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Love in the time of conflict

Overcoming formidable odds, film maker Ashvin Kumar explores the pathos of teenage romance in Kashmir

Noor and Majid — two 16 year olds fall in love. They experience the pangs of their first love and first heartbreak — all of it, while they explore the beautiful landscapes of Kashmir. But what follows in the conflict torn city, shatters their innocent little worlds. What lies ahead is a path that turns their paradise into hell.

Ashvin Kumar’s No Fathers in Kashmir takes you to the world of Noor and Majid. It tells you the story of a budding romance amid the chaos and turmoil. They, initially, were untouched by the malice and atrocities that their world is surrounded by. So much so, that when Noor sees Majid’s house —which is in ruins — she asks ‘what happened here?’ To which he replies: ‘Encounter.’ She, totally unaware of the ruthlessness around her, asks: ‘What is an encounter?’ And, the young boy, with all his simplicity, explains –—‘Militants and army fighting.’

Actor’s first audience

It took a year of endless auditions, after which actors Zara Webb and Shivam Raina — who plays Noor and Majid respectively — were selected. “Working with Zara and Shivam was a dream come true. They are both highly intelligent people — which I think is very necessary to be a good actor. They are instinctive. But most importantly, they are truthful and truth is what I look for in an actor,” says filmmaker Ashvin Kumar, who also plays a pivotal role in his film.

On explaining the process of how he made his actors get into the skin of their characters, he says, “There are two or three things that we did before every scene on this film. The way I work with kids is to ask them a lot of questions. My job is to make them start thinking as their characters and especially since we were shooting out of sequence, it was important that they were firmly rooted in their moment.” He further says that he is an actor’s first audience and has a very sharp nose for what is fake or for the trap of nervous tics or habits that actors get into from time to time. “If something is untrue, I pick it up immediately. And we go back and do it again.”

The endless search

Noor and Majid, among many other things, have one thing in common – their fathers are missing. And many in Kashmir, like these teenagers, have lost their fathers — some of whom are still waiting for their return — leading to an endless wait, an endless search.

“While filming my documentaries, I came across the issue of half-widows in Kashmir. These young women’s husbands go missing and are never found so they don’t know if their husband is living or dead. There were villages I went to where there’s no men left. Like Dardpora, for example, is known as the village of half widows and orphans. I was interested in the aftermath of what happens to the families of men who get picked up,” says Kumar.

No Fathers in Kashmir also explores this tragic reality – and it accurately does so, without dramatising. The film portrays the truth — unabashedly.

Countless road blocks

There were numerous challenges the film faced — at all stages. First, the script-writing process — which itself was a test for Kumar. “As a screen-writer, I was faced by formidable challenges: which one of these stories should I choose? There were dozens of them and one more outrageous than the other. Why am I choosing it? What do I want people to feel? What should be my approach? And how do I make it accessible to people in different parts of the world, whose knowledge of Kashmir stops short at a Led Zeppelin song and a woollen pullover,” he explains.

Then, financial struggles made its way. Kumar ran a very successful campaign on Kickstarter which also helped gather private sources, but Brexit happened at that time and shaved off 10% of the funds – that was raised by them with difficulty. In June, 2016, when the crew as gathered to shoot outside Srinagar, Burhan Wani, the militant who had become a social media sensation among the Kashmiri youth, was killed. This again was a major setback in during the filming.

Moreover, just two weeks before the shoot began, three of the main actors dropped out.

When the shoot finally began on November 7, 2016 — on November 8 demonitisation happened. The blow to a film production that has to pay people in cash in a remote rural area can only be imagined. “When we restarted, it was in Kishtwar district, in Badharwa, the film was given a different name, we had to fly under the radar and shoot the film in an impossibly short schedule,” explains Kumar.

Steering clear through many such odds, when the film was finally made, it faced with another major challenge — the battle with the CBFC. And, after months of struggling, the film was finally passed with a U/A certificate.

Authenticity at its best

To keep the originality of the film intact, Kumar was keen that Kashmiri music (Ali Saifuddin / Alif / Abha) are featured in the film. The music of the film was composed by Loic Dury and Christophe (disco) Mink, two French composers who heard dozens of versions of the Rosche song and decided to make it their inspiration.

The music of the film included instruments rarely heard in a sound track like the crystal bashe — an instrument that takes up an entire room to play. The composers never actually met Ali Saifuddin. Nor did they ask him to re-perform the title track in a studio. They took the same version that he recorded on YouTube — sitting by the Dal Lake and added their own magic underneath. When Ali heard it for the first time at the screening of the film, he was floored.

Even with the costumes of the film, which was designed by veteran fashion designer Ritu Kumar — who has also designed costumes for his previous films Little Terrorist and The Forest. Being Kashmiri herself she knows intimately the kind of weaves, prints and shawls that were worn by her parents and grandparents. Ashvin’s idea was to convey the sense of richness of the culture amid the darkness and dismay.

Hope & forgiveness

With No Fathers in Kashmir, Kumar puts forth questions — that needs to be asked, as well as answered. “My film asks: isn’t it time we start telling the truth? Shouldn’t millennials of Kashmir be allowed free and unmediated interaction with millennials from the rest of India? Shouldn’t narratives of compassion be allowed to replace those of hate?” he says.

Kumar believes the ability to imagine a way out of the darkest despair is what makes us human. “No Fathers in Kashmir works on a premise that forgiveness and hope are vital to our survival as a species. The stories I’ve told are about tangled acts of love, betrayal, friendship and loss — basic impulses which are universally understood. From the beginning of human history, it is these impulses that have time and again helped us find better ways of living together in peace and create what we know as civilisation,” he concludes.