Documentary film in India has transformed from primarily being a medium for the independent state to promote consolidation of national identity to a critical and even oppositional tool to depict deprivation, conflict and struggle in society. Political documentary, in particular, is experiencing a period of vibrancy with layered and in-depth depictions of issues that are often submerged by dominant media representations.
Despite (or because of) the quality of the films and their social and political engagement, very few of these documentaries are ever screened in commercial cinema halls or by television channels. For instance, documentarian Anand Patwardhan, who has won several awards including for his recent film Jai Bhim Comrade, had to take the national television channel Doordarshan to court in order for three of his films to be screened by the channel. Recognising these difficulties, film screenings and discussions are often organised at universities and other public venues.
Filmmaker Sanjay Kak is acutely aware of these realities. Kak is very well known for his critical films about Kashmir, and more recently for his film Red Ant Dream, which provides a representation of persisting cultures of resistance in different parts of India. He has experienced censorship attempts by rightwing activists, who have disrupted screenings and pressured to get them cancelled. The government, too, has been involved in efforts to stifle the debate around the contentious issues dealt with by Kak in his documentaries, often using labels of ‘sedition’ and ‘anti-state’ to delegitimise the discourse.
In a two-part interview with Muhammed Afzal P, Kak discusses his interest in and approach to documentary, his filmic engagement with resistance movements, and his perspectives on political issues ranging from the Kashmiri struggle to the Naxalite militancy.
Muhammed Afzal P (MAP): You are often described, by yourself and by others, as a self-taught filmmaker. Can you tell us a bit about how and why you came to documentary filmmaking?
Sanjay Kak (SK): When I was doing my Masters degree, I thought I wanted to be a journalist, which was why I decided to study sociology. Don’t ask me why I thought it would help! When I finished my MA in 1980, journalism was a very dull field, very slow and hierarchical. Anyway, I applied for a job and was in fact offered a job as a trainee at the Times of India. But due to some bureaucratic reasons, I was asked to wait for six months.
I had already started doing some research work, doing small writing assignments for a group of people who used to make films. As I was finishing with university, one of my friends, Pradip Krishen, was going to Rajasthan to shoot a film and asked me if I wanted to join him. It was a film on the oral tradition of western Rajasthan. It was a great experience for me, and for a period of six months I travelled with him in a van all over Rajasthan, and visited a number of sites that were important for the film.
I came to film not necessarily as a film lover, but in a quite roundabout way. From my experience of working with Pradip Krishen for that film, I realised that my interest was in the more scholarly – or the more researched – route to filmmaking. I very much enjoyed the process. The experience was totally different from that of journalism. So when the newspaper job finally materialised after a year, journalism appeared far less attractive to me. I was really having a lot of fun working with Pradip Krishen, who had gone on to do a feature film called Massey Sahib, his first feature. I was the chief assistant director of that film – at 22! Later I also directed a documentary, which he produced, so at quite a young age I made an independent documentary, a small film called Kinnaur ke Log about growing up in a village in Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh.
MAP: Your earlier documentaries were not political in the sense in which your recent documentaries are called political. What was the political turn?
SK: My years in the Delhi University were from 1975 to 1980. There was the Emergency in 1977 while I was an undergraduate in an institution like St Stephen’s, which was a very apolitical space. I mean the only shadow of politics was on our church steeple, where you could see the faded white lettering which said “Naxalbari Zindabad”. The memory was there, but not the politics. During the Emergency there was nothing much happening in St Stephen’s – in fact, there wasn’t too much happening in Delhi University either. I followed that with my Master’s at the Delhi School of Economics, which was again a depoliticised environment, not to say that there weren’t people who were politicised, but the environment certainly wasn’t.
But I have always been interested in the world and what is around me, so I think my politics comes from a series of experiences in life. The political turn in my filmmaking career was also gradual. In the early 1990s I did two films on Indian migrants abroad – This Land, My Land, Eng-land! and A House and a Home. If you see them today, they are not political in the same way that a film like Red Ant Dream is. But you can’t say they are not political either. There is a kind of unstated politics in both those films. I think it’s very difficult for me to pretend to have a politics which is not my own. I’m not a subscriber of politics; I am not on the lookout for interesting platforms for me to sign up. I have to come to it myself, so it is a very slow process.
