Cinema from Kashmir, like the rest of the state, is yet to break stereotypes about its identity. More worrisome, however, is that cinemagoers' responses to the films fail to appreciate the enterprise's role in defining the state's identity.
Film makers Ajay Raina and Pankaj Rishi Kumar curated a whole lot of films on Kashmir recently over three days and the ones I attended were highly worth it for various reasons. More interesting even were the responses to the films.
I missed the unfailing fireworks over Article 370 but at the end of most Kashmiri films, if they are allowed to be screened that is, there is the painful question about why the film didn’t show the tragedy of the Kashmiri Pandits or Pakistan sponsored terror and/or Jihad, and other stuff.
Predictably, at the end of 'Harud', or 'Autumn', director Aamir Bashir tried to patiently answer why his film did not have anything about Kashmiri Pandits and other subjects which were not part of the film. In 'Harud', except for a brief reference when the young boy, the protagonist, is asked whether he knew any Pandits, the film tackles the grave issue of thousands of young men who have disappeared in Kashmir.
Those were not the only worries though. People wanted to know why 'Harud' was not publicised much more and again Mr, Bashir ventured to say that it was released last year by PVR and did have a commercial run. While we love Iranian cinema and flock to film festivals to watch them, Bashir’s film, which is significant and tells a brutal story, seems to have gone unnoticed. Instead of the usual Bollywood pap on patriotism, it is time that films like 'Harud' were screened widely so that people can come to terms with the stereotypes they have about Kashmir and the conflict there.
'Harud' is shot in a way that captures the beauty of Kashmir, the kites circling in the sky, which becomes a kind of leitmotif offering a haunting backdrop. At the same time it doesn’t allow you to forget that this beauty is the backdrop for some hard-nosed reality. The reality of a family with a missing son, the reality of fighting and sitting on the streets demanding accountability for the missing young men of Kashmir, the reality of not being able to cope with death and bomb blasts, and finally the reality of death.
Bashir was not given permissions to shoot the film, much of it In Kashmir itself, but that didn't stop him, and the authorities lost all interest once they realized he had no big stars. Though the film was meant to focus on the advent of the mobile phone into Kashmir, it took on a life of its own, says the director, and eventually that became a small part of the film.
The story revolves around the disappearance of Tauqir, a tourist photographer and his younger brother Rafiq whose attempt to cross the border with friends is interrupted. When one of his friends comes back briefly, he tells Rafiq that he’s found out “that the way to Jannat is not through Pakistan.” There is irony, despair, disillusionment and tragedy.
A day later, I saw two documentaries. One was 'Where have you hidden my Crescent Moon' by Iffat Fatima, made in collaboration with the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir (APDP). It tells the story of an ageing Mughal Mase who is waiting for her son Nazir Ahmed to return. The film maker spends a day with the Mughal Mase who later passed away and the story of her life comes out in sorrowful bits and parts.
In another film, 'Autumn’s Final Country', director Sonia Jabbar interviews four women - Indu, Zarina, Shahnaz and Anju - who were displaced in one way or another. Indu is a Kashmiri Pandit who had to leave her home in Srinagar, another one came all the way from West Bengal and was sold to a man, and one of the women was kidnapped by militants and abused.
The story of Anju, who lives in a camp because of the shelling by the military in her old home close to the border, is poignant. She goes back to visit her old battered home with her grandmother in the film. Her father died as they were leaving, killed by shells, and Anju’s complaint is that the army did not help him even though he worked for them.
After the screening, a man in the audience said rather breezily that these stories of exploitation are everywhere and they are not peculiar to Kashmir. However, these stories can only be understood if they are located in the Kashmiri context, specially the close interaction between the Pandits and the rest of the community, or the case of women kidnapped by militants or Anju’s displacement. The film offers a glimpse into the trafficking of Bengali women into Kashmir where, in this case, the woman was sold as slave labour, fending for a man who is unwell but who married again for a child, since she couldn’t bear him any.
The first Kashmiri feature film after 38 years made in 2009 'Bub' ('Father') by Jyoti Sarup and produced by NFDC, is based on a real life incident of the Wandhama massacre where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were gunned down on January 26, 1998. There is only one survivor, a boy who hid in the loft outside the house and witnessed the entire episode.
The film is about the boy whose distant uncle ill treats him after agreeing to adopt him and who later runs away, back to the divisional commissioner of Srinagar who had rescued him in the first place. Mr. Sarup was assailed with questions after the film: tacky script, poor quality of film making, one sided, etc. I thought Mr Sarup stood up quite well and announced that he had won the National Integration award for the film and also that he had based the film on real events and characters.
This is a film almost entirely on Kashmiri Pandits and the tragedy of the young boy and the plight of the community in Kashmir. It does address some of the complexities in a clumsy way. Yes, it was tacky, poorly produced, the actors wore garish costumes, there were too many songs and dances unfortunately, but it told a rather moving story which would have made a better film in the right hands. The terrorists were unreal, one bald, almost Spock like and wearing leather jackets, the women were all caked with makeup and the songs didn't fit in except for one.
But for once, no one could accuse Mr. Sarup for not including Kashmiri Pandits in the film. I wish all those people who can’t wait for films to end before asking those predictable questions had waited and seen the film instead of walking out. His film too met with the same fate as Harud. When it was released in Jammu, hardly a few came to see it. Then he decided to have a free screening which was packed but that was it. There weren't too many takers after that.