Lamhaa breaks away from the Bollywood mould by diving into Kashmiri politics, but ends up reinforcing some dangerous prejudices, says Pragya Tiwari
Bollywood has always idealised Kashmir romantically. Pre-1980s, it was a bed of flowers for young lovers, and 2000 onwards, it has been a war zone where the ‘valiant’ military overcomes ‘evil’ militants. Obscured by the silver screen, ordinary Kashmiris have spent the past 20 years struggling against gross human rights violations and crying out for ‘azadi’.
In this context, Lamhaa might just herald a new wave of films that are not afraid of diving into the Valley’s impossible politics. Dholakia takes definite political stands but also shows the complexity of Kashmir’s narrative. He blurs the lines between the violator and the violated. Politicians from the state and Centre, army, police, intelligence agencies and businessmen are equally implicated in keeping the unrest alive — alongside terror outfits from Pakistan.
An auteur has the right to take liberties with facts to distill the essence of a conflict, but when fiction is rooted firmly in reality it cannot escape responsibility for the message that comes out of it. Especially since the war in Kashmir is being sustained by State propaganda and voices from the ground are being consistently muffled.
In interviews, the crew and cast have admitted to basing characters on real persons; and in some cases, real names have been retained by their characters. Bipasha Basu plays a character resembling Asiya Andrabi, a separatist leader who advocates hardline Islam and violence. In a society that has always practised its own brand of moderate Islam, her voice is marginal. Why Dholakia makes her central to his narrative, then, is unclear. What is more inexplicable is her portrayal as a righteous and victimised heroine. Andrabi is a power-brokering fanatic. And if she deserves any sympathy, it is only because she can be seen as a psychological casualty of conflict. Equally baffling is how a character that draws from a woman — who propagates complete purdah in real life — should be the central object of lust in the film.
Many other such real life Kashmiris populate the film. But in quaint Bollywood style they are etched in black and white. The film sides with Kunal Kapoor’s Aatif (a reformed militant who invests in democracy) who is reminiscent of Yasin Malik and younger leaders from the moderate breakaways of the Hurriyat Conference. Anupam Kher’s Haji, modelled on Syed Geelani, is the unequivocal villain. Lamhaa’s strongest case against him is that he sides with Pakistan and has orchestrated the murder of the heroine’s father. Clearly, Dholakia hasn’t been able to avoid the traps of over-simplification and jingoism that this film had potential to forgo.
Despite exposing the rot in the army, Lamhaa lets Sanjay Dutt’s Indian military intelligence officer emerge as the hero. Ironically, he acts as saviour to locals who are struggling for self-determination and do not want to be ‘saved’ by outsiders. In the end, as he shoots a child incited to kill by Pakistani militants, the film joins forces with mainstream media that has of late been dismissing fresh dissent in the Valley as mischief manufactured by vested interests. In another unfortunate reinforcement of prejudice, the only Kashmiri Pandit character turns out to be an Indian intelligence spy charading as a neutral journalist.
As more young Kashmiris take to the streets with stones to protest, the last thing we need is for pop culture to reinforce prejudices that fuel this bloodbath. It is commendable that Lamhaa isn’t afraid of looking ugly by baring Kashmir’s deep sores, but it also ends up needlessly pricking them. For all its political veneer, Lamhaa is foremost an entertaining thriller. Except one is not entirely comfortable getting one’s thrills from something so close o endless tragedy.
‘There is an issue of freedom — not freedom of state but freedom of mind’
Nergish Sunavala talks to Rahul Dholakia about making Lamhaa and theKashmir conflict
After Parzania, why did you make your second film a more traditional Bollywood film with big stars?
Parzania had a lot of problems in terms of distribution and we didn’t get many eyeballs for it. We needed to convey our message to a larger audience and that’s why we chose to make Lamhaa with stars. But stars come with their own baggage. There are compromises if you want the story to be heard, such as having songs — which I’m totally against. I’ve used them here as a background score, so it’s not like there’s a dance sequence in the middle of the film.
Why have you claimed it was very difficult to make Lamhaa?
You have to be so goddam politically correct — everyone is eyeing the project and looking to gun you down. And it was impossible to shoot in the Valley. The first time we went the state was under curfew and there was a lot of hostility towards Indians. The second time we had too many cops with us, but even with the cops there was the fear of somebody being attacked, somebody throwing a hand grenade.
Why has it been banned in Pakistan and the Middle East?
The main reason could be that Bipasha’s character is proactive and defies the male chauvinistic system. Maybe the Islamic world is apprehensive about it because they don’t want their women to take on the system and have such liberal views. But I’m really not sure.
Is there a parallel between her character and Asiya Andrabi?
No, the spirit of Asiya could be there but not the character. Asiya’s story and personality is very different from Bipasha’s in the film. I met Asiya and interviewed her, so maybe people thought Bipasha was playing Asiya, but that’s not true. I think people drew a parallel before they watched the film. Once they see the film they won’t.
How has your perspective on Kashmir changed?
You realise there is definitely an issue of freedom — not freedom of state but freedom of mind. After 6 pm there is a curfew every day, their mail gets checked, their Internet is checked. The youth have nothing to do; there is a whole generation that has grown up seeing the gun culture and the armed forces everywhere. They are obviously going to retaliate — for them that is the villain and they feel claustrophobic. Today you have access to the Internet and you can see that everybody else is roaming freely and they ask — why not us?