It’s a rare film that affects its audience the way a Hollywood film once did in Kashmir. In the summer of 1985, Lion of the Desert was screened at Srinagar’s Regal Theater. The film starring the legendary Anthony Quinn, about a tireless liberation leader from far off Libya showed up to Kashmiris the failings of our own ‘Lion’, Sheikh Abdullah, the leader who we had revered as ‘Sher-e-Kashmir’, but were now ready to disown. It is said this Hollywood film could have been responsible for igniting the fire of revolt in Kashmir in 1989.
Many years later in May 2011, as I saw Harud at a Film Festival in New York, I couldn’t help but think that this film could have a lasting impact on Kashmiris now as the Lion of the Desert did 27 years ago, if not in the same way. As Kashmiris contemplate how we have travelled from the feeling of machismo, euphoria, of ‘liberation tomorrow’ that Lion of the Desert inspired at the start of ‘tehriq’ – to a feeling of despair, pain, humiliation and loss – to belligerent defiance and political impasse today, we realize there are no heroes left to laud or emulate. There is no celebration.
I also wonder though, how can this film be seen in Kashmir? Which dead theatre will need to be brought alive so Kashmiris may see themselves on the screen, as in a mirror? Who will come to see the resurrection of his/her life-experience in the communal space of a cinema theatre for a collective catharsis that a film of this caliber promises? Ironically, with the beginning of the revolt that Lion of the Desert inspired it was cinema production and the idea of big screen communal viewing experience that were the first things to die in Kashmir.
I must confess I went to the screening of Harud at a New York theatre feeling skeptical and apprehensive. As with much art from conflict zones, most books and films that are about Kashmir inevitably articulate a stance that is deeply polarizing. It goes to the credit of the writer/director/producer Aamir Bashir for making the first independent Kashmiri fiction film that attempts and succeeds in breaking such polarizations. Harud is a sparsely made film, as much out of belief and conviction as can be when inspired by Bresson and Iranian cinema. It brooks no compromise in its telling. It spares none of the parties involved in the brutal two decade long conflict and yet, it brings us all to an understanding of Kashmir that has never been attempted before in literature or in cinema. It is made ‘in the spirit of witnessing and giving voice’ to an ordinary Kashmiri and speaks about the descent into the everyday through which the victims and survivors of a 20-year-old conflict insist upon the impossibility of a dignified life in Kashmir till the rest of India heed its pain.
Harud is as much about the dying golden glow of a summers end as about the onset of dark and foreboding winter, ‘Chillai Kalan’. The film is the travelogue of a season – the transforming of the golden hues of dying Chinar leaves of autumn to dull grey, colorless and chilling winter – in the life of a family which hurtles from a desperate action to the dead-end of despair. It is a story of a family in a post pacified, simmering but subdued Srinagar. Though primarily focused on the family, Harud also traces Kashmir’s painful descent from a tourist paradise, where being a ‘tourist photographer’ was a viable profession – to a terror hell, where ‘news photography’ is a more sought after profession now.
The family consists of a mother, father and a ‘leftover’ son, Rafiq, after the elder son, a tourist photographer suddenly, mysteriously ‘disappeared’ – arrested but never returned. We first catch Rafiq when he is trying to walk across the LOC, a physical border. He is visibly lost to perpetual grief and a simmering anger; he is a borderline case – ‘afsos duniya’ – as his friends call him in jest. His is the kind of grief/anger which could have led him to be like so many Kashmiri young who take it all out in the act of throwing stones, but eventually he can never really recover till he crosses the final, ultimate border. The father is a traffic policeman shattered by the loss of his elder son. The mother is a quintessential ‘Mother Kashmir’, struggling between keeping her family on the psychological even keel and in hope that her older ‘disappeared son’ will be returned. She is a caring housewife, loving/stern mother and an activist who dutifully attends all the meetings of the Association of Parents of Disappeared People (APDP) to press the nation’s conscience about the ‘missing’ people in Kashmir.
Now, ‘disappeared’ is not an ordinary word in Kashmir. It has a tragic, sinister and a political connotation in Kashmir’s recent history. The clamor to know about the fate of the ‘disappeared’ is the most potent ‘rights’ movement against India’s atrocities in Kashmir. One such mother, who started this campaign after her son was picked up but never returned, has been the subject of many documentary films as well. Though Harud borrows its main theme and idea from this movement, it is essentially about autumn; a process of decay & death, in Kashmiri people’s lives as a consequence of India’s strong and often brutal suppression of a people’s violent movement.
