In less than five months Jashn-e-Azadi has criss-crossed the country in a series of previews for small, focused groups: film-makers, media-activists, the press, academics, and most importantly, students. This blog has tried to share the excitement of the screenings, and always drawn attention to the quite serious reactions to it, from audiences, in the press, and here on the net.
So after more than a dozen previews (and one excellent public screening at a film festival in New Delhi) the incidents of last week, when the Mumbai Police clumsily stepped in to stop two of our screenings, came as something of a shock. I know it should not have been. From the very first screening (in fact even before the very first preview) a small group of people had made it their mission to follow the film around and appear to stop it from circulating. (Appear to, because they too know that they cannot actually stop the film, but they do know that there is mileage to be got from appearing to stop it).
Initially this took the form of vituperative flaming on the net, a space that has unfortunately become the happy hunting ground of every sort of extreme bully. These net-warriors (net-bullies, really) are living out a sort of fantasy life on the web, able to say what they want about the film, abuse, propagate falsehoods, lie, whatever. And all the time imagine that what they are doing is some form of activism. Unfortunately this can only work when no one has seen the film. With every preview (and press report) on the film, more and more people are making up their own minds about Jashn-e-Azadi.
As a film-maker, I don’t claim that everyone who has seen the film loves it, or agrees with it completely, or clutches it’s arguments to their bosom and stops thinking beyond it. Because that would be a failure for the film. My Editor, Tarun Bhartiya, and I have often spoken about this during the long process of editing. We didn’t want to end up with a film that people liked: it was much more important for us to share our sense of disturbance. Indeed we would only begin to register our success when people were troubled by it, argued with it, but were at least pushed to break the horrible silence in Indian public life on Kashmir.
In Mumbai, a few journalists asked me why Kashmiri Pandits were “against” the film, since that was what they had been given to believe. This I refuse to accept: of the many Kashmiri Pandits who have seen the film, many have been disturbed by the film, not at the film; they have been troubled by it’s arguments, not by it’s makers. Simply because a small bunch of people, the net-bullies, have decided to make political capital out of opposing the film, grandstanding for the sake of their own narrow interests, does not mean we should accede to them the entire swathe of what we can call “Kashmiri Pandit” opinion. I have spoken to enough Pandits who think otherwise after watching the film.
One small example of this dissembling: from our first preview in Delhi in March, there have been these fantasies that we had invited Yasin Malik to be the Chief Guest at the preview; that since he figures in the verite footage of the film, he was somehow the “hero” of the film. (I wonder why they didn’t instead think of one of the young Army Officers in the film as the “hero” of the film; or why the Pyschiatrist in the film doesn’t qualify; or indeed the civil society people who are conducting a survey of the dead?) That the film was in some mysterious way “linked” to Yasin Malik. Most ingeniously that the JKLF’s recent campaign in rural Kashmir was called Safar-e-Azadi; this film was called Jashn-e-Azadi. Ergo, they must have a common “source”! And since they feel Yasin Malik is a “terrorist and a mass murderer” this film was clearly sympathetic to “terrorism”. Quite neat isn’t it, the way it ties up for our net-detectives?
Yasin Malik came to the screening of Jashn-e-Azadi like 300 other people in Delhi: he heard of the screening, he called to check, he arrived on time at the hall, he collected an entry pass, and he sat and watched the film. He did not, like our net-warriors, arrive late, arrive with placards condemning the film, (even before they had seen the film) and since the hall was full and the security were not keen on letting protesters into the hall, turn this into yet another example of how Kashmiri Pandits were being discriminated against. (Sometimes I feel like redirecting the energies of this bunch to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has also met with Mr Malik. “Terrorist and a mass murderer”, whatever!)
The new fantasy is that since the film is not the what they want it to be, it is sympathetic to “terrorists”. Simple isn’t it? Can’t argue with something, give it a label that will attract the attention of the ever-zealous security apparatus, then keep repeating it till some of it appears to stick. No argument to offer about the brutal dispossession of the rural poor in Chattisgarh? Call the civil-rights people “naxalites”. No argument to offer about the politics of what is happening in Kashmir? Call the film-makers “anti-national”.
All this would be inconsequential, and indeed laughable, if the Mumbai Police had not pitched in to help carry out their mandate. At our first preview at the Bhupesh Gupta Bhawan, Mumbai, we had 40 people gathered on the 2nd floor of a private building. Downstairs was the Dy Commissioner of Police, the Incharge, Dadar Police Station, two sub-inspectors and two constables in uniform, five plain-clothes intelligence men, and one woman constable: 12 members of the Mumbai Police. At our second preview at Prithvi House, Juhu, the local Police Station had sent in a written letter telling the management to desist from showing the film. Or else be prepared to face the consequences. Heavy artillery for a confrontation that simply didn’t happen.
When this blog was set up March 2007, in the last weeks of finishing Jashn-e-Azadi, we needed a short and pithy way to describe it. More out of instinct than reason, I described it as a new film that “raises questions about freedom in Kashmir, and about the degrees of freedom in India.” The events of last week make that casually written sentence seem almost prophetic.