(The concluding report of the preview screenings of Jashn-e-Azadi in the US.
To those who missed it, that was our whirlwind tour, 21 days, 9 cities, 12 screenings…)
Week II, began on Sep 27 with a screening in Philadelphia, hosted at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) by the South Asia Center, Cinema Studies and the Center for the Study of India. UPenn is a huge, huge university, and events are happening every day, sometimes several a day, and competing furiously with each other. The audience for Jashn-e-Azadi was therefore a relief, particularly because in that almost full room was a mix of graduate students (and faculty) as well as people from the wider Philadelphia community. Of course, the Q&A, moderated by Prof Ania Loomba, was as usual dominated by questions from the South Asians in the audience, and after 10 days of screenings, covered what had by now become familiar ground. But it was also an opportunity to once again lay out an insight that was always implicit in the way the film has been structured, but has taken firmer form in the months over which we have been screening the film: about the filters that protect Indians (and I suppose by implication, the rest of the world) from dealing with the reality of Kashmir.
First, Pakistan: how can you seek to understand, you are likely to be asked, much less sympathise with, a movement that has the support of a neighbouring (read: enemy) country, that gets guns, money and moral support from across the border. (Indians tend to forget their own part in the creation of Bangladesh, when Pakistan was at the receiving end of the troubles. That part is in fact remembered as glorious, India on the side of the freedom loving peoples, and against the oppressors!)
Second, Islamic Jihad: how can you have truck with a movement that is part of this terrible phenomenon of our times, this monstrous twin of the Taliban, and responsible, as Bush and Cheney tirelessly remind us, for all the ills of our planet.
Third, the expulsion of a minority: Where is the place to understand the desire for freedom of a people who themselves presided over (even engineered, it is suggested) such an event, this argument holding all Kashmiri muslims guilty for the displacement of the minority Kashmiri pandits from the Kashmir valley in the early 1990s.
The point is, all three filters are pegged on very real facts. And yet there is clearly something more happening in Kashmir, and that’s precisely the space that Jashn-e-Azadi is trying to excavate… trying to stare beyond the filters and reach a place that has been quietly hidden from view.
On Sep 28 there was a second screening in Philadelphia, as part of the Philadelphia Cinema & Media Seminar at Temple University. Not everyone in the small group in that room knew much (or anything) about Kashmir, so the Q&A was quite revelatory about how an audience that may not have any connections with the territory of the film can still engage with it. The screening had been organised by Prof Priya Joshi, film-scholar, and since her tiny baby (only a few months old!) accompanied her for the screening, she was able to watch just the first part of the DVD. So while the others watched the film, one sleepy baby, Priya Joshi and I sat outside the screening and enthusiastically discussed the form of the film and the possibilities of digital film-making: low-budget films that can come off smelling of scale, and production values that were impossible only ten years ago.
As we slipped into October, Jashn-e-Azadi became part of an unusual documentary “double-bill”, at the University of Texas at Austin. In commemoration of Gandhi Jayanti (his birthday) on Oct 2, the South Asia Institute screened what it described as:
“two films by Sanjay Kak that address the varied legacies of Indian nationalism and Gandhian nonviolence. Words on Water focuses on 20 years of non-violent struggle by the displaced farmers and tribals in the Narmada Valley, and on the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement). Jashn-e-Azadi (How We Celebrate Freedom) examines the violence of the last two decades in the struggle for azadi–freedom–in Kashmir’s complex history with India”.
The South Asia Institutes’ tradition of having real connections with the community in Austin, meant that both films played over two days before a lively audience at the excellent Avaya Auditorium. On Oct 1 we screened Words on Water, in association with AID (Association for India’s Development, Austin ) who have a tradition of active engagement with many social issues in India, and in particular with the struggle against large dams in the Narmada valley. And on Oct 2 we screened Jashn-e-Azadi. For me personally, the two films have always been connected in an integral way, both are a way of shining a light on the workings of Indian democracy, on its increasingly dark and opaque and dysfunctional machinery. But to see the films put together thus was exciting, even for me – both struggles 20 years old; one Gandhian and non-violent, the other armed and militant; and both with very little visible success against the implacable Indian State. This very productive idea of putting the two films together had come from Prof Kamala Visweswaran, who also moderated the discussion. When seen together, the questions around Jashn-e-Azadi quite naturally touched upon the dwindling space for the democratic right to struggle against injustice and oppression, and the place of militant struggles in todays world.
The Jashn-e-Azadi screening tour of the US wound down with two additional screenings that materialised almost at the last moment: on Oct 4 we screened at the Columbia University Journalism School, where the Society of Professional Journalists (and the Columbia Journalism School Class of 2008) were the hosts. Two old friends from Delhi helped to put it together, Vinod Jose, radio journalist and former editor of the short-lived but quite remarkable Malayalam language magazine Free Press, and now a student at CJS; and Basharat Peer, journalist, and alumnus of CJS, who moderated the discussion. Although it was a small group of us gathered in that room, and we had to move to another space for the Q&A, what followed was still quite intense. Although we began with talking about the film, with the usual format of questions being put to me, and answers, after some time it transformed into a dialogue amongst the viewers present. A complex and nuanced conversation, about minorities, about their place in Kashmir, about collective guilt and the possibility of communal absolution. At the end, even if there were no answers, we knew we had walked through a very valuable conversation.
The last screening on Oct 5 was at the College of New Jersey. We had only a very few people, in an auditorium with the most excellent picture and sound, but quite well suited for the completely exhausted state in which I had reached Ewing, New Jersey. So the Q&A happened over lunch, with my host Prof Nagesh Rao, and we talked about Kashmir’s place amongst the other struggles of the world.
And with that, the end of 21 days, 9 cities, 12 screenings.