The flowers in Bandra’s Pali Hill are in full bloom — paper-thin bougainvillea in fuchsia and white, chartreuse columns of laburnum leaning over buildings, playing peek-a-boo in this concrete jungle. Joining them is Sapna Moti Bhavnani — hair stylist, writer, actor, reality TV star, the enfant terrible of Indian showbiz — and now filmmaker, sports a fiery strawberry mop of hair when we meet at the Pali Village Café to talk about her debut film, a documentary called Sindhustan.
“Nearly 10 years ago, I’d gone to Bandra Fort for a concert. A group of Sindhi fakirs performed, and I was blown away. I went home, Googled ‘Sindh’ for the first time. I was born a Sindhi but I had no idea about the history of my people. I didn’t know that both Hindus and Muslims can be Sindhis. They had co-existed for centuries, they spoke the same language. The more I began to search for information, I realised that while there was a lot of material available about the history of Punjab, there was so much silence on Sindh,” says Bhavnani, 47, knowing that she wanted to delve deeper into the subject. She spent two years thinking about all the ways in which she could shape a story, find all the missing pieces, all the gaps in her identity and decided to interview and film her living relatives, and noted Sindhi personalities such as the late Dada Vaswani and Leila Advani. “I didn’t want the film to be about me. I wanted the story to be told by those who knew what it meant to be Sindhi,” she says.
Conceived over seven years and shot for nearly three, Sindhustan is a story told simply, through memory and tattoos, of a people who, almost overnight, were forced to leave the land of their ancestors. It is the story of those who survived Partition and travelled from Karachi to make their home in another city by the sea — Bombay. What do displaced people carry with them for a journey so perilous, when there is no certainty that life awaits them at the shore? Bhavnani’s family brought utensils, and their recipe of the famed Sindhi curry. “Food is central to the film — my aunt is making the curry and narrating the story of my father, Moti Bhavnani, and talks about my childhood. I learned that he lived in Hajaam Para in Shikarpur, not far from the Sindhu river; it means barber’s place. I found these connections that I was unaware of, that made complete sense to me,” says Bhavnani, who moved back to the city of her birth, Bombay, in 2002, after spending 14 years in the US, and opened her salon, Mad O Wot, in Bandra, two years later.
The thread that runs through Sindhustan, tying the past and the present, are Bhavnani’s legs — replete with tattoos, drawn in Sindh’s Ajrak and Bihar’s Madhubani art traditions — the right leg telling the story of her family’s past in Shikarpur, the stories of childhoods lost in the hellfire that was Partition; and the left one bringing us to Bombay, with its art deco buildings, and trains, and the sea. “When I first started getting inked, I went to meet my grandmother, but I covered myself up. She looked at me and said, ‘Sapna, you’re so old-fashioned. We didn’t have governments or borders; we belonged to tribes and we had our own markings. Your tattoos are your way of returning to your roots’,” recalls Bhavnani.
Sindhustan documents the way in which tattoo artist Yogesh Waghmare spent less than two weeks, inking every inch of her legs, from mid-thigh till her toes, recreating Sindhi legends of Jhule Lal, a vegetarian crocodile; family snapshots of picnics near the Sindhi river, music, and a script with Persian roots. “These were people who had to change everything about themselves, including the way they read and wrote; from right to left, they had to learn to read from left to right,” says Bhavnani, who had applied for a visa to Pakistan to visit Sindh. “When they refused, I decided to become the land,” she says in the documentary. One of the most touching moments in Sindhustan is when Bhavnani’s aging relatives trace their memories on her skin. Bhavnani’s legs have mapped their entire existence and their eyes widen with recognition as they spot stories they recounted to her from years ago.
This week, Bhavnani will screen Sindhustan at the New York Indian Film Festival and the Atlanta Indian Film Festival. “There’s a sizable Sindhi population in Mumbai too, so I’m hoping we can have screenings in the city as well. I don’t want to sell my film short, I want to make it accessible — I want to do art installations with Sindhustan, take it to museums and universities,” she says.