There is no doubt that the Punjab of 1947 was populated with far more than its fair share of demons, and did not need any alien assassins to help with the bloodshed. And yet, I was afraid that might be where the plotline of Demons of the Punjab was headed. But the writers of Doctor Who have yet again managed to pleasantly surprise me and I could not be more relieved. Not only has Vinay Patel managed to depict the atrocities of Partition through a heartbreakingly poignant script, but also introduced us to one of the most compassionate species of the Who universe, the Thijarians.
Team TARDIS lands in 1947 Punjab to witness the wedding of Yasmin’s grandmother, Umbreen. Only Umbreen isn’t getting married to Yaz’s Muslim grandfather, but a Hindu man – Prem, that she has never told her granddaughter about before. Yaz is filled with confusion and injured feelings for having been kept in the dark about such a crucial fact. But in walking away from his murder at the end of the episode, Yaz shows the inner strength and maturity of her character. Perhaps Prem’s sacrifice and her newfound understanding of love might act as inspiration for her somewhere down the line as she travels with the Doctor. But more importantly, she finally understands her heritage and the importance of the distinctiveness of her identity in modern-day Sheffield. This all harps back to the ‘demons’ that had ‘cursed’ the days and the land her grandmother had escaped from.
Perhaps the most striking part of this predominantly historical episode, apart from the stunning set location, is the dynamic and shifting definition of the ‘demon’. Umbreen’s mother, in the characteristically superstitious words of a rustic Punjabi woman, is the first to call the alien a demon. But while the Thijarians, in the beginning, seem like the perfect cooking pot of all the villainous ingredients of a typical Doctor Who episode, it is somewhere else that the true evil lies. Even the Thijarians are only there to witness the consequences of that evil.
Is the demon really Manish who kills his own elder brother, Prem, for marrying a Muslim? Or is the demon inside every one of the mindless mob who is hell-bent on bloodshed? The villains of Partition weren’t always complete strangers. They were very often neighbours, friends and in Prem’s case, family. All the outside world within the episode seems like the enemy, and yet there is no escaping the fact that despite their actions, every single one of the mob is just a human being. In typical Doctor Who style, Demons of the Punjab makes you wonder who the true villain is, and whether they might deserve at least a part of our compassion.
By painting a picture of the oncoming violence and rioting impartially yet solemnly, the show remains respectful of the suffering of countless victims and fills my heart, quite like the Thijarians, with empathy for all those who died without being properly remembered. The Partition of India remained for a long time, an event consciously denied by many. Even for those who went through the confusion and terror of immigration, like my own grandparents did, it was something too traumatic to be shared. Forceful eviction and neighborhood violence are perhaps some of the less darker stories of the times. Partition was more of a civil war, both for and against identity, which cannot easily be depicted on screen. Demons of the Punjab, in that sense, has an even deeper meaning behind its title than most will see. In many ways, this honourable portrayal of such a huge tragedy seems like the final closing of a book that had been open for too long, both in its representation in Doctor Who and in the act of Graham reassuring Prem that he is a “good man”. It seems like the end of a long history of colonial resentment and the beginning of a relationship of newfound trust and respect.
In the midst of this implied violence, Umbreen and Prem’s wedding is one of the most emotional scenes of series 11 so far. It is also a real cultural treat. The Hindu and Muslim rituals blend beautifully into Doctor Who with the Doctor even officiating at the wedding, a golden marigold propped over one ear. Truth be told, they really couldn’t have found anyone better for the job. Traditionally, Hindu weddings are performed by a priest (pundit) or what the Hindus might call a ‘learned man’ and who, really, could be more learned than the Doctor?
The only hiccup for the episode, for me, occurs, when Prem and Umbreen share not just one, but two passionate kisses in the episode right in front of Umbreen’s mother. While this may appear normal on the 21st century television screen, it’s a decidely startling scene for someone like me who grew up in a relatively conservative family in India, aware that gestures of physical affection like this were seldom made in front of family members in the India of 1947. Perhaps the scene may be justified, seeing as how extraordinary the situation was, or maybe there was the need for dramatic impact. But the lack of any reaction whatsoever from the bride’s mother on this open intimacy remains an eyebrow-raising mystery to me.
But overall, the performances of Amita Suman (young Umbreen), Shaheen Khan (Umbreen’s mother), Shane Zaza (Prem) and Hamza Jeetooa (Manish) are exceptionally commendable not just for portraying the complexity of the emotions of their time, but also for managing to retain the distinctive South Asian body language and subtle speech gestures of native Punjabi and Urdu while delivering dialogues in English. The TARDIS translation is apparent throughout, making it a thoroughly enjoyable watch.
Also worth praising is the special score for this episode without which the true essence of the story’s setting would be lost. The Punjabi remix of the Who theme by Segun Akinola is as much a delight to the ears as a dagger to the heart. The deep, resonant notes of Indian classical music and soulful percussions of the tabla, the traditional Indian drums, tie the episode even more profoundly to a nostalgia for the homeland that is at the heart of the tragedy of Partition. It brings back forgotten as well as passed down memories of a time and place we all wish we could go back and save, if only we had a time machine.
This guest piece was written by Diksha Bhugra.