In 1997, I made a short, funded film called One Weapon. It was a strange project, in which six filmmakers were asked to make six films on different themes. I was assigned the area of democracy… It was a simple little film that looked at two events to explore how people constitute democracy: it looked at the first election in Punjab after the whole militancy episode and then a Dalit rally in Tamil Nadu. Perhaps I was also personally ready to make some switch, and I thought that it would be a nice idea to make a film about why do people believe in democracy even when democracy doesn’t deliver anything to them.
In 1998, the Narmada issue erupted again as the Supreme Court stay was lifted and the protests began in the valley. I thought it would be an interesting landscape against which to look at an idea like democracy. You had a 15-year-old non-violent mass movement, supported by well-argued facts. It’s a good place to see whether democracy works and then how it works and so on. I think, for me, that film and much more than that film, the experience of working in Narmada valley was a crystallising experience. And also, I think the time was right. To be an independent filmmaker in India has always been a difficult thing. But when I began working on Words on Water, my film on the Narmada struggle, we were at a juncture when the technology was suddenly affordable to us. I had bought my first digital camera, so I could just go alone with the camera, or sometimes a friend used to come along to do the sound, when I could afford it. Later I was one of the first people in Delhi to get a desktop computer editing system… So I think the character of the film Words on Water is different from anything that I had done before because it was also now possible to do it differently. I used to take an overnight train to Baroda, hire a car and get dropped off at some remote place on the edge of the river. After that there was nothing else to spend money on. On the whole, it was not only that I was ready personally, the environment was also ready.
MAP: Were you also part of the Narmada movement or were you there just as a filmmaker?
SK: I don’t think I can ever claim to have been part of any of the movements I have made films on. But obviously, you do get close to the people in the movement as individuals and you do what you can to support the movement. During the making of Words on Water, I was not just making a film. In the course of the two and half years I spent working on it, I did all kinds of other things: I used to help produce pamphlets, banners, etc. But I never lost sight of the fact that I was primarily making a film, and even though I can’t claim that I was part of the movement, my solidarity was there one hundred percent. In retrospect, I feel that as a filmmaker, if you are not too close to the movement, you can bring in constructive criticism too. But during those years of witnessing the Narmada struggle, being there and being supportive seemed to be the right things to do.
MAP: Though you are a Kashmiri, you were not born in Kashmir, and in 2003 you were going to Kashmir after a gap of some 14 years. It was after your film Words on Water came out in 2002 and the Indian Parliament attack in 2001. Is it fair to say that when you went to Kashmir in 2003, you went there as an Indian and later you became a Kashmiri?
SK: I was born in Pune. Since my father was in the army I grew up everywhere. But Kashmir was a real place in my growing up, and we used to go to Kashmir almost every year, it was not a place we were cut off from. But I went there in 1989, and then I went only in 2003. In retrospect, I don’t even know why I didn’t go there for those 13 or 14 years. Since I was a filmmaker, people used to ask me why I didn’t do a film on Kashmir. I didn’t have any strong reasons to do one. It is just as if I had blanked it off. And by then most of our family had moved out of Kashmir. Many of them already had homes in Delhi and many of them were working outside. Except for my sister-in-law’s family, nobody was very badly hit by what happened in Kashmir, so it (the exodus of Pandits) was not a big thing in our lives.
I would say that till 1989 I had never thought of the difference between my identities as a Kashmiri and as an Indian. It’s an indicator of how opaque it is possible to be to what is around you. I have a memory of going to Kashmir in July 1989. That was just before the winter when everything exploded. But there was nothing, no signs for me to read. There must have been signs, but I was not able to read what was going on. Perhaps I didn’t know people in that way.
