Oxford Student’s ‘Azad and Jinnah’

Amar Sohal
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Amar Sohal’s ‘Azad and Jinnah’ exploring the ideas of secular socialists, atheist poets, devout clerics and regional politicians during the partition of India.  Amar aims to show how these diverse thinkers converged on a shared national imagination and thus constitute a distinctive element in the intellectual history of modern India…reports Richa Gover

Amar Sohal
Amar Sohal

The documentary film ‘Azad and Jinnah, a political rivalry in late colonial India’ has been written, presented and produced by Amar Sohal, a PhD student at Merton College, University of Oxford.

Amar explores the political thought of the ‘nationalist’ Muslims in mid-twentieth century India. Exploring the ideas of secular socialists, atheist poets, devout clerics and regional politicians, Amar aims to show how these diverse thinkers converged on a shared national imagination and thus constitute a distinctive element in the intellectual history of modern India.

This 60-minute documentary produced by Talking Pictures Ltd, explores the political ideas of two rival Muslim leaders between 1937 and 1947.

Maulana Azad, the long-serving president of the Indian National Congress and independent India’s first minister of education; and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the foremost leader of the Muslim League and Pakistan’s first Governor-General.

Rather than simply narrating a chronological series of events, the film is an attempt to bring intellectual history alive on screen. Uncovering their attitudes towards liberal democracy, the place of Islam in politics, and Indian history, culture and geography, it shows how Azad and Jinnah’s political thought often diverged, but on occasions thrillingly converged, as the subcontinent’s fate hung in the balance.Their careers, of course, began a lot earlier and their differences stem from the conflicting attitudes they held at the onset of the Khilafat Movement back in 1919.

The documentary focusses on the final decade of colonial rule since it was here that the political thought of these two leaders – both so very future-orientated – came to take on such great significance.With decolonisation now almost inevitable at that point in time , their ideas were given a new meaning altogether.

Amar interviews four world-leading historians for the film. Dr. Farzana Shaikh (Chatham House, London), Dr. Faisal Devji (St Antony’s College, University of Oxford), Professor Francis Robinson (Royal Holloway, University of London), and Dr. Shruti Kapila (Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge). Throughout the film, scholarly commentary is interspersed with dramatisations. Aaron Virdee plays Azad and Amerjit Deu plays Jinnah.

Aaron Virdee as Azad in the film
Aaron Virdee as Azad in the film

Amar says, ” I was deeply disturbed by the gulf between popular and academic narratives of Indian history. Especially, those surrounding the tumultuous late colonial period. This project is an attempt to confront this gap, and disseminate rigorous academic research to a wider audience in a digestible way.”

On watching this documentary, one will learn that though the ideological gap between Azad and Jinnah – and the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League – remained sizeable, their ideas were neither entirely exclusive of each other, nor were they irreconcilable.

Amerjit Deu as Jinnah in the film
Amerjit Deu as Jinnah in the film

Amar states , “Though I believe it is not necessarily the task of the historian to tease out lessons from the past, this documentary has a simple message for present-day India and Pakistan: that it is in an honest, self-critical approach to one’s history that a more constructive foundation might be laid for a common future.”

So far, there have been two screenings of the documentary. It premiered at Merton College, University of Oxford in the state-of-the-art T. S. Eliot Theatre. The film made its London debut at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, in the Khalili Lecture Theatre. The demand was so great for this particular screening, that Sohal is now in the process of organising more screenings in the capital along with plans of taking the film for screenings to Delhi and Lahore in the near future.