USC Film Student Explores India's Partition In Personal Documentary
This story is part of a collaboration between Neon Tommy and USC Anneberg's Knight Program on Media and Religion showcasing short stories on Indian culture, religion and politics in Southern California.
For Paisley Smith, the appeal of religion comes down to “hanging out with grandma.” Smith was raised in Vancouver, Canada. Her father is of Scottish descent and her mother immigrated to Canada from India. Smith said she appreciated visiting a Sikh temple growing up, because it let her connect with her heritage and spend time with her grandparents. But, Smith said, she knows her grandmother’s connection to Sikhism is rooted even deeper.
“I think believing in something has really helped her remain optimistic about life,” Smith said. And her grandmother’s life has not always been easy.
Her grandmother’s story—one of religious persecution, political conflict, and immigration—is Smith’s inspiration for her forthcoming documentary, “Peace, Daal, and Partition.”
Smith, 25, is completing her MFA in film and television production at the University of Southern California. She began making her film—one of three documentaries selected for funding from USC’s Graduate 547 Documentary Project—with the intention of portraying a broad history of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.
Smith’s grandmother, Brajinder Dhillon, survived the partition. Dhillon, 77, was born in what is now Pakistan to a Sikh family. She escaped to India’s Punjab region with millions of other refugees during the religious violence that arose after the British Empire split the two countries.
Smith planned to touch on all sides of the partition in her film, interviewing a mix of Pakistanis, Indians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and other parties involved. But during the filmmaking process, Smith realized that the most effective way to explain a major political and religious conflict was through the smaller story that inspired the project.
“It started off as very broad but has become very personal,” Smith said, adding that narrowing her focus will, hopefully, make the impact of her film more powerful. “If you don’t connect with the characters, then you have a hard time relating to history.”
Smith said her film will explore not just her grandmother’s experiences escaping religious conflict, but also the lasting impact that the partition has had on her family.
“These things, even though they happened a long time ago, are still affecting my family now,” Smith said, explaining that her interactions with her parents seem to stem from the way her mother was raised. “My mom’s mom was very protective of her. I think it all comes back to [my grandmother] having survived tragedy.”
Smith traveled with her film crew to Vancouver to interview her family members in February. They interviewed her grandmother at length. But Smith also encouraged her mother to ask some of the questions.
Because of generational differences and family dynamics, Smith said her mother and grandmother never spoke much about their family’s experiences with partition. Smith said she was excited to be able to capture a few moments on camera when her grandmother shared stories with her mother for the first time.
“It was a really genuine moment in my family. It’s just cool,” Smith said.
Smith’s film will premiere at USC’s Norris Theatre on May 9.
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