“Telling the truth about Kashmir is a difficult thing to do”

Syed Zafar Mehdi

He is the only Indian to be nominated for an academy award in the live action short film category for Little Terrorist in 2005. Director, Producer, Writer and Editor, Ashvin Kumar is ready with his next, “Inshallah Football”, a feature documentary set in Kashmir. Premiered at the prestigious Pusan International Film Festival in Korea recently, Inshallah Football is being described as a bold experiment by filmmaker to portray the situation in Kashmir.

In a freewheeling chat with Syed Zafar Mehdi, Ashvin Kumar talks about the film and his no-nonsense approach to film-making.

 Q1) What is “Inshallah, Football” all about?

It is about entering the home and hearth of Kashmir, creeping under the veil of prejudice, misinformation, propaganda and attempting to clarify the misunderstanding of Kashmiris by the people and institutions of ‘rest of India’. It is about the Kashmiri people, not as faceless demographic who happen to occupy a piece of land (Kashmir) that India feels should be an integral part of its state, but as human beings.

It is about the dreams of youth against the iron fist of the state.

Q2) What prompted you to dabble with the touchy theme of Kashmir?

I was appalled by the unchecked, flagrant use of force and authoritarian stranglehold of the Indian government through our armed forces in the Kashmir valley. Family after family Kashmir revealed firsthand how militancy and its terrible response was felt in the kitchen, in the living rooms and gardens of the ordinary Kashmiri. Not a single family did I meet that didn’t have a story about a kinsman who hadn’t been impacted by militancy. Entire families and breadwinners wiped out in many, many cases. It seemed like fiction – how come no one has heard these stories outside the Kashmir valley? I asked myself.

It would be an understatement to say that in Kashmir, our democracy had been tested and found wanting. The larger question about the Indian state, and the democracy that we have given to ourselves hung over the days of filming, and became the conscience of the film.

The Kashmiri feels betrayed and abused by the Indian state and not without reason. In attempting to curb militancy, the Indian state has unleashed many demons, one of the most visible being the presence of half a million armed forces in the valley and a parallel war economy that has created a huge illegal wealth and power structures which are going to be very difficult to dismantle. There are too many vested interests now in Kashmir for whom the ongoing conflict is profitable.

The ordinary Kashmir first ground to pulp by the horrors of militancy, now has to deal with an occupation of its land by an India that behaves like it is ruling over a defeated people rather than in the service of citizens of its own country. This gulf between the official mentality and the desire of ordinary Kashmiri, if not redressed shortly, will lead to another terrible reprise of the horror of the ’90. With Af-Pak the shambles it is in, this ‘uprising’ would spell disaster for the region, if not the rest of the world.

I wanted to create a piece of communication that would seep under the skin of its viewer, in which I could transmit feelings of indignation, sadness and shame that I felt as an Indian while in Kashmir. There is a deep irony in claiming the geographical entity that is the Kashmir valley as an integral part of India, while its people, the Kashmiri, is made particularly unwelcome by India, when she travels to the rest of India and treated like a illegal tenant in her own home in Kashmir.

The Indian passport that is denied to Basharat Baba, the boy who dreams of playing football in Brazil, is the emotional, visual and political manifestation of this irony.

Q3) Are you politically-correct? Should artists have a strong political opinion? 

When making a piece of cinema it is useful to understand the limitations of rage, indignation, anguish if the ultimate goal is to trigger a change of perception in those who are not already converted to my point-of-view. Polarizing opinions only leads to more rancor and hardened stands. It may be deeply satisfying in the moment but in the long run the communication, in my opinion, fails. For example, it would have been possible (as I have all the necessary footage) to make a documentary film about the torture, rapes, forced detentions, custodial killings, human shields, mass graves, renegades, half-widows… the reality is grizzly and there is no shortage of tales of depravity and atrocities in the Kashmir valley and no shortage of very brave people who wish these stories reach the world outside their borders.

These experiences fundamentally altered my understanding of human nature itself, going deeper than nations and citizens, they made me wonder about the demon that exists in human nature, in us all. In Inshallah, political conflict is presented as a personal dilemma, a crisis of humanity, because that is how I see the ‘conflict’.

Q4) How has the experience of working on Inshallah Football been? 

