Cast: Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Soni Razdan, Ashvin Kumar, Anshuman Jha, Zara Webb, Shivam Raina
Director: Ashvin Kumar
Rating: 3.5 stars (Out of 5)
A big-screen portrait of teenage love blossoming and then struggling to survive in the midst of political turmoil may not by itself be a particularly innovative way of fathoming a complex conflict that has taken heavy toll in the Valley over a period of three decades. But No Fathers In Kashmir, an English-Urdu-Kashmiri coming-of-age drama written, produced and directed by Ashvin Kumar, eschews popular prisms to examine the human cost of militancy and the military response to it.
While the director underscores the possibility of hope and healing finding a way around the all-pervading gloom, he attempts no romantic wishing away of the scarring of minds and hearts by continuing strife. Returning to Kashmir to tell a fictional story after two controversial documentary films, Inshallah Football (2009) and Inshallah Kashmir (2012), both of which ironically won National Awards after being stalled by the censors, the director does not for a moment take his eyes off the real issues that plague the people of the Valley.
A string of lush images abound in this otherwise disquieting film (which, too, has hit the screens after a long battle with CBFC), but it does not deflect attention away from the upshots of an unending cycle of violence on ordinary lives. No Fathers In Kashmir adds its voice (with clarity and striking equanimity) to two other remarkable recent films about half-widows - Aijaz Khan's Hamid (much quieter and gentler) and Praveen Morchhale's award-winning and hitherto unreleased Widow of Silence (located in a more uncompromisingly non-dramatic narrative space).
Ashvin Kumar's film is a sensitive study of people looking for elusive closure in a war not necessarily of their making. Its spotlight is primarily on two teenagers whose fathers who never returned home after being "picked up" by the army. The script also takes into its sweep the much larger theme of memory and forced amnesia in a sullied paradise where, barring the pair of 16-year-old innocents trying to make sense of their loss, nobody is what they appear to be and everybody seems intent on altering, if not completely erasing, uncomfortable memories.
A British Kashmiri girl Noor (Zara Webb) arrives in a village on the India-Pakistan border to ascertain what happened to her father even as her mother Zainab (Natasha Mago) seeks release from her own past - her deliverance hinges on a piece of paper to be signed by her in-laws to certify that her husband is dead - so that she can marry London-based Indian Foreign Service officer Wahid Mirza (Sushil Dahiya).
With the love showered on her by her grandparents, Halima (Soni Razdan) and Abdul Rashid (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), Noor tries to make up for the Kashmiri childhood that she has lost. However, it isn't until she encounters the similarly wide-eyed Majid (Shivam Raina), whose father, too, has gone missing without a trace, that her search for her father begins in right earnest. Their shared fate draws the two youngsters towards each other and their quest takes them to a tipping point where more violence and heartbreak awaits them.
Noor banks upon Majid, who isn't a year older than her, to negotiate this minefield of a terrain. She is baffled by the coarse language of conflict that the boy takes for granted. He explains to Noor the semantic difference between 'terrorist' and 'militant' - "militants fight for freedom, terrorists are criminals," he says. As she goes along, she stumbles upon more such words - encounter, picked up, sensitive border area... their meanings are too daunting for her to fully wrap her head around.
Noor uses her smartphone camera to click and record what she sees around her in the land of her birth - the film shot by Jean-Marc Selva abd Jean-Marie Delorme frequently resorts to the mobile phone screen ratio to capture the girl's fidgety, unsure point of view. But in this climate of distrust and fear, the frozen image is fraught with grave risk. So Noor has no access to a photograph of her absent father - all signs of his existence have been removed from the family album.
It is photographs of the missing man (he wasn't a militant, the audience is told more than once) with a pal on the army's blacklist that landed him in trouble in the first place. The dread of the image is hence omnipresent in the Valley, but the young outsider has no way of knowing that it isn't a good idea to be pointing her camera at everything she espies: unmarked graves, army men in action, or a friend posing as a militant, all of which are a strict no-no.
The plot has three other important figures whose past, present and future are intertwined with Noor and Majid's destinies: Arshid Lone (played by the director himself), a duplicitous separatist leader with a dark secret linked to the simultaneous disappearance of the fathers of the two teenagers; Parveena (Maya Sarao), Majid's hapless half-widow mother who makes shawls for a living and has to sell herself to retain the principal buyer of her products; and Manoj Pandey (Anshuman Jha), an Army Major whose writ runs in the area.
Arshid claims that he fights for the larger cause of Islam, not just for Kashmir. So he dismisses his two disappeared friends as "a bunch of dreamers" who would have allowed a 'free' Kashmir to be "a land of sin". But he isn't averse to using his clout to manipulate people on both sides of the raging battle.
Hate is in the air, but Noor's grandpa feels that hate is "a very strong word" and advises the girl to spit it out of her system. The paradoxes that make this battle zone the toughest of all are best articulated by Major Pandey. He says to Noor's mother in a scene late in the film: "Give me a clean fight - an enemy I can see. Every villager is an enemy, a countryman - who do I fight, who do I protect? The problem is that nobody here, least of all the army man, has an unequivocal answer to the question.
No Fathers In Kashmir places the various facets of the unrest on the table and does not overplay its hand. The impact of the quality writing, the steady cinematography and the sharp editing is enhanced significantly by a cast of actors who strike the right notes all the way. Not the least among them are the young lead actors, Zara Webb and Shivam Raina, who exude both innocence and wide-eyed wonder in a world engulfed by darkness.
Ashvin Kumar, essaying the role of the most conflicted individual in this narrative, conveys the deep contradictions in the character with poise and precision. Soni Razdan, denoting the spirit of tolerance and reconciliation that No Fathers In Kashmir plays up, is terrific as the granny who sees the world around her reflecting the goodness of her heart. Kulbhushan Kharbanda brings out with stately ease the psyche of an old man who does not let his sufferings cloud his thinking.
No Fathers In Kashmir isn't a crowd-pleaser. It is not even without a flaw or two - one that sticks out is the inconsistency in the English that Majid speaks, going back and forth between the pidgin and the propah. But given the questions that it raises, it is too important a film to ignore. Watch it if you respect a storyteller's freedom not to be inveigled by dominant, self-defeating official narratives.