Finally, it seems that Indian cinema has departed from the two obsessions that attracted it to Kashmir: its scenic beauty and nationalism. In the 1960s, the Valley’s stunning ridges, meandering rivers, not to mention shikaras on the Dal Lake wooed Bollywood, Shammi Kapoor et al with great success. Romantic movies like
Jab Jab Phool Khile
Kashmir Ki Kali
galloped into the box offices of the Gangetic plains and much beyond. <b1>
Then came 1989. Bollywood’s focus shifted from romance to something less amorous. In Roja, an intelligence officer from South India battles militants after being kidnapped in the Valley. In Mission Kashmir, a police officer who mistakenly kills a Kashmiri, fights against militants and wins back a Kashmiri boy lost to indoctrination. More recently, in Fanaa a disgruntled Kashmiri militant fights his nationalist wife and child and is finally killed by his wife.
It’s this predictability that Santosh Sivan breaks with in Tahaan. In this film, Kashmir is taken away from its bewitching beauty and its bewitched nationalist narrative. This is Kashmir without the baggage. No film has gone as close to the ‘reality of Kashmir’ as Tahaan has. There are no chopper-shot frames — something that no Kashmiri, for one, can relate to. There are no typical panoramic views of mountains and meadows, certainly banal bits for Kashmiris.
Instead, Sivan has chosen a fable to narrate Kashmir’s history with visuals and characters that every Kashmiri has etched in their collective memory. The names of the characters are not only well thought up but they are also representative of Kashmir’s historical figures. The character of Habba (played by Sarika) seems to point to the last Kashmiri queen, Habba Khatoon. This becomes more conclusive when we’re told that Habba’s husband is Yusuf. The husband of the 16th century Habba Khatoon is Yusuf Shah Chak.
The ‘historical clues’ are driven home when we hear a Kashmiri song being sung by a militant in the film: Karsa Muein Naay Andein, maar madan madanvaroo (When will the conflict end, oh my beautiful beloved?). The song was written by Queen Habba Khatoon when she came to know of Mughal Emperor Akbar’s orders to imprison her husband Yusuf in Patna, where he and his son die later. Khatoon is said to have become insane for her husband.
The fact that the graves of the last Kashmiri king and his son are in Patna is known to only a very few Kashmiris. But the longing in Habba’s verses has always been an essential ingredient in the discourse of Kashmiri nationalism.
Historical (under)currents continue to flow alongside the film as we are told that Yusuf, the character in the film, has gifted his son
a donkey named ‘Birbal’. Advisor to Emperor Akbar, Birbal may epitomise wisdom for most Indians, but for Kashmiris, he was a collaborator who schemed against their last king Yusuf Shah Chak. Even the character of the fruitseller in the film, Lalaji (played by Rahul Khanna) has been shown as a ‘typical Punjabi’. It is a moot point to note that Sikhs ruled Kashmir after Mughal rule waned in India, and that before 1947, moneylenders in Kashmir would generally be from undivided Punjab.
The militant in the movie, in fact, refers to the infamous Treaty of Amritsar. Under the treaty, the whole of Kashmir, including its people, were sold for Rs 75 lakh in Nanak Shahi rupees, a few shawls and high breed goats. As Iqbal’s poem has it: “Their fields, their crops, their streams/ Even the peasants in the vale They sold, they sold all, alas!/ How cheap was the sale.” The militant asks the boy Tahaan to answer a question if he wants his beloved donkey back. “Who owns these mountains, rivers and the sky?” Referring to the treaty, the man tells him that “they were sold once, everything, these mountains, streams and even the sky above us.” The movie also highlights the suffering of the 6,000-odd Pandits living in Kashmir — who remain interestingly ‘invisible’ in the film as they do in reality.
The movie uses grey frames with little colour in them. There are no flowers, no singing rivers. Instead the visuals are stark and gloomy. Each shot is captured in such a way that I thought I was looking at Kashmir from the window of my house in the Valley. Tahaan is a repository of visual documentation of a typical rural Kashmir village — arched windows, snaking roads and Gassi Khuch, the huge wooden structure that stores hay and rice in every Kashmiri village.
No Kashmiri can deny the way the army crackdown is filmed in Tahaan. It’s simply too close to reality. The announcement from the mosque speakers, mukhbirs (informers) in cars, with people from all walks of life assembling to be paraded for identification. These are things that nearly every Kashmiri has gone through.
Tahaan is a visual treat that lets you get in touch with the real Kashmir. Shammi Kapoor isn’t rolling in the snow here.