As a Kashmiri, I too am condemned to be a witness, a partisan and also a judge of all that Kashmir has witnessed. My experiences contribute to my understanding that for any nation/society/ individual that believes in violence as a tool of transformative change, it represents a defeat for that very hope of change. It only succeeds in creating conditions for recurring violence, a cycle where the perpetrator becomes a victim as well. Harud, through its deftly articulated narrative traces the trajectory of the violence through Kashmir’s streets into its people’s lives, hearts and minds where it has seeped and imprisoned if not entire, at least but some part of their being.
The film begins as a montage of green flags and azadi slogans juxtaposed with a violent confrontation between the State and its own people/armed militants. The horror and the terror of this opening sequence immediately transported me to the beginning, the year 1990. Was that the point, when Kashmir assumed birth in our imagination in the form, we know it now? The year 1990 was when green flags, slogans of independence and of the supremacy of Islam in Kashmir, accompanied with killings and terror, signaled a dramatic shift in the relationship Kashmir valley had with the rest of India and divided its people.
But coming back to the film, many years after the turbulent events of 1990, we catch three friends on a journey to the border. Two of them are able to go across to Pakistan to train as freedom fighters but a helpful policeman friend of his father saves our protagonist Rafiq. Back in Srinagar, a town imprisoned in barricade wires and security bunkers, where an entire people face body searches, identification parades and the active end of the Army’s gun, how can life be normal?
Not wanting to give too much of the plot away, I will only say that Aamir Bashir in his maiden film has very skillfully, by analyzing ‘the effects of everyday violence at the intersection of national, social and personal histories’, developed his mise-en-scene, his characters, their relationships and situations to emphasize in minute detail the abnormality of existence in everyday Kashmir. He foregrounds with deeply felt compassion ‘the family, the male subjectivity, youth, humiliation, injustice, loves and tensions about violence in … daily lives.’ He subtly pits the ‘azaadi ideal against the personal histories of the people in whose name this war is waged. He shows us that although the characters that inhabit his fiction world ‘may have become skilled at ignoring terror and misery … they also bear deep psychological scars, the real trauma of war’.
While facing the real trauma of war, it is but expected that a son will continue to be morose, angry and haunted by the presence/absence of his ‘disappeared’ brother even in his wakeful nightmares. It is expected that a traffic policeman will lose his own way into schizophrenic dark alleys from where there is no way back, that friends will begin to look frantic and desperate to seize any chance to get away and the earlier friends who went to Pakistan to fight for Kashmir will either perish in the deep freeze of the cold mountains or return ghost like, in the dead of the night; as if returned from the mysterious graves of the ‘the disappeared’ to advice Kashmir – ‘the road to paradise does not go through Pakistan’.
In this place of horror that was a paradise before, the fate of some innocents is written in the tragic color red. As we reach the climax of the film, it is not unexpected, though it is shocking still, that instead of a freedom fighter it is an innocent who will be called to offer ‘qurbani’ (the sacrifice) to quench the blood thirst of a terror machine. Call that terror machine by any name, India or azaadi, but this is what Kashmir has become – ‘a paradise on the river of hell’.
“I am being rowed through Paradise in a river of Hell: Exquisite ghost, it is night.”
But we cannot let all be lost. Not all can be lost. Credit goes to Aamir Bashir that although he has shown us ‘how conflict and violence reproduces and reinforces our helplessness, it is women who could be powerful and active agents in resisting the physical and symbolic threats posed to our survival’. It is the mother in Harud who stands as a beacon of hope for all of Kashmir when everything all around her is turning to decay and heading for dissolution.
That the film is not in Kashmiri language is a huge let down. It is perhaps an indication how far yet we need to travel as a nation to feel pride in using our own language to express our innermost self. That aside, whether it is the selection of locations, casting or paying attention to the particular Kashmiri nuances in dialogues and interactions between the characters, the film sounds and looks authentic. Of particular entertainment interest to its Kashmiri audiences will be the typical bantering between the three friends in the film that has the effect of transporting one to the real environs of the ‘Bund’ in Srinagar among one’s Kashmiri friends.
Aamir Bashir has displayed a compassionate vision, and for this reason alone Harud is a landmark film for Kashmir’s nonexistent film industry while at the same time one of the most masterfully made films to come from India in recent years. It must have been a difficult film to conceive, to shoot, to get passed through the censors and finally into theatres. Given that the film has had some trouble with Indian censors, I earnestly hope they have not mutilated any of its crucial scenes. I hope it will pioneer emergence of many such films, books and works of art from the Kashmir valley, which will speak to us of the Harud in our life as much of Chillai Kalan (Bitter Winter) and Sonth (Spring).
Urdu, Drama, Color