Ashvin Kumar in a still from the film
In 2005, Ashvin Kumar became India's youngest Oscar nominated director for his film Little Terrorist. His new film, No Fathers in Kashmir, is an important telling of these times. While the movie has been shrouded in many debates, from Kashmir to Ashvin’s fight with the Indian Censor Board, at the core of it is brilliant filmmaking and an exploration of uncomfortable questions that need to be asked by all of us about Kashmir and humanity at large. In the backdrop of the realities of the Kashmir conflict that has claimed over 100,000 lives - four times that of the Israel and Palestine conflict, this story of first-love and heartbreak engages teenagers and young audiences to empathise with their counterparts in Kashmir. A coming-of-age story about innocence and the exuberance of being young and hopeful, the film brings to light a conflict that has been shrouded by propaganda and misinformation, one that has been poorly represented in mainstream Indian cinema.
We connected with the director to know more about his craft and No Fathers in Kashmir.
What are some of your formative memories of film?
My first memory of film is dark theatre, and I was so afraid because I had never seen a movie before. It was Star Wars that had just released in 1978 and it was such that I ran out of the theater and didn’t watch the rest of the movie. So it wasn’t a very auspicious debut.Then of course we saw a lot of movies in Calcutta as I was growing up…I remember being taken to watch a movie called Cinema Paradiso. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful films ever, and funnily enough, it shows a world of cinema through the eyes of a child. It was the first time I saw an Italian film and it helped me understand that there is a different way of watching cinema from the rest of the world, which has no connection to your culture or even language, but emotions speak universal language. That's my enduring memory. Then after, maybe in the next decade or so, I was attending a cinema appreciation course in Delhi where we were shown a movie called Where Is My Friend's Home, an Iranian film about a child of about eight trying to look for his friend's home who lives in another village. These are my formative memories of film.
Zara La Peta Webb in a film still.
Can you take us through your film making journey and how you craft has evolved over the past few years.
The craft actually evolves out of circumstance. Kashmir was my political awakening and in that also I discovered the greatest pleasure of making documentary film. I had neither conceived of myself as a documentary filmmaker nor had I ever thought I would be interested in doing that. I went to Kashmir quite apolitical in 2009, I mean not so much to find out what had happened, more to confirm certain things that I had written in a movie script that I had taken along there with me to shoot. Once I got there I found that what I had written made no sense, and I actually threw it away. I had spent about six to eight months writing that and I picked up the camera and started shooting people and the interviews and that became the documentary films that were Inshallah, Kashmir and Inshallah, Football. So my initiation into documentary films happened along with my interest in politics and in particular Kashmiri politics. I learnt how how to write the screenplay while I was shooting. Then I learnt how to anticipate a scenario without imposing my own view on it. My tradition of making films comes from theatre and it mainly comes from acting and improvisation cause I've never been a screenwriter or director, I've been an actor foremost onstage. Within acting on stage what I found the most interesting was clowning and improvisation and those were really my moments of creation. So my tradition is to Improv.
The idea of a documentary from drawing directly from that tradition comes out entirely out of Improv because you have to Improv when you're interviewing somebody and you think, what's the next question, which camera angle do you need to take?And it's very real because these are not actors. They're real people. They're talking about the real history. They talking about real stories and they're opening themselves up to you. So there comes a huge ethical responsibility along with the storytelling responsibility of making a narrative.
You see this happening in No Fathers in Kashmir as well. Particularly when I'm working with kids, this really helps.
What inspired No Fathers in Kashmir?
The fact that I remember going to Kashmir as a child, as a teenager, my grandfather is Kashmiri so we used to have holidays there, et cetera. My mother is half Kashmiri so we used to go there a lot and I think a lot of people used to go there in the summer holidays and it was a time of innocence and tenderness, and Kashmir was a paradise and that's the way we perceived it.
Then, we stopped going at 1989. When I went back to Kashmir in 2009 to see what had happened there, I was confronted with destruction, blood, dismay, trauma and those two realities were very difficult for me to grapple with. The reality of the childhood I had had in Kashmir and then the reality of adulthood, and the trauma, the fact that both of these things, both these moments existed in the same person. So that was a personal reason why I decided to make this film and particularly from the point of view of a 16 year old’s innocence, the point of view of tenderness, the point of view of compassion.
I think in a way Kashmir tells us about who we have become or who we really are as a country. We are a young republic and what has happened in Kashmir has tested our democracy and we have come out wanting, in a sense that Kashmir is what happens when you allow the State take over people's personal lives. I wanted to make a film about the next generation. I feel that Kashmir is actually a crisis of compassion.
And I feel that in today's day and age, we all have rising levels of intolerance. We are too quick to judge. We don't understand what is it that compels a little boy to pick up the stone, a gun or even put himself in such danger. You know, what is it that goes behind that? Who his mom, how did he ever go to school, did his father disappear perhaps decades ago? And when you start unraveling these histories and you start unraveling this context and you start understanding the circumstances under which people have to make the choices that they do end up making, which is what my film is all about, you start realizing two things. One is that it's far more complex than you would ever imagine. And the second thing is that you are nobody to judge. And I think if we could approach the Kashmir issue with compassion, we would start finding solutions very, very quickly.
It's a very clear line, first comes telling the truth, then comes compassion and then comes the solution and the solution doesn't come out of vacuum. Nor does it come out from the bureaucratic dusty offices that look after Kashmir. It doesn't come down from that top down approach. It comes down from ordinary people. And in particular, I think the Indian millennials are most invested in this process. Ordinary people trying to appreciate the ordinary lives of the ordinary people there, go beyond the news sensationalism and headlines and to try and undo the injustice.
Soni Razdan in a film still.
What kind of challenges did you have to overcome to make this film?
The biggest problem that I faced was a conceptual and aesthetic problem and also the ethical responsibility about representation. How does one make a film about hope when its subject rouses emotions like hate, fear and vengeance? How is one to do it without simplifying realities faced by both sides? How to make a film that Kashmiris who’ve suffered untold losses and Indians fed on vengeful propaganda can both endorse? How can a film that needs to tread such a fine line of possibly the most contentious national issue, still appeal to those who should be the most invested in peace, those who have their entire lives ahead of them — young adults in both India and Kashmir? And, finally, how to capture the imagination of the millennial through a story that is as free spirited, light hearted and laced with the hope and optimism of youth as it is about a subject that is filled with darkness and despair?
These are some of the questions that haunted the five years it took to make this film.
The struggle went beyond maintaining dramatic pace, artistic integrity and telling a simple love story. In trying to focus on the main engine of the drama - the multiple stories of love and loss - while representing one of the most complex conflicts in the world - was a bewildering maze. What helped greatly was a steady compass focused on the idea that political change can only come through emotional engagement. In particular, trying to put across to Indian youth what young people in Kashmir may be living with charm, tenderness and lightness — emotions not usually associated with Kashmir.
And then of course, after four years of all that came the Censor Board. They sat on the film for four months without even watching it. And then when they watched it, they produced a list of ridiculous cuts, which we challenged. Till the very last moment, the film was held up and we didn't actually have a certificate until 28th or 29th of March.
A few days ago we released all the cuts and you can now see what all they had had asked to be removed.
What's next for you from here?
Oh, I'm focusing on my performance, my acting career. I will also be producing a couple of things. I'm also working with fresh directors, first time directors and am very interested in regional cinema market, find new voices from there. Then there's somebody who has approached me with a fantastic script and I'm going to be working with on that, which we want to shoot towards the end of year. Then after that I'm working on a feature film of my own and again, in which I am one of the leads.
Text Nidhi Verma