or may not have happened. That’s the thing about the past. There is no single version, plenty of unseen possibilities, and recreating, or ‘fictionalizing’ certain moments, comes with its own set of expectations. Here, a retired British lawyer (Martin Bishop), one of the most famous – or infamous, depending on how you look at it – names of India’s rushed post-independence reforms, has a conversation of significant angst with his wife (Leda Hodgson), almost twenty years after his defining “job”.
His name: Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the man who was hastily put in charge of ‘drawing the borders’ that divided India on both sides into West and East Pakistan.
In a way, this is an old man pouring it all out in the most correct and English way possible – over a cup of tea, politely exploding in the most informative, expository way possible. It has been suppressed in his mind for far too long, yet he rattles off the political intricacies of ‘1947’ to his wife as if they have never discussed it before.
And it’s true; legend has it that Radcliffe refused his fee, burned his papers and never spoke about it again. And it’s only natural that conspiracy theorists (or filmmakers, as we usually call them) theorize about the possibility of him doing so to his near and dear ones. After all, nothing like a searing WH Auden poem to serve as a critique and propel a guilty heart into a flight of dark memories.
I also found myself recalling an imaginary exchange that perhaps Bridge of Spies lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks, in Steven Spielberg’s spy drama) may have had with his wife years later, if his ‘secret negotiations’ had failed, sparking off mass genocides. Such men, irrespective of their eventual status as heroes or villains, are often employed by their governments as the quintessential ‘fall guy’ at sensitive junctures of history. Radcliffe exhibits the troubled conscience of being one, too.
And since not much can be conveyed by his words except his own stance – that of simply being a servant to his own nation – Madhvani designs his space as a better reminder of the man’s character: the Gita and the Quran separated by a book occupy his shelf, and framed pictures of Radcliffe with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru lie next to his sofa.
A letter-boxed cinemascope-ish aspect ratio of the film, similar to the dimensions of the Gandhi photograph, invokes the probability of Radcliffe fundamentally being a man of principles and non-violence. This aside, it conveys Radcliffe’s predicament as one that’s wider than just his story; the archival-footage feel is consistent with the sheer weight of the man’s actions.
Thankfully, the simple, no-nonsense direction recognizes the solemnity of this subject, and leaves the dramatizing to the big screen
That he has aged far harder than his wife – we see him through the window strolling down beside a quaint church towards the end – demonstrates a lifetime of silent confession for agreeing to the task. He would’ve done things differently, if he had the choice again. In Madhvani’s eyes, Radcliffe is more of a human than three volatile sub-continental countries of today would like to believe. Strong written words [“Till today this line makes us bleed”] follow the fairly sympathetic portrayal of the knighted man. This simultaneously underlines the inconsequence of Radcliffe’s guilt in context of his defining job’s violent repercussions. Much of which are still visible today.
That he wasn’t the perpetrator but merely the executor, much like a hangman isn’t as responsible as the Judge who hands out the sentence, is a fact that shouldn’t need reminding or fictionalization. Unfortunately, in these times, it does. And it always will. Thankfully, the simple, no-nonsense direction recognizes the solemnity of this subject, and leaves the dramatizing to the big screen.
Watch the film here: