‘My film is about grief and how Kashmiris cope with the loss of their loved ones’ – Pankaj Butalia

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How green was my Valley? Butalia’s film shows how people in Kashmir respond to loss in diverse ways
How green was my Valley? Butalia’s film shows how people in Kashmir respond to loss in diverse ways.

When you see the film now, does it make you think that you could have shot some scenes differently?

I was not happy with the footage of the army convoys. They look far more menacing than what comes across in the film. But I couldn’t capture it because the footage was deleted by armymen when they caught me shooting. I would have loved to include some shots of army trucks whizzing past, where you can see them coming and going in all their fearsomeness. I couldn’t do it because doing that in Kashmir might kill you. The sharpshooters on the trucks might take your camera for a gun and they are trained in shooting to kill. So you have to hide yourself to take those shots. That’s not the way I like to shoot.

I tried my best to talk to army personnel. You find a Tamil soldier on the hills of Kashmir having sambar and rice and you ask him, “How do you feel?” He can’t tell you. He is scared. He is in a new ‘country’ and doesn’t know how to deal with it. He doesn’t know why he is there. But that is his job. That means he could get killed in a war whose politics he does not understand. He has only been told that if somebody acts in one of an endless list of ways, he must shoot to kill! Every time I tried to talk to them, they immediately called their seniors who would then come down shouting, “No shooting. No shooting.” The human aspect of what all kinds of people go through in this situation is indeed difficult to capture.

I could not even show how the violence perpetrated by insurgents is a consequence of the violence they or their loved ones had been subjected to. I could not talk to the insurgents about how they experienced the loss of their dear ones, how it impacted the turn their lives took. So that part is missing from my film.

How well do we understand what the Kashmiris are going through?

For most of us, Kashmir is outside our ken. We have always thought of Kashmir as a good place for a vacation, or as an “integral part of India”. We don’t want to acknowledge that the Kashmiris are challenging that. And so instead of exploring ways to deal with the problem for what it is, we say stupid things like “Just send in the military and they will solve the problem!” That is part of the reason why the “problem” has defied a solution so far, not just in Kashmir but also in the Northeast. The “military solution” is no solution because it shows that we have just put the problem aside, hoping to blow it away with force. There is no way that can work.

How is our understanding of Kashmir influenced by the mainstream media? Why do we treat the military as a holy cow?

We treat the army as a ‘holy cow’ and so do not tolerate any criticism of armymen. That is not unique to India; armies everywhere are held with the same high esteem. So how do two armies go to war when people in both countries think their own army has truth on its side? It means this attitude of treating the army as a holy cow is bunkum on both sides of the border. In fact, our mindless support for the armies and their actions is the hurdle in the way of world peace.

Armymen have been rapists, murderers and looters all through history, right from the time of the monarchies, and often these crimes have paved the way of their “success”. Soldiers were told that they could rape women, loot homes and kill people in the lands they conquer. This was sold to them as the “reward” for risking their lives. Why else would they ride horses and travel thousands of miles to fight wars in which they could be killed or maimed if they didn’t have the promise of this ‘excitement’ at the end of it?

It is only in modern times that the notion of the army playing a peacekeeping role emerged. But that’s something no army can really do. An army by nature is a killing machine. An armyman is not expected to think about what is right and what is wrong. He just knows how to distinguish an enemy from a friend. You cannot expect them to understand the politics behind the conflict in which they are participants.

Hearing your petition against the censors’ decision, the Supreme Court observed that the film is “one-sided”. What do you think of the court’s notion of “balance”?

The Supreme Court made that observation without even seeing the film. The judge, therefore, was in no position to pronounce whether my film was balanced or not. He said that after my lawyer told the court that a certain scene shows the father of a child killed by armymen cursing India. The judge just asked why there were no scenes of soldiers doing their duty. “What about their rights?” he asked. That was a stupid question given what the film is about. But the judge simply had no idea because he had not seen the film.

He accused my film of lacking “balance”, but does he apply that benchmark to the other films made on Kashmir, the J&K tourism films, for instance? On watching a tourism film that portrays Kashmir as this happy place, would he ask why it ignores the tragedies that are being wrought at the same time on the families of the Kashmiri women it shows?

The middle classes get angry when someone from their midst stands up and questions middle-class values, norms and perceptions. But instead of saying that openly, they raise this bogey of “balance” and the lack of it.

What I am doing is rectifying a ‘social imbalance’. If I believe there is oppression in society, my film will have to show that. To hide or gloss over the crimes perpetrated by the army in Kashmir while telling a story about the Kashmiri’s experience of grief and loss would only reinforce the existing imbalance in how Kashmir is represented in the “mainstream”.

In The Textures of Loss, you show the agony of ordinary people, often women. For instance, one woman accuses her slain husband of leaving his family behind to join the insurgents. She supports neither India nor jihad and is only concerned with leading a peaceful life and getting her daughters married.

Jihad might mean different things to different people. It is different for a cleric and for an unemployed person. It has a different meaning for somebody whose family has been wiped out and who wants it avenged and for a woman who is left with six children to look after with no man in the family.

If you can’t see the overwhelming army presence on a daily basis, you don’t see anything and life seems normal. You can go to Kashmir and come back thinking everything is as it should be. The ‘abnormality’ is in the heads of people who bear the brunt of the army’s brutality. They know during every waking moment that they could be killed anytime. The awareness of the commonplaceness of death even seeps into their dreams and turns them into nightmares. They know that the police can stop them whenever they want to, strip-search them and slap them at will. You only have to lend them a patient ear and the stories of tragedy and its aftermath come tumbling forth. I am happy that I could show the army as a constant, dangerous presence in the background that never stops haunting you.

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