Pankaj Butalia tells BUDHADITYA BHATTACHARYA about his new documentary on Kashmir, the subjects who let him in, and the footage he had to delete

One of the many haunting images from Pankaj Butalia’s The Textures of Loss features a woman weaving away on her loom. Her husband has died recently, leaving her with the difficult responsibility of bringing up their children alone. She curses him, shouts at her son, talks about a debt that needs repaying and turns to the hypnotic rhythm of the loom, to weave. It keeps the grief at bay.

Butalia’s film mirrors what she is doing. It weaves a tapestry out of loss, and its effects, that Kashmiris have come to know so intimately. The film is the second in a trilogy of films set in conflict zones, and was conceived in 2004 during the making of the first – on Manipur. Over the next three years, Butalia kept visiting the villages of Kashmir to gather stories, but a lack of funds put the project on hold. In 2010, after an uprising gripped the valley, “it became impossible not to finish the film”, and Butalia visited again in April 2012 for interviews with families of the dead.

From these interviews emerge stories of women who have been affected in ways they cannot comprehend, of young men who worry about dying without having known freedom, and of kids who grow up witnessing death, and are sometimes claimed by it.

The moment of the interview is often cathartic: a father imagines his young son crying for help while getting beaten to death, and pleads helplessly that his arms didn’t have the strength to fling a stone; an illiterate mother spreads out her son’s report cards, and enacts the sequence of events that led to his death.

Despite being an outsider and not knowing their language, Butalia is able to let himself in without any intrusion and capture both the overt and the subterranean expressions of loss. “People who have gone through things are dying for someone to listen to them. When an outsider comes and says ‘I am willing to listen to you’ they are just overwhelmed and they overwhelm you. If you approach them with humility and not arrogance, you will get something that is intimate, otherwise you will get surface,” he says. His experience while filming Moksha in 1993, on the widows of Vrindavan, was no different.

Capturing the movement of the military convoy proved much tougher, given the sensitivity of the army. “If you pick up a camera on your shoulder, you could be shot at,” he says. During his last shoot in 2007, the director tried to shoot guerrilla footage of the convoy but was detected and asked to delete it.

After the recent screening of his film in the Capital, several questions posed to the director accused the film of being partisan, and “irrational”. Are these questions a reflection of a certain demand of the documentary film?

“It could be very specific to the people asking the questions. For them there is a disturbance about the fact that their fundamental belief is being challenged. We treat the army like a holy cow. To say something critical of the army, is actually questioning the very fundamentals of nationalism. There is a one-to-one correspondence between questioning the army and questioning the nation. When that happens, there has to be a defence. There has to be some way of countering the accusation. I think it’s that,” Butalia says.