This is my first documentary film and it has been one of the most creatively satisfying experiences of my life. All cinematic faculties, be it storytelling or camera work or editing, were tested live and on the spot. Unlike fiction, which is what I am used to, in documentary you have very little control on what happens. You just go on instinct and I suppose some amount of skill and training kicks-in; listening for what could become a new twist in the tale or anticipating that a moment is about to happen and find yourself in the right spot with the camera rolling to capture it; to recognize and act upon IT on the spot, not in a screenwriting software sitting in the comfort of an office thousands of miles away. The experience is live, and sometimes you try things without knowing whether its going to work or not. You sometimes spend days filming stuff, then realizet hat all that footage will never make it into the film. It tests your abilities to improvise and be spontaneous. It forces you to trust and listen to your own instincts. This is a film made on pure, undiluted instinct. I can’t give you an explanation for a lot of the things that I have included in the film, those moments just felt right.

There is also a great amount of structuring that is done after the filming is over, in fiction that structuring takes place at the time when the screenplay is written, here it happens at the end of the process once everything is shot. It took us better part of 6 months to create an 82 min cut from nearly 300 hours of footage, with the most sketchy of skeletons / backbone for the story. In some senses, the story began to tell itself on the editing table. I also must say that the manner in which this film came about and how we made it, with a sense of gentleness, without the frenzy that surrounds a work of fiction was another revelation – that you can actually make a film unhurriedly, at a semi-leisurely pace, perhaps also fed into the deepening of the film and its characters.

Q5) What were the highlights of Inshallah Football shoot for you? 

Getting to know Bashir Baba certainly. I feel privileged to have got to know him as intimately as I did. Marco, Priscilla and Basharat, fearless people with a large heart and a rare dedication to their respective causes. Traveling all over Kashmir to far-flung border areas like Gurez, seeing the Neelganga river, village life in Kupwara, Bandipora, Baramulla and so on.

The sound of the aazan from Jamma Masjid mixing with the sound of temple bells from across the river from the few Hindu temples still under worship on the Jehlem.

What touched me most is the courage and generosity of my protagonists. While living under the dark cloud of intimidation, despite knowing that this film could turn out badly for them, they invested the trust in me (a total stranger), welcomed my team and I with gracious hospitality, offered intimate details of their lives, and tolerated my relentless probing into their personal histories with equanimity or bewildered indulgence.

Their motivation and determination is inspirational, because they knew that if this turned out badly, it would translate into real harassment for them. I will give you an example, after serving 2 years under PSA, Bashir was released. The BSF and army kept picking him up on a regular basis – sometimes week after week – at all odd hours of the day or night, to interrogate him. The lives of ex-militants was made hell even after they were released after serving sentences. The armed forces would try to ‘persuade’ them to become renegades and work for the armed forces in rounding up other militants. Such men became known as Ikhwani and they remain the most hated people in Kashmir today. They are seen as betrayers. That is the kind of harassment still goes on even till today. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that our film could create trouble for Bashir, Basharat, Marco and Priscilla. Kashmir is run like a military state, there is no room for individual freedoms or liberties and no matter how well the film is received in India and elsewhere, local officials wield absolute power and immunity. That’s why the AFSPA and other draconian legislations need to be removed. So Bashir and his family can sleep peacefully after speaking to our cameras, knowing that somewhere out there the Indian state is actually working  to protect them.

Q6) How difficult was it to shoot in Kashmir, with young Kashmiri cast?

The youth were scared, some of them in their early twenties were journalists whose phones were tapped. They would tell us things, but off camera. Those who came on camera insisted that we hide their faces. There is a deep fear everywhere in that valley. But despite that, people were very eager to reveal details to us. In fact it was shocking how little information and critical analysis was coming out of the valley when the population was so eager to talk. There is very little written about the ’90s in Kashmir for instance. The Indian media has been particularly negligent in this respect. On Kashmir, they have towed the official stand of the Indian government. That is why when I was researching this film, I discovered that there was a remarkable lack of coverage of the various issues that were plaguing ordinary Kashmiris in the mainstream Indian press. Even today, telling the truth about Kashmir is a difficult thing to do. People who do are actively discouraged and intimidated. This gag sits uncomfortably with the average Kashmiri’s desire to tell his story and ensure that this story reaches the world. I believe that this was Bashir’s only aim – he was risking a lot so that our cameras could take his voice to the world, and help people understand the conditions in which they live.

