Congealed blood in Kashmir

directed by Aamir Bashir Chasingtales, 2010

'Heaven on Earth' is how my teacher used to introduce us kids to the combustible turf that was, and is, Kashmir. Geographically, Kashmir was a fair distance away from Abu Dhabi, where we were students of the Abu Dhabi Indian School. The school followed Indian syllabi, a parental decision which ensured that, alongside my Hindi and physics, I would mimic the quintessential Indian schoolboy, even if it was on Arab soil.

This was the late 1980s. Michael Jackson's Bad had just come out on audio cassette, I was becoming addicted to Inspector Gadget cartoons, and Kentucky Fried Chicken was fast taking over my life. We were still getting used to wearing school-prescribed blue shorts and polished Bata shoes; only cricket, football and birthdays held much meaning. Our teachers, though, worried about us needing to be on par with our Indian counterparts. As it was, we did not turn out to be rabid nationalists, just your average assembly-line patriots. There were no indoctrination rituals, yet we were automatons to some degree, created by a system and, like most kids, influenced by propaganda. Every now and then I would catch a snarky comment about Pakistan from a relative, but I think it was the way everyone referenced Kashmir that did the most damage in terms of forming our mindset. There was little ambiguity; the Valley was ours. Our textbooks confirmed this, our teachers judiciously avoiding the fatalism of know-it-all cynics, treating the Valley as a trouble spot in recovery, not mutinous.

A Tamil film released in 1992, Mani Ratnam's Roja, suggested to me that the mood was shifting. In the film, the husband of Roja (played by Madhoo), a naive village belle, is abducted by Kashmiri militants, and the story captured that loss of innocence, the admittance of a problem. The filmmaker, working with a fairly young crew, had grappled with the problem of putting Kashmir in perspective for a younger generation. The film was a huge success, succeeding partly due to superb cinematography and the stunning musical debut of A R Rahman. Still, the perspective remained indisputably Indian, and the Kashmiri angle, whenever visible, feels hollow and predictable.

Going by Ratnam's oeuvre before and after Roja, here was an artist with empathy. So why could he not capture the Kashmir that the Kashmiris knew? Perhaps he simply did not know how. But for me, Roja's effect was indelible. From then on, my mind was made up that Srinagar's mud was red. After Roja, other films too referenced Kashmir; but if the former sympathised with the plight of the civilian, later films (Mission Kashmir, Fanaa) were full of plaudits to the Indian military. Inevitably, posturing takes precedence over storytelling.

The living, the dead

In the documentary realm, however, the situation has been far different – the documentary format does not allow easy escapes from reality. Senain Kheshgi and Geeta V Patel's Project Kashmir (2008) or Udi Aloni's Kashmir: Journey to Freedom (2008) captured the reality – the gradual disintegration of self portrayed in the films was raw and visceral. There remain, however, some drawbacks. When Kashmiris in these documentaries address their problems – of needing to buy bread during curfew, of attending funerals, of looking at pictures of the 'disappeared', sharing stories they might have told multiple times – even the camera begins to leer at them, documenting nervous ticks, a lost limb, lingering even longer on cigarettes and chai. Such blatant voyeurism is not necessary, but when the filmmakers themselves are outsiders, this is to be expected.

I was not raised on a diet of hard-hitting documentaries in school or at home. When young, I associated documentaries with jungle cats or hippos, films my father would buy alongside cartoons to keep me occupied when we visited Kerala. I would watch these pictures with my cousins, proudly translating the British narration. In Abu Dhabi, stringent censorship meant finding 'edgy' cinema was next to impossible, but when I began studying media at university in the United States, my options quadrupled overnight. For the first time, I was able to get my hands on uncensored materials, watch films from other countries, discover that it was possible to be moved by matters you knew not much about, from countries you would never visit.

For me, the more of these documentaries I watched, the harder it became to avoid re-examining dissent in Jammu & Kashmir and India's policing of it. Until then, the Kashmir I experienced in film had always been make-believe, actors playing characters. School textbooks quoted the obvious, but the conflict never felt real. Perhaps I had chosen to be naive. It felt far easier to believe Indian soldiers in J & K were only defending 'our' turf, disturbing little else. But when these films also made the case that the line between oppression and occupation has not just blurred but become conjoined, they inevitably challenged prejudices.

In truth, I do not think a classroom in Abu Dhabi could have fathomed how people could be beaten into passivity after prolonged periods of violence. Even as an adult, I am not sure what the right reaction is when I hear stories of people such as Malik Sajad, a young Kashmiri cartoonist. In Journey to Freedom, he talks about how he avoided imprisonment by drawing the face of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his palm, proving his cartoonist credentials to disbelieving soldiers. Outsiders who have not experienced such circumstances will struggle to empathise; but occasionally a filmmaker is indeed able to translate such conditions into film, without being overly sentimental.

