I owe a large part of who I am to both Veer and Zaara as had there not been the remarkable circular movement transitioning scene, amongst various other things in the film, I wouldn’t have ended up in the field of production. Starting off with this transition scene specifically, the circular camera movement along with the ageing of Veer and Zaara in the brief court scene is an un-erasable film memory that is stuck with me for life. For a long period, I convinced myself that I was going back to the film for Shahrukh, but to my surprise, it was new and a little heart-breaking that a visual sequence was the reason. It intrigued me so much as a child when I first saw the film, both emotionally and technically, and I couldn’t wait to work in the domains of filmmaking and especially editing.
Keeping the inspiration of this scene close to my heart, I realised that I was also holding on to the recreation of an emotional space through visuals in everything I did. It is now when I work on stories of Partition and document them, it hit me how larger parts of our lives are influenced by films and the experiences we get exposed to in our childhood, and the memories of some of them contribute to making us the person that we are today.
From the first frame of the film, we are immersed in nostalgic sepia; a conscious decision of the director of photography, Anil Mehta, with a lyrical poem written by Javed Akhtar on love, life, and desires and recited by the creator of the film himself – Yash Raj Chopra. It’s a typical Yash Raj and Shahrukh movie opening; open arms, green scenery, running SRK- ahaaa! My love for this man often gets mixed with the lens of the film student that I am.
If I move beyond the storyline, Veer Zaara has very strategically used cinematography as a mode of transition between certain contexts and locales. Lahore is introduced at the beginning of the film to us through the window of the jail; establishing both the prisoner, Veer Pratap Singh, and his environmental location in one go. As Veer Pratap begins to describe the F16 plane, it takes me back to my oral histories documentation and drawing from my personal experiences, I have always wondered, how profound the impact of an unfortunate event like the Partition must have been that it shaped the present state of mind of a person in a way that they remember even the minute details of things that they were once associated with; be it objects, places, people, or in Veer Pratap Singh’s case, his occupation.
Bebe (the character played by Zohra Sehgal), Zaara’s grandmother, beautifully mentions the division between the two lands, Indian and Pakistan, by saying “I am as old as Pakistan is.” Being 16 years old at the time of Partition, she recalls her and her husband’s migration memory, which also tells us that Bebe was actually a refugee in Pakistan, living with the Hayaat Khan family. In the brief interaction with Zaara, Bebe proudly identifies herself as an Indian living in Pakistan, just as much as she would have done in her motherland. The Partition of 1947 is recorded as one of the largest mass migrations in the history of the world, where it wasn’t just the identities of people across the borders that were questioned, but everything from their religion to their art, literature, music; every piece of culture and tradition was divided in accordance with this arbitrary geographical demarcation.
Bebe also lays down two references from her onscreen performance – Kiratpur Sahib, and Sikhs and Partition. Kiratpur Sahib, located in the Rupnagar district of Punjab, is a sacred place for Sikhs, where the community takes the ashes of the deceased into the Sutlej River on which the Gurudwara is situated. Interestingly, the place is also associated with the memory of Pir Budhan Shah, who lived in close proximity to Kiratpur. His mausoleum is visited by both Sikhs and Muslims of the region. Sikhs, particularly women, escaped the systematic violence against themselves - which included abduction, rape, kidnapping of children, forcible conversion, making women walk down the streets naked, and other various attempts of violence against women – by jumping into the wells to save their honour and avoid conversion.
Veer Zara is a kind of film that immerses us in the larger history associated with each plot of the film and its dialogues. The transition from Bebe’s last moments back to the prison happens through the a falling water glass, which according to me is a super creative call in terms of both screenplay and editing. While Zaara drops the holy water glass in Bebe’s scene, continuity is maintained when a similar glass is seen falling in the prison in the same direction and with the same momentum; making it look like a complete shot and carrying forward the emotional tone of one scene to another.
