Basharat, an 18-year-old Kashmiri boy, passionate about football finds himself unable to get a passport to play in Brazil because of his father's past as a militant. Basharat also woos two girls simultaneously... these and other nuances find themselves at the heart of filmmaker Ashvin Kumar's latest documentary, Inshallah Football.
Kashmiri actor Aamir Bashir's directorial debut, Harud — an insider's story of 20 years of conflict — has made its debut at international film festivals in Toronto, London and Mumbai in the last three months. Eidiyaan, a short film based on custodial disappearances, made by students of Jamia Millia Islamia University, has been shown at film festivals across the country earlier this year.
If India were a person, Kashmir would be its troubled head, which has now become an urgent, fertile ground for cinema.
Director Rahul Dholakia's Lamhaa, a mainstream political thriller set in the Valley, opened to mixed reviews this July. Ashoke Pandit's documentary Village of Widows won the best docu award at a recent award function. Vidhu Vinod Chopra who made Mission Kashmir (MK) in 2000 — about a youth torn by dual loyalties — is now working on 50vi Saalgirah, about an elderly Kashmiri couple's life (inspired by his parents). Onir's upcoming Shab is about a toy-boy who tries to find life beyond the chaos.
India's political hotspot has captured popular imagination for its picturesque locales from the 60s to the 70s, and for its conflict after the eighties' insurgency. What has led filmmakers to explore it again?
"Anything that hurts becomes a fertile point for a thinking person," says Indranil Chakravarty, film professor at the Whistling Woods International, Mumbai.
For Kumar, who visited the Valley after 20 years, stories of brutality committed against its people gnawed at him from every corner of this land.
"I shelved plans of a feature film and decided to follow the heart-rending narrative of a father and son that alludes to a huge edifice of atrocity," he says.
For Onir, it was "fascinating to the point of horror" to see that "so much beauty can give birth to so much of violence". Dholakia decided to make Lamhaa when some students told him Kashmir was a "beautiful prison".
"Kashmir is like a cuddled up giant that silently weeps as it sees history unfold," he says.
For filmmakers like Bashir, Pandit and Chopra there's a deeper connect. They hail from the region.
"Cinema of exile comes from exile that is either forced or voluntary. A genuine filmmaker even if he's living in Delhi or Mumbai, will have his heart in Kashmir," says Chakravarty.
While Bashir is the son of a retired chief justice of Jammu and Kashmir High Court, Pandit, who also made Sheen in 2004, about the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits, was one of the 4,00,000 who had to leave the Valley in 1990, living in refugee camps before Mumbai became home.
"I grew up under the influence of my paternal grandmother, a Sufi saint. I got married in a Muslim neighbour's house. My wife is a Kashmiri folk singer. My work is naturally influenced by all this," he says.
Likewise for Chopra, who was born to a Punjabi family from Kashmir.
"I went to school and college in Srinagar and from there straight to film school. What stayed with me is praying at Hazratbal as much as at Shankaracharya. When the trouble started in 1989, I was at the Parinda premiere in Mumbai. My mother called me..."
Indian cinematic prism
How has Indian cinema looked at Kashmir through the years?
"Popular cinema generally has been sanitised and conformist. Mani Ratnam's Roja in 1993 dealt with terrorism but it was more of a backdrop. What unfolded was the age-old love story. The polemical, nuanced view of Kashmir has happened, if at all, on the margins. Like, Sanjay Kak's controversial Jashn-e-azadi. One also has to question if Kashmir is 'selling'? Is it easy to get funding from western societies? Also, with cheaper technology, a personal film is possible now," says Chakravarty.
"Films like MK and Border didn't work for me," says Kumar.
Pandit adds, "Roja used Kashmir as a premise but didn't make a political statement. Dholakia tried addressing different issues in Lamhaa but there was confusion in story-telling."
For Dholakia, cinema can ignite a thought "but not change society, and most certainly not an issue like Kashmir, which has so many layers." He also feels that the audience has become more polarised compared to the time when MS Sathyu made Garam Hawa or Govind Nihalani made Tamas.
"The middle-class which patronises multiplex cinema, doesn't like reality. They prefer fantasies."
What impact has one of the longest-running conflicts in the world had in our national space? Not much.
"We are busy making a golf course, which serves a handful of people while the best hospital in Srinagar does not have basic facilities. We need to promote intermingling of the youth of Kashmir with the rest of the country," says Onir.
"If this generation," cautions Kumar, "picks up arms, we are in for a very high jump."
Cinema and politics
Argentina — In the 70s, exiled makers migrated to Spain and Paris, making films on the country's political unrest.
Iran — Post Islamic revolution and state-controlled film production, it was easier to get funding for children's films. Film-makers like Abbas Kiarostami used child protagonists to talk to the audience above the censors' heads.
Chile — After the 1973 coup, exiled makers played a key role in mobilising groups around the world, while films based on the search for homeland have came out of Palestine and Israel.