In Santosh Sivan's 2008 feature film Tahaan, a Kashmiri boy (a feisty Purav Bhandare) interrupts a game of Militants and Security Forces to check whether anyone had seen Birbal, his donkey. The point here is clear: play is not just play – children pay attention to their surroundings. The scene is an astute inclusion, although it is obvious Sivan is unsure whether to underplay or overplay his hand; he opts for the latter, with the kids mimicking being shot repeatedly. Children absorb the ramifications of violence like sponges. It takes skill and luck to demonstrate this on camera; Tahaan succeeds in parts. Mehreen Jabbar's Ramchand Pakistani, released the same year as Tahaan, got it right; Piyush Shah's Sikander did not.

Even those who should know better are often unable to offer a holistic picture of what takes place on the ground. Major A K Ravindran's 2006 feature Kirti Chakra, a Malayali venture, addressed to some extent the mental stress soldiers face in Kashmir. A former army man, the director had an insider's perspective inherently alien to those sheltered from war. Yet Ravindran did not shake the trees; the elephants were allowed to sit undisturbed. Instead, he aimed at softer targets: army bureaucracy, cronyism. Played by the gifted Malayali actor Mohanlal, commanding officer Major Mahadevan could have been a far more nuanced character. Instead, we get a pitiful caricature, a patriot who protects his flock and dispenses pro-Hindustani rhetoric to doubtful Kashmiris. An Indian soldier is not meant to disintegrate or doubt army protocol, it seems.

It is not impossible to make a film about war and avoid disrespecting the dead or slamming the participants of bloody battles. Ari Folman, deployed by the Israel Defence Force in Lebanon at the age of 19, figured out a way. In his 2008 animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, about war's ability to dehumanise its participants, he performs a cunning manoeuvre. Right before the film's conclusion, without any warning, the animation is replaced by real-life footage. Quickly, Palestinian women rush towards you on screen, wailing, beating their chests. There are dead bodies everywhere. Sabra and Shatila, the two Palestinian refugee camps playing a pivotal role in the film, have climbed out of their coffins and stare. Until then, the film, magnificently coloured like a gaudy comic book, could be called beautiful. Thereafter, Folman destroys the illusion in one deft stroke. In resurrecting reality through live footage, he gives ghosts back their dignity. In film, Kashmir needs something as effective to provoke discussion or allow catharsis. Otherwise, mundane drivel will continue to masquerade as a portrayal of the lives of Kashmiris.

Falling chinar

Still, there is hope. Aamir Bashir's Harud, released last year, has the possibility to do for Kashmiris and non-Kashmiris what Nandita Das's Firaaq (2008) did for the victims and villains of Gujarat: provide perspective. Harud is not a quiet film. But it does manage to be tender. The director does his best to genuinely portray the hopelessness in households in J & K; how parents, stressed from worrying about their young, lose their mental balance; how the young implode. The film encloses Kashmir in the grey in which it deserves to be seen.

Throughout Harud, the Valley feels like occupied territory, concertina wire marking boundaries, suffocating everyone. Not once does the camera linger. Explosions are heard, not seen. For a change, Indian Army soldiers appear nervous, human. Hurt is reflected in clipped dialogue, gestures. And blood does not gush – it is just there, congealed. Bashir's film refuses to hide behind euphemisms; it is not interested in polemic. Its candour is necessary, as much as Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night was necessary, and it is unquestionably Kashmiri. An outsider could not have made this film. (Bashir was born and raised in J & K, the son of a former chief justice of the Jammu High Court.)

Bashir's Kashmir, like Peer's, feels as unreal, pockmarked by violence, atrophied by trauma, so hopeless in fact that it feels unsalvageable. Heaven, former teachers would agree, was not meant to exist like this. Harud portrays a bleak Kashmir, a hurting Kashmir, where even the wind seems to seek permission to pass through roadblocks. The filmmaker and the writers are sharing uncomfortable truths. This is drama that does not require analysis. Although it has a slow pace that can derail the viewer and the cinematography is not innovative, it nevertheless investigates helplessness in a manner rarely seen in Kashmir-centric films.

What sets Harud apart is empathy. The scenes can get difficult because the violence is not exaggerated. There is one moment in particular that lingers: A traffic policeman (played by Mohammad Amir Naji), the father of the main character Rafik (played by Shanawaz Bhat), stares suspiciously at a parked vehicle at a busy intersection. The windows are caked with dust but he peers in to see trembling fingers struggling with the pin of a grenade. The viewer never sees the bomber; we are told later he was but a boy. The only evidence of an explosion is the blood on the father's wrist. This kind of anonymity, the suddenness of the violence, is numbing.

A few weeks ago, during a screening of Harud in New York, the film's director engaged in a discussion with the audience. At one point, a woman asked about the significance of the film's title, and the ubiquitous presence of the chinar leaf in the movie. The word Harud means autumn in Kashmiri, and autumn, Bashir responded, is a season of decay; the chinar leaf, he said, falls to the ground when it is at its most vibrant and beautiful.

~ Deep Unnikrishnan is a writer based in New York.

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