Autumn in Kashmir

Actor-turned-director Aamir Bashir discusses his film about the plight of the Kashmiri people.

Harud offers an insider’s view of the conflict in Kashmir [GALLO/GETTY]

Harud (Autumn) is the self-produced debut feature by Kashmiri actor Aamir Bashir. Using predominantly non-actors, Bashir tells the story of a young man named Rafiq who cannot recover from the disappearance of his older brother until, one day, he finds his brother’s abandoned camera: a link to an idealised past that brings solace to Rafiq.

The story offers a devastating glimpse of the Kashmiri people’s struggle, where thousands of young men have disappeared since the onset of the insurgency in occupied Kashmir.

Al Jazeera speaks to director Aamir Bashir about the story behind the film.

Al Jazeera: You took a historical event, like the ongoing Kashmiri struggle, and portrayed it in a humanistic light. You question the idea of unwavering nationalism and created truly endearing characters without glorifying victimisation. How difficult was this?

Aamir Bashir: The handful of films on Kashmir that have been made [post insurgency in 1989] were all told from an outsider’s point of view. The films were all part of a colonialist discourse, where there were good peace-loving Kashmiris and some black sheep who had gone astray. Besides, these stories were always the formulaic ‘good-versus-evil’, Indian heroes versus rebels and villains.

Our attempt was to make a film that was an inside-out view, and in that sense it was antithetical to what mainstream Indian films had attempted so far. We took three years to arrive at a screenplay, which was just 55 pages long. The whole process was of distillation of the Kashmiri experience in the last two decades.

The characters in the film are seeking dignity in their daily lives when faced with violent assaults. The idea was never to make the audience feel sorry for Kashmiris. Even though dignity seems elusive to them, Kashmiris never stop trying. I, as a Kashmiri and as a story-teller, felt responsible to give them that space.

The difficulties that we faced arose mainly from the nature of the place that Kashmir is, or rather has become. The people are highly suspicious of anyone coming in with a camera from the outside; they are wary of how they will be portrayed in their own story because past experiences have left a bad taste in their mouths. The political discourse is bossed by India and Pakistan, and the Kashmiri voice goes unheard. A similar insecurity exists on the state’s side as well. So there were constant negotiations with both sides, which kept distracting us from the task at hand. With a small crew of 18 people we were never really in control of our surroundings, and had to constantly keep thinking on our feet and adapting.

The film opens up to raw footage of an Indian military incursion in Kashmir. Did you and your crew encounter any of the protests or incursions that we see? And what was it like securing the permits to shoot in a place that is not the most accommodating bureaucratically? 

The idea behind the news footage was to familiarise the audience with images they may have seen on television or on the news and then go behind the scenes as it were: to things that you would never see in the news.

Fortunately for us, we did not have to face any of the gun battles, except on our last day of shooting: a protest march in Srinagar did make matters very tense, and the police blamed us for everything that was going wrong that day. We somehow managed to come out unscathed. In fact, the situation took a turn for the worse as soon as we had wrapped up shoot in Srinagar with protests and shutdowns, which went on for days.

The scene in which Rafiq’s mother goes to the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) meeting is jarring. We are not only implicated as voyeurs to the actual gathering but we also witness the daily reality, that of grief and tragedy, for hundreds of mothers who are seeking justice to hold perpetrators accountable for the enforced abductions of their sons. Would you agree that Kashmiri women are taking on more leading humanitarian and political roles today?

Like in any conflict zone, women in Kashmir suffer the most. The conflict itself is not their creation. It is the men who are responsible. But the women are left to pick up the pieces. In Kashmir women have participated equally in the resistance, whether it was opposing far right Islamist groups who tried to impose a dress code on them, or when it came to participating in street protests against the state.

Parveena Ahangar of the APDP is an example. For 20 years she has been demanding the state [provide] the whereabouts of her missing son, while helping bring together all the families whose family members have disappeared during the conflict. The mother in my film, too, is a pillar of strength. She is doing her best to keep the family unit together while never giving up hope of finding her missing son.

There are two characteristics in your film, the slow pace and painterly visuals, which remind me of Iranian cinema. And you were able to use the renowned Iranian actor, Reza Naji, to play Rafiq’s father: a man who suffers from debilitating paranoia. What was it like working as a director with someone as iconic as Reza Naji (whose Urdu, by the way, is surprisingly good)?

Reza Naji is like wet clay, ready to be moulded any which way. That rhymes! All the other actors in the film are from Kashmir who are actually non-actors and had never faced a film camera. However, for me, the father’s character was particularly tricky and I did not feel confident in a non-actor playing that role. Reza Naji’s face and persona are so cinematic. It was a selfish decision to make my task a little easier.

Also, since the emphasis was on action, rather than performance, we treated him more like a model (in the Bressonian sense), which worked out well due to the language barrier: as everything was conveyed to him through an interpreter. It was all about what he needed to do, rather than what he needed to say. He was so generous and humble. We did not have even the most basic amenities that are found on a film set – not even folding chairs to sit on. But he never complained, not once.

What is the significance of autumn, a leitmotif in your film, for the people of Kashmir?

Autumn in Kashmir is the precursor to a dark, cold winter. Unlike say in the developed world where it is a season of beauty, in Kashmir it is the season in which you start preparing for the harsh winter ahead. Fallen Chinar leaves are burnt to make charcoal which is used to light the Kangri (fire pot) that people carry around to keep themselves warm. There is a Kashmiri expression, “harduk zazur”, which means autumnal decay. It is a season associated with decay and slow death. In the film it is the metaphor for the psychological decay caused by years of violence in Kashmir.

Click here for more on the Kashmir conflict

You were born and raised in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, and you mentioned that you knew many people who took similar paths of rebellion to those seen in Harud. Had you stayed behind and not moved to Delhi to finish your studies, where do you think you would be right now?

That is a difficult one to answer. I cannot say where I would have been had I stayed back in Kashmir. My leaving Kashmir in 1990 to study history in Delhi was an act of rebellion, as my father wanted me to study medicine. Everyone there was expected to study medicine or engineering in those days. In that sense making a film is an act of defiance, too. To tell a story which has gone unheard so far and to tell it in a way that goes against the norms of the mainstream films in India.

You are a first-time filmmaker and Harud had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), one of the most respectable film festivals, and is now hitting the global film festival circuit. This is quite an accomplishment.

Our greatest accomplishment is that we made a film the way we wanted to. Everything else is a bonus. We were not thinking of a particular place or an audience while making the film. Toronto of course is a big festival and we are proud that our first film got accepted there.

Thank God for people like Cameron Bailey, co-director of TIFF, who gave us the opportunity and recognised our efforts. The idea of showing our film to audiences around the world, and getting the opportunity to talk about our film and about Kashmir, is what we are looking forward to and are excited about.

Will we see more films from you in the future?

If I do not get any lucrative enough acting jobs soon, I will have no option but to make another film. I am already thinking about a sequel to Autumn. Maybe a Spring.

Source: Al Jazeera


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