I don’t think I can go on without mentioning the first time Veer and Zaara met. It was an accidental meet-up, but the way Shahrukh Khan plays Veer both on and off duty, and describes Zaara in that brief moment is what takes me back to the simpler times; to the memory and sight of first love, innocence, and purity of thoughts attached to it. Veer, sitting in the memory of Zaara in the prison describes his first meeting by saying that he’d be lying if he said he never saw a girl as pretty as her, but he wondered why he couldn’t take his eyes off her.
“Aisa toh nahi tha ki isse zyada khoobsurat ladki maine dekhi nahi thi, par pata nahi kyun uske chehre se meri nazar hatt ti nahi thi. Uski aankhein jhuki hui thhi aur uski saansein tez, bohot darri hui thi woh. Uska ek baal uski daayin aankh ko pareshaan kar raha thha, woh use jhatakne ki koshish kar rahi thhi par hawa tez thi, baal wahin ka wahin. Maine uske baal hataane ke liye usse apna haath hataya aur usne ghabra ke meri taraf dekha. Hum dono ne pehli baar ek doosre ko dekha. Wo mujhe darr ke maare ghoorti rahi. Fir usne aahista apni nazar jhukaai par main use ghoorta raha.”
Within half an hour of the film, we also clearly understand the gender dynamics of the time the film was placed in. While Veer, Zaara’s father, and other men in the film are shown working and living their occupational dreams, the women are largely represented as limited to the boundaries of their homes. This is why when Zaara escapes her home to visit Kiratpur, she mentions it to be one of the most meaningful purposes of her life so far. Shabbo (played by Divya Duta) supports Zaara’s escape by saying that she is no less than a ‘man’ and that she can figure her way out in India. It’s a dynamic so divisive and subtly included in the film; that a female character had to be compared to a male character in order to justify their living purposes in both reel and real life. This discrimination is further acknowledged in the film when Zaara puts up the question of women’s education and schooling in Veer’s village. In contrast to this, Rani Mukerjee’s character, Saamiya Siddiqui is inspired by Pakistani human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jahangir. The character is portrayed as being out of the ordinary; uplifting the notion of women’s empowerment and dismissing the discriminatory comments passed by the police officer and her opposition Zakir Ahmed (played by Anupam Kher). I see Saamiya Siddiqui’s reflection in all the organizations and individuals that preserve the oral histories of 1947 and are working non-stop to build a bank of these unheard stories of separation and love, such as the Citizens Archive of India, Project Dastaan, the Museum of Material Memory, the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, Brown History, Museum of Shadows of Partition, amongst others. These stories are important to trace as a reminder of our significant past. It is by drawing on these experiences that we can unlearn and learn and reflect on our present.
As we speak of tracing back our roots from the shared history of the two nations, it reminds me of the various travel routes shared between India and Pakistan. It was only a few years ago I came across the insightful information regarding bus services between Amritsar and Lahore which commenced on 20th January 2006, two years after the release of the film. Prior to this, there were no such services available. Isn’t it beautiful that the characters Veer and Zaara did what they intended to do in the film – they succeeded in connecting the two nations by road and with the power of love.
On India’s 75th Independence Day, I revisited Veer-Zaara to make this analysis of the film – which comes out of the memory of a child who got initially intrigued by a transitioning sequence in the film, a teen who understood the idea of filmmaking and editing, a young adult who is now a film student and a documentary filmmaker working towards Partition and South Asian documentation and, not to forget, a devoted Shahrukh fan. I see Veer-Zaara beyond the symbolic representation of love. Just as much as Veer felt for Zaara, and Zaara for Veer, the film is about the hope that connected not only the two borders but made room for acceptance and belief. The larger takeaway from this brilliant piece of art is to learn, to both let go and hold on to people you have your faith in, and let yourself rise above all conflicts and differences. It will all eventually fall into place. That is the kind of hope both Veer and Zaara ask you to have.
Himanshi Saini is a Master’s Student of Mass Communication at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia (2020-22). She is a documentary filmmaker and video producer and has worked extensively in the visual documentation of oral histories at The Partition Museum, alongside other projects.
You can follow her work here.