But the Parliament attack case was for me a very, very profound moment. Not just the event itself, but the whole thing around the defence of S A R Geelani (Delhi University lecturer who was acquitted of involvement in the 2001 Indian Parliament attack). It is also possible that by then I was also politically ready. When the All India Defence Committee for S A R Geelani, led by Nandita Haksar and Vrinda Grover came to me and asked if I could translate the Delhi police tap (of Geelani’s telephone conversation with his brother in Srinagar), I think it set up something in my head that I couldn’t really just ignore anymore. I found it humiliating that the defence wanted me because I was a Kashmiri Pandit. I told them there are people who know better Kashmiri than me. They said they wanted a Kashmiri Pandit. Then I said there are many other Kashmiri Pandits who speak Kashmiri better than me, and they said they asked many of them and all of them refused. Eventually I became part of the committee. After spending the year 2000 watching the Narmada case in the Supreme Court, I spent from 2001 and 2002 keeping a watch on this case in the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities court. It was a transforming experience.
In 2003, I told my daughter, who was 13, that I would take her to Kashmir. In 2003 you couldn’t just have a holiday in Kashmir. When you land there you see what was going on around. It was summer and the preparation for the Amarnath Yatra had started. Somebody suggested that we all go to Pahalgam soon, because after a while Kashmiris wouldn’t be allowed there. This was all very shocking for me…
A remarkable thing that happened for me in the same year was that I was invited to a film festival in Brazil; some environmental film fest. I didn’t know it was a competitive film fest. The Narmada film (Words on Water) won a big prize there, a big cash prize, and it was totally unexpected, just out of the blue, that was worth six and half lakh rupees. Then and there I decided to do a film in Kashmir. Because I had the money and nobody to tell me what to do.
So I went back to Kashmir in August, with a place to stay because my aunt’s home was there. Ironically I ended up landing there on the 12th of August and of course everything started shutting down. And I had no sense of what happens in Kashmir around 15th August.
MAP: The opening scene of Jashn-e-Azadi is from there?
SK: It is. I didn’t shoot it that year, I experienced it that year. Our home was very close to Lal Chowk. I was watching the Independence Day function on an old TV in the house. After that I walked and walked for a few hours and the streets were totally deserted. Nobody at all was to be seen. And of course in Lal Chowk the Indian flag was going up and a handful of police men and some ten children watching. So I told myself that this was an image that I wanted in the film. In a sense the research for that film started on that date in August 2003. And on 15th August 2004 I was back with my cameraman friend, Ranjan Palit, and we started filming actually on that very day. We started with that very image. Over a year we did some six or seven trips. Slowly the material started to come. However, earning the trust of people was very difficult, and it is still the same. People are always suspicious of outsiders.
MAP: And on top of that you are a Kashmiri Pandit…
SK: I am a Kashmiri Pandit, my father worked in the army, and I live in Delhi. My credentials couldn’t have been worse! People would ask me, “Who are you doing this film for?” “For myself” I would answer, “I am an independent filmmaker and I have no agenda.” This was probably the way I earned their trust. Eventually a time came when people started suddenly participating. In a way many of the parts in the film are gifts from people.
MAP: So after a point of time it became a people’s project?
SK: I wouldn’t make that boast. But I think people understood that there was a certain way I was approaching the film. And nobody knew what the film was about. No one asked. Except for two of my close friends who worked with me, no one knew what the film was about till they watched it in the big screen in Tagore Hall, Srinagar in 2007. I could have been saying anything in the film. But still they did not ask. It was such an act of trust.
MAP: Jashn-e-Azadi is talked about as a film that changed the way Indians look at Kashmir. In Until My Freedom Has Come, the anthology of Kashmiri writing that you’ve edited, you also say that things have changed after 2008. What do you think has changed after the film came out?
SK: I think, more than the film, it is the timing of the film that mattered. A certain film or a certain book can have an impact at a certain time. I would say that if Jashn-e-Azadi was finished in 2003 it wouldn’t have had this impact. I believe that by the time the film came out in 2007, the consensus on Kashmir in India was ready to crack. It was shaky. I think the Parliament attack, the consequences, a general growing mistrust of the official position, etc. were all becoming prevalent. Because Jashn-e-Azadi was in an essay mode it could make an impact. I agree that the film has its own merit. That keeps it alive. But the timing was critical.
