Going Where the Silences Are


How does one live in the eye of fear? As Ashvin Kumar takes us to the streets of Kashmir again, Nishita Jha meets the man intent on bypassing the Censor Board

Conversations over curfew Kumar films the army in Srinagar
Conversations over curfew: Kumar films the army in Srinagar

AS YOU watch the stark frames of Inshallah, Kashmir: Living Terror, you imagine that Ashvin Kumar must be an angry man. The voiceover (added in a cocoon of post-production reflection) sounds calm — but the live mic picks up on Ashvin’s reactions of shock and disbelief as former militants, young boys and women narrate their experiences with daily torture, rape and abductions. Although the camera and narrator usually provide the impartial eye in a documentary, stitching the story together, in Inshallah, Kashmir it is the Kashmiris who weave their deadpan narrative into a cohesive picture. Their matter-of-fact monotone says more than an entire valley of screams could.

Poised for release on YouTube (to be uploaded under the channel ‘ashvinalipur’) at midnight on 26 January, Inshallah, Kashmir is not just the camera’s version of human rights violations in Kashmir, but also the filmmaker’s personal journey of discovering what those “cocooned in the delusion of a secular democracy” take for granted. The 39-year-old’s association with Kashmir, prior to his role as a documentary filmmaker, was similar to Bollywood’s version of Kashmir kitsch (in a pre-Mission Kashmir era). His family spent summers driving through the Valley making stops at Pahalgam, Mattan and Anantnag. “My Kashmir was a week on a houseboat and a couple of weeks in Gulmarg — the fashionable place for people from big cities… It was a good time, an easy time. I was largely unaware about its history or legacy of political disenchantment,” he writes on his blog. The Valley was also imbued with a personal mythology for him — his great-grandfather, a Kashmiri, had been a serving Forest Officer “who had planted all the trees from Tangmarg to Gulmarg”. Last year, the Goa-based filmmaker and his mother, fashion designer Ritu Kumar, made a pilgrimage of sorts to the Valley, tracing the geographical pivots of their ancestral history.

The crusader Ashvin Kumar
The crusader: Ashvin Kumar, Photo: Anup Patil

When the threat of war robbed Kashmir of its tourists in 1999, Kumar remembers feeling a vague resentment at the loss of his favourite holiday spot. This was soon replaced by the other, more urgent trials of youth — as a student of Doon School, Kumar was frequently bullied by seniors and professors (a phase he describes in detail in Dazed in Doon, his semi-autobiographical film on his alma mater). It is not hard to imagine how this contributed to the sense of alienation Kumar now confesses to, from the “club-hopping, coke-snorting” elite from the rest of the country. “When the school board banned Dazed in Doon, I felt as though they had betrayed the very ethos they stood for — freedom of speech, a basic respect for each other’s perspectives.”

Kumar’s young love for theatre (an escape from his “miserable existence” in Doon) gradually matured into a passion for film. He briefly enrolled at a film school in London, before dropping out to fund his own film, Road to Ladakh. By the time he made his second short film, Little Terrorist, Kumar had found his creative voice — Little Terroristwent on to become the only Indian short film to be nominated for an Oscar.

By 2009, Kumar had become increasingly obsessed with making a feature film in Kashmir, divorced from the rose-coloured version of the Valley of his youth. As a primer for his return after nearly 20 years, Kumar spoke with several Kashmiri journalists. One such journalist, who helped in his research, says that initially Kumar was “like any other Indian” — asking about the Taliban in Kashmir, hardliners and Pandits. “I told him — meet people and find out for yourself. Don’t rely on any other sources, not even journalists.”

‘Armymen would stop me. I’d change my car rental service and not tell anyone in Kashmir my plans in advance’

Influenced by the poignant and simple narrative style of Iranian cinema, Kumar began recording his conversations with the villagers of Kunan Poshpora (where nearly 50 women were raped by armymen in a single night), Dardpora, Gurez, Baramulla and Kupwara. His initial reaction was that the people of the villages must be lying; there was no way a genocide of these proportions wouldn’t make it to the national press every day. But as testimonies rolled out, verifying and supporting each other independently, he realised he had stumbled on to something more important than his feature film; a conspiracy of silence that kept the media from writing about Kashmir freely. Suddenly, he and his camera had turned into unlikely crusaders. “Often, armymen would try to stop me but realise I was just filming women or scenery. I’d regularly change my car rental service. I wouldn’t tell anyone in Kashmir my plans in advance. I don’t know how much of it was necessary, but it definitely paid off because I don’t know any other filmmakers who have managed to get this kind of raw footage,” he says. Being a crusader came with its share of nerves, however — Kumar recalls the unbelievable tension he initially experienced when meeting former militants.

Inshallah, Football, Kumar’s previous film told the tragic tale of Basharat, a young Kashmiri footballer and his former militant father. The film ran into censor trouble — banned by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), then awarded an A certificate despite Kumar’s pleas. “I filed an RTI to see why they gave it an A certificate — the comments of the board included ‘characters not realistic enough’. It was a documentary for god’s sake!”

Inshallah, Kashmir, which tells the spine-chilling stories of the widows, orphans and former militants edited out of the first film, is likely to raise even more hackles. As Kumar says, “It makes Inshallah, Football seem like a bedtime story.”

Contrary to popular belief, Ashvin Kumar is not an angry man. Befuddled by the fact that the film is the only art-form open to pre-release censorship in India, he still prefers conversation to confrontation. Although releasing his film on YouTube is a way of telling the CBFC to take a ‘flying f **k’, he will also submit it on 26 January for a censor certificate, a process which he plans to spin into a documentary on India’s censorship laws. Nor does he intend to stay away from the mainstream any longer — Kumar is currently working on a feature film “full of sex, greed and aspirations” on the power players of New Delhi. If the grit he displays in his documentaries is anything to go by, we fervently say, inshallah!

Nishita Jha is a Correspondent with Tehelka.


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