Riding on the air-miles of the Amsterdam appearance of Jashn-e-Azadi, the film travelled to the UK, where we did four screenings in quick succession:
The first was on Dec 3, 2007 at the Royal Holloway College, University of London, at the instance of the Department of Media Arts, and Dr Lina Khatib, who has written quite prolifically about cinema in the Middle-East, in particular that of Lebanon. A small group of students and faculty attended the screening, as part of the HARC Fellows’ Seminar Series, and there was a long and detailed discussion that followed, moderated by Dr Yasmin Khan, who is herself the author of a new book about the Partition of the Indian sub-continent.
On Dec 6, 2007 there was a screening at the University of Leeds, in their wonderful Workshop Theatre. The School of English offers a very dynamic course on the Kashmir conflict, taught by Dr Ananya Kabir, so we had an excellent turnout of students and faculty, as well as a sizeable presence of people from the wider community around Leeds, and the nearby towns of Bradford and Birmingham. (This was a relief, since there was a rumour that something called the Kashmiri Indo-European Forum had written into the University authorities asking for the screening to be called off because–and hold it right there, folks–it glorifies terrorists! This sort of irresponsible campaign of calumny is quite familiar to all of us, and ends up contributing nothing to the discourse on Kashmir, and only ends up in a waste of energy.)
For some reason, unfamiliar “tech” gremlins crept into the second half of the screening, and the DVD consequently skipped the last 10 minutes of the film. Several DVDs were offered to the machine, but it was firm in its rejection. But this seemed to not distract the audience too much, and a long Q&A followed. While many of the questions followed a by now predictable pattern, for me what was a completely fresh perspective, were the questions brought in by people in the audience who come from that part of Kashmir that is variously described as Azad Kashmir/Pakistan Controlled Kashmir/Pakistan Occupied Kashmir… One of things that I realised, with some surprise I must admit, is that there are more than 600,000 people in Britain whose origins lie in that part of Kashmir, traditionally described as Mirpur, hence, ‘Mirpuris’.
Dec 7, 2007 there was a screening in London organised by SACREDMEDIACOW, which describes itself as ‘an independent postgraduate collective on Indian media research and production’ at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. We had an excellent turnout, and that healthy indicator of audience interest–only a handful of the almost-full Khalili Auditorium left before the 2 hour 19 minute screening time! The discussion after the screening was moderated by Sumantra Bose, Professor of International & Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, whose books on Kashmir are probably the two most balanced accounts of the contemporary Kashmir situation I have read. In the course of the last 9 months, over perhaps 40 Q&As, this particular session will remain a high-light: there was something about the audience’s response to the film itself (apart from the Kashmir issue, that is) that was extremely focused, even intense. The best Q&A sessions are those where you find yourself responding with things you’ve never said–or even thought of–before. This was one such.
Dec 8, 2007 saw the UK screenings rounded off by a last-minute improvised screening set up with some friends in the Mirpuri community in Birmingham. About 50 people, almost all of them middle-aged Kashmiris, watched a film about a Kashmir that none of them had ever been to: one of the invisible legacies of that brutal partition of 1947, when most of them were not even born. And yet most in the audience seemed to describe themselves as “nationalists”, by which they referred to their identity as Kashmiris, not as Pakistanis, or even people from “Azad” Kashmir. We talked about the current situation in the valley, the militarisation, the impact of changes in the politics of Pakistan, but there was also a very keen interest in knowing more about the complex issue of the Kashmiri Pandit minority… Over dinner, I must admit, the conversation was much more of an eye-opener for me than Jashn-e-Azadi is for many of the Mirpuri friends: there was at least one insight that deserves a separate post, and I will do that shortly. Watch this space!
Post-script: On Dec 9, 2007 I did a live interview on the Bradford based Aapna Channel (beamed in Europe on Sky Digital 817), a Pahari language (or more accurately Pahari/Potohari/Hindku speaking) channel aimed at precisely the 600,000+ people from the Mirpur district of “Azad” Kashmir. As a concession to my lack of skills in any of these dialects, my interlocutor (the very affable–and yet very political–Shams Rahman), spoke to me in Urdu/Hindustani, and over 90 minutes we really had a good conversation about the film, and Kashmir. We took several calls too, and once again there was a long conversation about the tragic departure of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley in the early 1990s…