April 5, 2019
Zara Webb, Shivam Raina, Ashvin Kumar, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Natasha Mago, Maya Sarao, Soni Razdan, Anshuman Jha, Sushil Dahiya
English with Hindi and some Kashmiri
A Kashmiri Muslim girl called Noor travels from her home in Britain to meet her grandparents in the country of her origin, along with her mother and the man the latter wishes to marry. There she learns that her father had vanished in vastly different circumstances from what has so far been conveyed to her. She also meets his best friend’s son Majid who, like her, has grown up with just one parent.
There are two significant differences between these children: she is a British passport holder, he has remained in Kashmir, she finds herself unable to rest until she finds out what became of her father, he appears to have quietly accepted his fate.
Writer-producer-director Ashvin Kumar’s No Fathers In Kashmir is a coming-of-age tale set in one of the most politically turbulent, heavily militarised zones on the planet. According to statistics flashed on screen at the start, 1 lakh people have died in the Kashmir conflict since 1947. The title is a reference to the state’s half widows: a term used for scores of women whose husbands have disappeared but are not confirmed dead. It is into this boiling pot of anguish, bitterness and resentment that Noor is thrown without much preparation, and discovers a world more troubled than she could ever have imagined.
This is an area where a child playfully posing for a silly photograph to impress an attractive girl could suffer consequences more deadly than in most places on the globe, where photographs are not as much memories frozen for posterity as they are potentially incriminating evidence that ordinary citizens must hide away.
Noor and Majid – one a curious outsider, the other a guileless insider – are the eyes through which the film sees, observes and debates Kashmir. They are eyes that the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) found wandering towards inconvenient truths that it would like to keep away from the public. CBFC had initially granted No Fathers In Kashmir an A (adults only) rating that would have automatically and substantially cut down its audience. After a long battle with the Board, the film comes to theatres this week with several cuts and a comparatively lenient UA rating (for unrestricted public exhibition, with parental guidance advised). It is worth asking why it was not instead in the first place given the rating it actually deserves: U (universal).
No Fathers In Kashmir features only relatively mild shots of violence that too in just a couple of scenes. It is not gore but the politics of the film that has rankled with the authorities, as is evident from the insertions, modifications and deletions demanded. CBFC has proved beyond doubt its double standards and blatant pro-establishment bias with this unreasonable UA, a rating that it also recently granted to the blood-spattered Akshay Kumar-starrer Kesari replete with chopped heads and ravaged bodies that merited an A – Kesari though was based on a theme suited to the aggressive nationalism being encouraged by the present government.
No Fathers In Kashmir is a continuation of Ashvin Kumar’s commitment to a state that he has already explored in his documentary features Inshallah Football and Inshallah Kashmir. Kumar (a 2005 Oscar nominee for his live action short Little Terrorist) wears his heart on his sleeve and through these works leaves us in no doubt about where his sympathy lies: with the beleaguered civilians. The Kashmir he brings to us is a space of conflict not simply between the Army and the Muslim public, but also between conservatives and liberals within the Muslim community, between women and an exploitative patriarchal society. This is a picture far removed from the monochromatic image of Kashmiri Muslims as stone throwers and terror sympathisers if not outright terrorists prevailing outside the state.
There are many stereotypes No Fathers In Kashmir seeks to bust, not all of them are related to communal politics. The relationship between Noor’s mother and grandparents, for one, does not follow predictable lines. Majid too is not forced into a sexually-repressed-Indian-male prototype at a point in the film which could potentially have been ruined by viewing him through that prism.
Noor and Majid have been written with empathy and intelligence. Zara Webb gives Noor a stoicism that lends greater impact to the girl’s occasional instances of mischief and undiplomatic, child-like outbursts of rage. The good-looking Shivam Raina manages to make his tentative liking for her and later anger towards her, his instinctive cautiousness and intermittent foolhardiness all equally believable. The youngsters occasionally do slip up, but their innocent appeal pulls them through.
Of the supporting actors, Kulbhushan Kharbanda is credible as always as Noor’s dignified and brave grandfather (whose description of the map of Kashmir probably sent the CBFC into a collective faint). Soni Razdan as the long-suffering grandmother is required to walk a tightrope between love for her son and compassion for her daughter-in-law, a balance that she achieves with finesse despite the limited screen time given to her.
Among the others, Maya Sarao is terrific as Majid’s mother, as is Shahnawaz Bhatt very briefly playing a militant in No Fathers In Kashmir’s most illuminating, surprisingly humorous scene.
The unexpected inclusion in the cast is the director himself who steps into the role of a dour, double-faced religious bigot. Kumar turns in an effective though not earth-shattering performance here.
Except for one scene in which the camera dramatically pulls out to offer an aerial view of Noor and Majid’s intimidatingly vast surroundings, cinematographers Jean Marc Selva and Jean Marie Delorme tend to stay close to the film’s characters. This proximity is initially frustrating because it denies us a better look at spectacular Kashmir, but whether it was intentional or a result of budgetary constraints, it ends up serving the narrative well. A nervous tension pervades the air, underlined by the occasional hand-held shot, and the teenaged Noor’s restless, obsessive, social-media-ready cellphone camera often dominating the screen. Unlike most Indian films set in this picturesque landscape – last month’s visually rich Hamid and Notebook among them – No Fathers In Kashmir relegates the state’s physical beauty to irrelevance, its geography giving us little to celebrate but plenty to fear.
For the most part Kumar narrates his story with conviction. Where he falters is in a clumsy moment of empathy for the Army towards the end and in the distanced portrayal of the Army throughout. Listening to the Army does not make you anti-Kashmiri Muslim, just as concern for Kashmiri Muslims does not make you anti-Kashmiri Pandit as is so often mindlessly assumed. Every side of every story needs to be told well – not just told – for the same reason that we must all learn history, not as a justification for atrocities but to arrive at an understanding of how we got to the position we find ourselves in now.
The tone and manner of telling counts for everything though, and Kumar’s effort to seem objective in certain portions comes across as half-hearted – if he was as unconvinced as he appears to be, the film might have fared better by leaving out these bits. The otherwise far less profound Hamid was more nuanced in this respect. Kashmir is a challenging proposition for the best of us, but director Onir’s brilliant National Award winning film I Am is proof that cinematic objectivity and sensitivity are not mutually exclusive, that questions do not necessarily amount to whataboutery. It is, after all, the job of journalists and artists to ask (including that which makes us uncomfortable), for as a character in this very film says: “We never know why people do what they do because we were not there.”
This line spoken by Noor’s grandfather is perhaps the most telling comment to emerge from No Fathers In Kashmir. And notwithstanding its problem areas, the film’s most striking quality is its courage.
For a fictionalised feature to shine a light on the most contentious aspects of Kashmir’s tragedy – from hypocritical fundamentalists to half widows and mass graves – takes immense guts irrespective of which political party is in power at the Centre (or for that matter, which direction the liberal conversation has taken). That Kumar has chosen to do so under a government that has revved up the nationalist discourse to a fever pitch makes him, like No Fathers In Kashmir, truly special.
Rating (out of five stars): ***
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost: