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‘Narratives must not cause alienation’

Filmmaker Ashvin Kumar speaks about his newly-released film No Fathers in Kashmir, what motivates him to portray stories of Kashmir, his take on Bollywood and more

How did you come up with the story idea for the film?

When I finished making Inshallah Kashmir and Inshallah Football — both were angry films about the last generation and terror. This film — No Fathers in Kashmir — is about hope and the future. But the challenge was how to make a film about hope, when the subject arouses emotions like hate, fear and vengeance.

What was very impactful for me as a visitor when I was making my film is to see the impact the terror had — the silent terror that happens inside people’s homes. The families have to deal with loss, fear, suspicion — on a daily basis. This is the story very few people tell. The stories that we hear about Kashmir are about stone-pelting, explosions, guns and militants. Nobody hear stories about the grandfather, the grandmother, the wife, the child.

Also, I thought by telling this story, I can make people sensitive about the fact that there are human beings living there. I clearly believe that it is the youth of today who are capable of change. Not the politicians or bureaucrats or separatists. So, I’ve made the film for the youth of India — so that they know what is happening in Kashmir. Thus, I have two teenage protagonists. The idea of first love — something we’ve all been through —whether we are 20 or 16, and is a universal human experience. I wanted to show how difficult it is to have that in a place like Kashmir.

What was the challenging part while writing the script?

The challenge I faced while writing the script is — how do you tell a story with all its complexities and multi-layers of what you perceive in Kashmir where your brother or husband or father could be an informer for the armed sources or could be a sympathiser with the militants — nobody knows who’s who. Families themselves are suspicious of each other. There is no economy there. So, the only economy is being fuelled by the work that the government or the armed forces are giving you. It’s a very difficult and complex situation and the idea was how do you capture that.

So, my idea was to make one nuclear family and to look at the effects of terror on them and their village. I haven’t touched upon so many human rights issues that are happening — which I have covered in my previous documentaries. This film touches upon issues like disappearances, half widows. But then it does so amidst the background of a teenage romance. So, it is a bit of a cocktail. It is a story of two kids – who are just trying to be kids and how the conflict, politics and the world just comes and takes over.

What motivates you to portray stories of Kashmir?

I don’t think it’s their stories — I think it’s ours. And what is happening in Kashmir over the last 30 years, it started happening here in the rest of our country. And if we are not very careful, it will become like that over here as well.

More than that, Kashmir is where we faltered as a young nation — we are only 70 years old as a republic and we have alienated an entire section of our people. When we became a secular nation, we decided to include all religions. And yet, the State with majority of Muslim population has been entirely alienated.

What is more disappointing about the Kashmir issue is that we as a nation has not been able to put forward a fair, equitable and respectful treatment to our fellow citizens — people you want to call your own countrymen. That is deeply problematic because you cannot say ‘yeh atoot ang hai’ (this is an inseparable part) on one hand and at the same time say that all the people of that state should go to Pakistan. That’s not a responsible statement. We are playing with fire — because if the state with world’s largest or second largest population of Muslim feels insecure about where they live, then what will be the consequence of that?

And the more you suppress information from that place, the more misunderstanding will be over here. And more the misunderstanding, there will be more hate, suspicion, fear and hostility in this part of the country towards those people.

So, Kashmir tells us many things about ourselves actually and about things that can be fixed and that should be looked at. So, this is why I make films about Kashmir. Other than this, my grandfather is from Kashmir, my mother is half Kashmiri — so I have spent my youth in Kashmir. I’ve spent my childhood there when I used to go on holidays. So, there is an emotional connection. Thus, we have a tie with Kashmir and a strong emotional bond. But that makes it even more tragic actually, because the Kashmir I remember from my childhood is very far away. That’s the kind of film I try to create in the film — childhood and innocence, and how that is violated by conflict.

What’s your view on the films Bollywood has made on Kashmir till date?

Very poor, other than a few like Haider. Bollywood has done a great disservice in propagating the fear, suspicion, hostility and misunderstanding that we have — propagating the clichés and caricatures of the people over there — not trying to understand who those people are.

We know more about New York, London and Los Angeles, than we know Kashmir through Bollywood films — which is a tragedy. It is such an influential medium. To be honest, I feel it’s irresponsible — either don’t make films there and even if you are going to, then understand what’s happening there. If you feel it’s too hot to handle, then don’t touch it! Don’t go there and make this caricature version and pass it off as some sort of representation of what is going on there. These narratives further alienate those people.

Your films deal with unconventional subjects and with newcomers as lead. Is it a conscious effort to not be a part of mainstream Bollywood cinema? Or it just happened organically?

Well, it is a combination of both. It happened organically because I speak the truth through acting and performances. I don’t find it too much of that in performers who are cast in Bollywood because they are sort of more in that tradition. There is nothing wrong or right — just a different way of looking at it I guess.  I like to work with people who are either completely fresh or actors who are ready to take risks, that usually they wouldn’t.

This is a politically sensitive film and all the actors are aware of what they were getting into. And they signed onto it. I don’t see any mainstream Bollywood personality touching this with a barge pole. I know they would not have because we tried to raise funds in Bollywood, but it was not successful.

The other thing is that a lot of the Bollywood personalities are interested in stardom. But I am not interested in stardom, I am interested in performances. So, that’s a big difference. These (working in my films) are just actors who are trying to deliver performances which is truthful and I think what Bollywood films try to do is create personas and stars. So, it’s two different things altogether — it’s like squash and tennis. You have a racket and a ball — that does not mean you are playing the same game.

What message would you like to convey through the film?

I am trying to reach the millennials of India through the film — to get them to see the lives and stories of millennials living in Kashmir — who were born at the same time as they were but without the choices and opportunities that they have had. These kids in Kashmir were born in a time of war, in a conflict state, whereas the kids in the rest of India are born in a state of liberalisation, economic opportunities and upwardly mobile situation. And I would like that people from here to go into the villages of Kashmir, speak to the people and understand who they really are. Our media, sadly, has not given us any of this information to us.

The second thing that I want to happen from this film is that all youth who are voting in the next election — they should ask their MPs and MLAs — what is their Kashmir policy? They will be horrified to see — none of their MPs have one. We are ready to go to war with Pakistan for Kashmir, but not a single MP has a Kashmir policy.

It was the young generation who voted Mr Modi to power in 2014 — but a whole new set of young people are going to vote now and they have seen what has happened in the last four or five years.

The future of our country does not lie in striking a camp across the border — that is ridiculous. We cannot keep doing this. It is going to lead to a catastrophe. The future lies in peace —everybody understands that. If the young people today demand from their politicians a solution to that peace, that may be the way to go about it. That is the message of the film — fall in love and vote for peace.