Last week, Jashn-e-Azadi finished a hectic round of preview screenings in the US and Canada, so time to do a little reporting.
(For the record, that was a whirlwind tour: 21 days, 9 cities, 12 screenings…)
The Sep 18 start was on a day properly auspicious (sheets of rain in Minneapolis until half an hour before the screening) as Jashn-e-Azadi played at the Bell Museum, at the center of the sprawling campus of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Until recently, the Bell hosted an active film club, so it continues to have a proper projection ambience, big screen, excellent sound (even 35mm projectors!). Despite the rain we had a good turnout, more than 60 people, and the 7 pm start helped gather an interesting mix of students and faculty, as well as people from the wider South Asian ‘community’ in the area. That mix also helped to open out the Q&A session that followed, because the usual questions that Indian audiences will ask (about Pakistan’s support for the movement; about the consequences of self-determination in Kashmir) were mediated with more specific questions about the nature of what is happening in Kashmir’s present. (The Q&A ended well after 10 pm!) The films journey to Minneapolis was hosted by the College of Liberal Arts at UMN, and the discussion around it was carried over to the next afternoon, when a smaller group of graduate students and faculty met at the South Asian Seminar series, chaired by Ajay Skaria, eminent historian of South Asia, and we had a more detailed conversation around the film, the process that led to it, and its implications.
The impeccably modern facilities at the MacMillan Center at Yale University in New Haven was the venue for the Sep 20 screening of the film, for a group of about 35 students and faculty with an interest in South Asian history and politics. (And a smaller group who had joined us from the nearby Connecticut College as well) The Q&A was moderated by Mridu Rai, another excellent historian of South Asia (and particularly of Kashmir) , and we got off to a particularly lively start with an enthusiastic critic (who turned out to have driven 4 hours to share his views) launching into a diatribe against Jashn-e-Azadi, from a position that is both familiar and predictable to us, and by now probably even familiar to readers of this blog. (Summary: the film is partial, inaccurate, sympathetic to the wrong people, etc.) Since this was an educational institution, the critics had helpfully brought along xeroxed notes, which were generously distributed, containing pointers to the films flaws, as well as a ‘review’ of the film. I draw attention to this handy little package because the same text kept showing up all over North America. So even film criticism has become a networked business in these times… But as usually happens, the audience had an independent–and I dare say, different–reading of the film, and a more complex discussion followed, which flowed into a dinner reception, the event hosted by the South Asian Studies Council.
A pre-dawn flight from Hartford, in a tiny 12 seater plane, across the border and into Canada, had the advantage of an unforgettable view of sun-rise from the air. (Ink-black, blood-red, through to blue) Later that afternoon of Sep 21, the film was screened by the Center for the Study of Asias and the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto. Once again, well before the screening began, representatives of the same group of critics arrived, half-a-dozen very vociferous and somewhat aggressive gentlemen, with impeccably put together ‘press-kits’ with the same xeroxed pointers, and a bonus in the shape of a DVD of a film that they insisted be shown immediately before/after/during Jashn-e-Azadi. Since this was clearly not possible, they were very politely refused by the chair for the afternoon, Ashwini Tambe, who handled the unusual requests with infinite patience and tact, and transformed what they intended to be an acrimonious rough-house into a very civilized and productive session. Written questions were passed onto her, and eventually we managed to cover a lot of ground in the Q&A. And to be fair to the gentlemen who came with the intention of disliking the film, at least two of them were quietly appreciative of what the film was trying to do, and said so, however difficult it might seem to accept in the present. (Their other colleagues were happy to admit that they had no interest in what the film was saying, so seeing it–or not seeing it–made no difference to their existing critique of it.)
On Sep 22 an additional preview screening of the film was organised at Toronto’s Royal Cinema, under the banner of the South Asian Left & Democratic Alliance, for an audience of film-makers and film enthusiasts, activists from the Toronto political scene, and some students. The Royal, which is one of the venues for the Toronto Film festival, is now mostly used as a re-recording theatre for film, so has the most astonishing sound system and projection. (Seeing the film projected on that huge screen was a sensation that I was totally unprepared for: working as we do on modest desk-top systems, calibrating image and sound on pro-sumer systems, you always fear that the digital video output will not bear the scrutiny of the “big cinema” experience. That day at the Royal was vindication that the Sony PD170 + Final Cut Pro combination, with lashings of patient care from camera-persons, editors and sound designers, can give you a film that certainly looks and sounds as good as the best…) The Toronto film-maker, Ali Kazimi, who both Canada and India claim to be one of their own, had generously put together the screening, and moderated what turned into a really thoughtful Q&A, which ended only when it was time for us to vacate the Royal. (For a regular screening of Michael Moore’s Sicko!) I carry away the memory of a Senegalese Canadian activists’ comment: “I see the film as deeply hopeful”, he said during the Q&A, a response that one always hoped someone would have. To struggle, and resist, is to have hope…
On Sep 23 Jashn-e-Azadi moved to Bostons’ MIT, screening at the stunningly conceived Frank Gehry building in the heart of the campus. Hosted by old friends AID (Association for India’s Development) and Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia, the Sunday afternoon screening attracted a diverse audience: the generalised ‘South Asian’ coming across as Indian, Pakistani, Kashmiri, American. But the active curiosity–and the general sense of unease–created by the arguments of the film led to an excellent Q&A which lasted for more than an hour. The best reaction of all was that several people wanted copies of the film, so that they could pass the film on to others, and organise more screenings. The familiar one page Critical Guide to Jashn-e-Azadi surfaced here too, distributed by two gentlemen whose question in the Q&A (about ‘factual errors’ in the films titles) stems from a misreading that has happened from the first screenings of the film in March 2007.
The screenings of the first week ended on Sep 25 when the New School for Social Research, in New York hosted a screening in downtown Manhattan. Once again, the diverse nature of New York provided an eclectic audience, and the Q&A that followed reflected these multiple perspectives. For me, there was the added pleasure that the discussion was moderated by Faisal Devji, a young historian whose recent work (distilled in his very thoughtful book, Landscapes of the Jihad) has much stimulated my thinking on these areas. Not unexpectedly, people tend to view films, particularly those which have an open-ended form (and don’t necessarily drag you to the finishing line of conclusions!) like a Rorschach test: they see in them what they want to imagine… There was a comment, for example, that the film only focuses on a “harsh Sunni Islam”, and ignores Kashmirs tradition of “more gentle Shia, Sufi practices”. Not only is this a flawed reading of the images in the film (the Sufi shrines appear frequently in the film; and how does one differentiate between Shia and Sunni aspects of the movement in Kashmir?) it is also a fundamentally incorrect reading of Islam in Kashmir. My admittedly non-specialist correction to this notion–that the Sufi should not necessarily be seen as non-Islamic or even anti-Islamic–was helped immeasurably by the presence of Faisal Devji.
The next day, Sep 26, Jashn-e-Azadi screened at Vassar College in Upstate New York, an old and highly regarded liberal arts college, where a totally unexpected audience of almost a hundred under-graduates walked in for a late evening screening of the film. Unexpected, because our screenings on north American campuses usually tended to draw in a small and focused bunch of graduate students (usually with an interest in South Asia) and of course the South Asians on campus: here we had a totally diverse set of undergraduate students, from backgrounds as varied as Anthropology, Literature, Political Science, and so on, with no real substantial investment in Kashmir, or the issues it raises… And much to my surprise, most of them stayed till the end of our rather long film, and many stayed on for the discussion. The event had been arranged by Amitava Kumar, writer and novelist, and Professor of English at Vassar, and he moderated the excellent Q&A that followed.
[ part 2 follows ]