MAP: It was a time when people were losing faith in the system and the official narratives…
SK: People had some doubts. But till then there was nothing on the screen about Kashmir. I think the significance of the film comes from the fact that people were ready for it. And, because some people tried to stop the film, the discomfort people already felt further crystallised. People started asking, if there was nothing wrong, why was the film being stopped? What was wrong with the film? Many young people came to watch this film. One reason why I insist on screening my films in colleges is because many of the young people who watched that film in 2007 are now journalists, reporters, college teachers, etc. who do influence public opinion. Having watched the film they can never get this experience out of their head. The so-called controversy around the film actually widened the field, not only for the film, but for the discourse on Kashmir as well. We can say that the film, both in its content and reception, changed perceptions on Kashmir. Because of the attempts to censor it, many more people started screening the film.
MAP: Let’s come back to the struggle in 2008…
SK: What was happening in 2008, 2009 and 2010 is what I have tried to crystallise in the book Until My Freedom Has Come. By the time Jashn-e-Azadi came out in 2003, the internet had become accessible to more and more people. Suddenly youngsters started writing. Some of the fear broke. So if in 2003, nobody was willing to talk, in 2008 people were writing on the internet fearlessly. I could see that something was happening. It was not about Indians going to Kashmir, making films or writing about Kashmir. Kashmiris themselves were ready. I knew that, but over personal conversations only.
The protests in 2008 marked two things. At one level, the militancy seemed to have withdrawn. The state would have argued, ‘oh the militancy has been defeated’. But of course, the more accurate thing would be to say that the militancy was in tactical withdrawal. And what happened in 2009 around the rape and murder of the two women in Shopian resulted in huge civic protests (Shopian town was shut down for 47 days). Suddenly the character of what was happening in Kashmir made it impossible to say that what was happening there was only some Pakistan-sponsored militancy, which was also incidentally my argument in Jashn-e-Azadi too.
When I started showing Jashn-e-Azadi, one thing people would frequently ask me was if I was saying that the militancy is not over. I didn’t have a straight answer to that, just a hunch. So when the protests happened in 2008, I was so thrilled because the hunch was right. After the protests in 2008 and the Shopian incident in 2009, we see the massive street protest in 2010 which lasted for five or six months in which more than a hundred people were killed. I think there was a major breakthrough then. No matter what happens now, in the public mind it will be very difficult for the Indian state to put that lid back on the Kashmir story. Kashmiris are writing, they are on the internet, as students they have lost their fears. Many of them are extraordinarily brave. In a place like Delhi they will come out and protest even if they get beaten up brutally. So something has changed.
MAP: So the mind has become free…
SK: Absolutely. I think people became intellectually free, as I have suggested in Until my Freedom Has Come. The idea of the book was that there are people on the street throwing stones, and there are others writing about it, on the net. And they don’t see themselves as disconnected. They can understand the role each one is playing.
MAP: On many occasions, in your film, your book, and other places, you use the word intifada, which has a connection with Palestinian struggle, to talk about the resistance in Kashmir….
SK: The term ‘intifada’ means unshackling. I would say that the uprising was certainly an intifada – an unshackling of the mind. The Kashmir issue can’t be covered up anymore. No one is saying that the solution is on the streets either. We don’t know what the solution is.
MAP: What do you think is the solution?
SK: I could have a solution, but I am not sure how many takers there will be for it. What matters is how people comprehend the matter. But a solution is something that is impossible in the present circumstances. We know that having an election or referendum or plebiscite in any part of the world has been a fair judgment of what people really want. But right now the Kashmir issue is in such a state that anybody can say anything and get away with it because it is a completely oppressed society. The government of India can say that secretly all Kashmiris are pro-India and all that they want is development and a job. Someone else can say that they are all pro-Pakistan and all they want is to join Pakistan. Somebody else can say something else. There is absolutely no political space in Kashmir. In order to ascertain what people want and what the future of Kashmir should be, we need to have a conversation there. Suppose I have a vision for Kashmir, I should have the right to get up and say it.
