Two young men from Kashmir sit facing each other across a large teak table, their stories straddling the two strongest flavours of their Himalayan land — love and turmoil.
Director Aarshad Mushtaq, 30, is in New Delhi for the screening of the first locally-made Kashmiri feature film, Akh Daleel Loolech (A Story of Love). Kashmiri model Tariq Ahmad Dar, 25 has been in a small prison in Delhi for months, accused of having terror links, until the police dropped charges against him and set him free.
At first glance, they represent two faces of Kashmir — the romance and the ruin — but their lives are deeply intertwined. Mushtaq’s film is a love story set in the 19th century, but it also carries a political statement on contemporary Kashmir — it grows out of the region’s disconnect with New Delhi. Dar is a victim of the same disconnect.
“When I read about him, my first reaction was, ‘Welcome, another guy joins the club’. We need these doses. It is like a vaccination,” says Mushtaq, looking across the room at Dar.
Bitterness comes easily to the Kashmiri youth. It has been nurtured by years of discontent and anger. Most of the dead in the region’s violence are civilians. The state’s summer capital, Srinagar, is dotted with sandbagged bunkers, barb wire fences and security posts where civilians are often subjected to brief, gruff interviews. Soldiers are often rude. Sometimes, the young argue back. The soldiers say they have their own compulsions: they are fighting someone else’s political battle, and their adversary is invisible among the passers-by.
So it is a grudging everyday co-existence between the soldier and the Kashmiri. It is a seething alienation that thousands have grown on.
For Mushtaq, his film is a reflection of modern-day Kashmir. He also seeks to raise awareness of Kashmir’s own disconnect with its language. Many young Kashmiris cannot speak their language, and are not aware of their traditions.
The 75-minute film is set in 1887 in a Kashmir village run by a jagirdar, a feudal lord, on the orders of the maharaja. The violin-playing attendant of the British envoy in Kashmir falls in love with the jagirdar’s daughter, inviting feudal fury. In the backdrop of a love story, rebellions are crushed, people die, and it is finally left to an ordinary man to fight injustice.
“Every day is a struggle to live another day,” Mushtaq says of the present, running his hands through his long, wavy hair. “My effort is to talk about the pain I am going through. I have seen people die. I have seen blood. I am a partner to that pain.”
Dar expresses no such rage. He listens silently to Mushtaq’s strong comments. He shuffles in his seat. He declines coffee. He is uncomfortable talking about politics. He says he has been “in a cage, like an animal”, for far too long — he needs to organise his thoughts. He wants to leave.
Dar shakes Mushtaq’s hand as he goes out of the room, promising to watch the screening of his film if he is still in town. For a young man suddenly caught in the vortex of a complex web of espionage and terrorism allegations, Dar shows great calm. And it seems understandable that he does not want to talk about politics — he is a victim of it.
Dar was arrested by the Bangladesh government, labelled an Indian spy, and deported after a month in custody. Back in India, he was accused of having links with militants and jailed for another three months, before he was released for lack of evidence.
Despite the discontent that an incident such as this evokes, Kashmir’s turmoil did not reach out to the world with compelling, uncomplicated works of literature, or cinema as in Iran.
Akh Daleel, soon to be released in DVDs with English subtitles, marks a first — but without the stereotypes.
“You won’t find the picture postcard in my film. There is no Dal (lake), no Pehelgam, no Gulmarg. There is no Photoshop-ped Kashmir,” says Mushtaq.
(Akh Daleel Loolech will be screened at the India Habitat Centre on January 29).