Q7) How would you describe Basharat, the main protagonist of film?

He’s a regular teenager who is interested in girls and football. He’s talented and he has a dream. He is an ordinary guy caught in extraordinary circumstances. What Basharat represents under that disarming front is the right of every citizen of a democratic country and the aspiration of most Kashmiris – dignity and respect.

Q8) What according to you is the root-cause of Kashmir mess?

The ordinary Kashmiri wish to live a peaceful and dignified existence assured of the freedoms that a citizen should be guaranteed within any democratic country versus their perception of a bungling, unenlightened, high-handed, insensitive state of India who’s overwhelming communication has been that of scrutiny, persecution, intimidation and tyrannical ruling through a fear psychosis. I interviewed a psychologist in Kashmir’s only mental hospital (a startling fact in itself) who said to me that he is absolutely sure that every member of the state of Kashmir suffers from depression and a huge number suffer from deep trauma.

The refusal to acknowledge a chain of betrayals on all levels particularly legal and constitutional and a visible demonstration that the Indian state can practically implement changes that are in sync with the desires of the Kashmiri people, and a non-farcical, non-cynical addressing of their demand for autonomy.

Q9) You wear different hats, that of Director, writer, producer and editor. How do you balance the requirements of all?

I try not to rush as much as I used to.  I do yoga nowdays. It creates energy and a detached state of mind. Things seem to fall into place when you’re not in a hurry.

Q10) Road to Ladakh was shot in Ladakh, Little Terrorist was set in Rajasthan, Inshallah Football in Kashmir, where are you heading next??

To a beach in Goa. Cakewalk

(First published in Conveyor magazine)

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Moth ki Masjid: Abode of peace

Masjid Moth.jpg

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Even as most Mughal monuments across the city are courting controversies and hitting the headlines for all wrong reasons, complete peace reigns at Moth Ki Masjid— a 16th century ASI-protected monument bordering Greater Kailash and South Extension II.

Prayers and controversies

Recently there have been reports of forced entries into many an ASI protected monument by people to offer Friday prayers (namaz), in direct contravention of ASI rules.  Prayers were offered at places like Qutub Minar’s masjid, Raja ki Baoli mosque, Jamali Kamali mosque and Mandi Masjid at Mehrauli, in blatant breach of ASI-rules. But this historic South Extension mosque hasn’t seen any such thing happening. “We won’t let any such mischievous elements to use this monument for such petty politicking,” says Shamsul Alam, a resident.

Best of Mughal architecture

Built by Miyan Bhuwa, a minister during the reign of Sikandar Lodi (1517-26) in the early 16th century, this three-domed mosque is modeled on classic Mughal style. It is considered an essential milestone in the growth of the Mughal style of architecture. Raised on a platform, the mosque has an impressive red sandstone gateway leading to sprawling lawns inside.

There are double storeyed towers with arched openings at the rear ends of the roof and domed octagonal chhatris on the corresponding walls. Only locals, who come here to chill and unwind in its expansive lawns, throng the little-known monument.

By the book

Unlike what’s brewing in other such historic mosques across the city, here people go by book. “We don’t offer namaz here, as that’s against the ASI rules. We believe that the monuments are a public heritage and need to be taken care of very well,” says Hamza 28, a local. Another lady in her fifties who resides just adjacent to the historic mosque, adds, “I haven’t seen prayers being offered here for decades now. It mostly remains deserted.”

Name and History:

The mosque has the rather atypical name, Moth-ki-Masjid. According to a legend, Miyan Bhuwa built this mosque from the revenue earned by producing a large crop from just a single grain of moth, a kind of lentil. Sikandar Lodi himself presented this grain to him. The minister produced many more seeds from that one seed and over a period of time raised a large enough crop to construct this mosque with its revenue.

Official apathy

Locals believe that due to its wrong location, the mosque remains a hidden treasure to the world outside. “Not many people know about this historical heritage, as it lies in the interiors and thus we hardly see any tourist flocking here, unlike at other such historic mosques” says Chaman Gupta, a local. Official apathy is also responsible, say locals. “We hardly see any ASI official visiting this place to take stock of the monument and its maintenance,” asserted a local, wishing anonymity.

(First published in Hindustan Times)