The Silence of the Valley

A well-curated film festival seeks to break through Kashmir’s political silence.

Silence defines Kashmir. The eerie silence between gunshots and grenades. The stony silence of the government when faced with questions on betrayal and occupation. The calculated silence behind the media’s catch-all phrase “tense but under control”. The bootstrapped silence of the army’s continuing impunity. The painful silence of the Kashmiri people unable to comprehend, let alone articulate, the ravages of violence. But the most damaging silence is that of the Indian citizen, incapable or unwilling to look at Kashmir beyond the jingoistic rhetoric and the restrictive clichés.

It is this silence that Ajay Raina and Pankaj Rishi Kumar are countering through a painstakingly curated film festival entitled “Kashmir Before Our Eyes”, which they have been travelling with across the country over the past few months. Organised by Fd Zone of Films Division Mumbai, the festival is composed of feature films, documentaries, short films and plenty of discussion. Its Chennai leg was hosted by the Asian College of Journalism during 23-26 August.

The curtain-raiser, Aamir Bashir’s Harud (2012), skilfully blurred the lines between feature film and documentary, drawing the audience into the mindscape of a people constantly on edge, disillusioned but continuing to hope against hope. Bashir conceptualised the film around the “bizarre euphoria” that greeted the introduction of cell phones in Kashmir in 2003, years after they had entered the Indian market. He realised that for Kashmiris the gadget was a potential life jacket. The irony of being a part of the “information age” while simultaneously being filtered out of it was evocatively brought out.

The next lens was a nationalist one in the form of two documentaries by the Films Division – A Diary of Aggression (1966) and Aatish-e-Chinar (1998). The tone was remarkably similar in both films, time having done little to alter the political discourse. Moderating the post-viewing discussion, A S Panneerselvan, executive director of Panos South Asia, highlighted this aspect of the Indian state, which according to him “believes only in crisis management not crisis resolution”. When it comes to Kashmir, it matters little who is in power at the centre. Documentary film-maker Iffat Fatima also wondered whether the militarised discourse in today’s mainstream media is very different from such propagandist films.

The following session, entitled “Exile”, focused on the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, many of whom were forced to flee their homes during the insurgency. The schizophrenia of Rajesh Jala’s protagonist in 23 Winters (2013), compelled to leave his beloved Kashmir but always waiting to return, is at once literal and metaphoric – echoing the loss of stability and helplessness of an entire people. A study conducted in 2011 at Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences revealed that 55% of the population suffers from various mental disorders as a result of the conflict.

“Disappearance/Dislocation” grappled with the theme of “enforced disappearances”, the euphemism for thousands of Kashmiri men who went missing during the insurgency. The “disappeared” are denied even the dignity of death as the state refuses to acknowledge they ever existed. Though the International Criminal Court considers this a “crime against humanity”, to date there has not been a single prosecution against the army.

The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) was formed by Parveena Ahangar as a united forum of justice seekers. Iffat Fatima’s Where Have You Hidden My New Crescent Moon? (2009) is a tribute to an APDP mother, Mughal Mase, whose only son disappeared in 1990. Her courageous battle, fought with a weary spirit and an ageing body, is not hers alone but the collective struggle of “memory against forgetting”. Waiting (2005) by Atul Gupta and Shabnam Ara documents the lives of “half-widows”, a brutal phrase for the wives of the disappeared, who live in limbo, oppressed by militants, the state and the patriarchal forces of religion.

The session on “Marginalisation” showed how the conflict has had an impact on children forced to grow up too early, affected livelihoods and restricted cultural forms that provided succour such as the satirical Bhand theatre. Ajay Raina’s Apour Ti Yapour. Na Jang Na Aman. Yei Chu Talukpeth (2011) about people living on the Line of Control was a call to reconsider fixed notions of borders and nationalities. During the discussion Raina said, “Partition never should have happened and unless we restudy it honestly and understand that it was never about religion but about the elite trying to hold on to power, we will constantly be haunted by the ghosts of 1947.”

Ashvin Kumar’s Inshallah Kashmir: Living Terror (2012), the penultimate film of the festival, best captured the plethora of voices that constitute Kashmir. Through testimonies of former militants, their families, politicians, Pandits who chose to stay on and several others, the film humanises the conflict, while echoing the sentiment that ran through the proceedings – the only way to begin moving towards a solution in Kashmir is demilitarisation.

The festival ended on a note of humour and hope with the brilliant Valley of Saints (2012) by Musa Syeed, weaving together myth and raw reality, depicting with sensitivity the universal search for “home”.

On 7 September, the same festival was violently disrupted in Hyderabad by a Hindu right-wing group for being “anti-national”. On the same day, the Indian state was busy proving to the world that a fortified VIP concert in Srinagar was evidence of “normalcy”. Whether by unsound violence or sonorously drowning out dissent, the intent is always to silence – film festivals such as these are a much-needed shout in the dark.

 

 

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