There has got to be a democratisation of public discourse and that cannot happen without demilitarisation. So the first step is demilitarisation, however complicated and however long it takes. Without demilitarisation and the restoration of democratic mechanisms, there is no possible solution. Because of the tremendous pressure under which the dialogues are happening, no one can openly say also what they actually mean.
MAP: Your film Jashn-e-Azadi had come under the criticism that it does not talk about the Kashmiri Pandit issue. Also, in some of the narratives from the side of the Pandits, we often see an instance of competing victimhood…
SK: The Kashmiri Pandit issue is a very complicated and important one. From the time I started thinking about my film (Jashn-e-Azadi), it was something I knew I had to deal with. And through the course of years when we were making this film, I kept telling my editor Tarun Bhartiya, who is also a close collaborator, that we should do something to bring this issue in. The truth was that I didn’t have a handle on it. I hadn’t fully understood what happened. It is not that people left only because Jagmohan (the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir state at the time) asked them to. It is not that they left because every mosque in Srinagar was asking them to. There are at least ten competing narratives, all of which are true, and yet none of them are the complete explanation.
At that time, I just was not able to get my head wrapped around it. I clearly remember once my editor turned to me and said “Why are we forcing this into the film when it is not naturally coming in? Why don’t we represent it like what it is? It is a big gaping hole in the life of Kashmir. People will be upset with us if we don’t bring it in. But let’s deal with it. Let’s not force ourselves to do this because it is a balancing act.”
Eventually, because I had been reading quite some poetry I came across the poet Pyarey Hatash whose works I really liked. I decided to call him (in Jammu) and asked him if he could read it out to me on the phone. And he did. And eventually that is what I used in the film. I used just that poem on the phone as a way of representing this faraway voice. You can see it as a poem of nostalgia, as a poem of loss. You can read it in whichever way you want. But now, ten years later, I think I have a much better understanding of what happened. And I always say, with all its complexity, it is a terrible tragedy. Not just for Kashmir Pandits but also for Kashmiri Muslims and also for India in general.
Many Kashmiri Muslims have terrible regret about it. But that regret can’t be transformed into guilt. They have also been through something else in the interim. They also have been through a transformative 10 to 15 years. I will give you an instance. My aunt has a home in Srinagar and my mother and sister go to Kashmir every year now. They are old, and they wear saris like all Pandit women do. Whenever my mother has been out of the house some stranger will come up to her to say that it was so nice to see them back… Now if you tell this story to some people they will say those people on the street are hypocrites. But I am saying, if in my mother’s experience Srinagar is full of only people who have the time to be hypocritical, then I am okay with it, it still means something. Even if they are hypocritical, it means something.
So it is a very complex issue. My real regret is that there hasn’t been a substantial historical investigation or account of what happened to Kashmiri Pandits from 1989 onwards. There isn’t a single piece of authentic sort of research. If something terrible happened on 19th January 1990 and all the Kashmiri Pandits fled, where are the statistics? How did they all go? Where are the details? Were there news reports the next day in Jammu that hundreds of trucks have arrived? Or is it something that nobody noticed? You can argue that they left Kashmir in the night. But they didn’t arrive in Jammu in the night. So obviously it didn’t happen on a day. It happened over months. People left. Some may have left in January 1990. Some may have left in 1994. So the fact of the migration is undeniable. The fact that people left in fear is undeniable. Everything else remains shrouded in hysteria, in confusion. It would be wrong to deny that the Pandits were not threatened people. They were under tremendous threat. Nobody in Kashmir will deny that. But it is the spin that has been given to it, and there is guilt and confusion on both sides.
~ Second part of the interview at Vignettes of defiance – II.
~ Muhammed Afzal P is a Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Cultural Studies, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, India.