Greater Kashmir / Srinagar Saturday April 7, 2007 / Op-Ed Page / Across The Table
“The film is meant to shake Indian audiences”
Filming the flipside. Noted documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak talks to Shahnaz Bashir about his latest film Jashn-e-Azadi (How we celebrate freedom) recently screened in Tagore Hall Srinagar
How did the idea of making the film come?
I came to Srinagar in 2003, not with the intention of making a film, but just to visit, to see how things were, in a city that was once home to my family. I was visiting after 1989 – after 14 years – and I was shocked by what I saw: by the levels of militarization, by all the ways in which the lives of ordinary people had been completely transformed in the years in between. It was very, very troubling, and led to many questions, but maybe not enough to begin thinking about a film.
On one of those early visits I reached Srinagar just a few days before August 15. The city seemed to be visibly grinding down as the security drill for Independence Day was put into gear; one could see the endless checking and crackdowns and searches slowly driving people indoors, and out of range of harassment. On the morning of August 15 I decided to walk around our home, near Lal Chowk. I couldn’t believe what I saw: the city was empty. Empty. Deserted. Not a leaf, or a street dog seemed to be stirring. I was completely taken aback: this was meant to be the Independence Day celebration – the Jashn-e-Azadi. I had expected some protest. But this was very different. Where was everybody? Somebody. Anybody. In that image of a silent, empty, sullen Srinagar, I think the idea of the film was born.
You previewed the film at India Habitat Centre, in New Delhi, only a few weeks ago. What was the feedback? Did anybody kick fuss?
It’s difficult to say for sure, the people who react quickly, are usually the ones who are pleased, and there were many of those. I’m sure that there were also some who were not. On the other hand at 2 hours and 19 minutes it’s a long film: happily, only a handful of the 400 people in that screening left before the end! The only thing I’m reasonably sure about is that most people at the screening were troubled by what they saw, disturbed by it. And that was certainly one of the intentions behind a film is meant primarily for an Indian audience, that is meant to grab them, and shake them, and say: Look! For heaven’s sake, look, and try and understand what is happening in Kashmir, try and see what’s happening there, what is happening in the name of every Indian.
There was also a handful of people who set up a protest outside the venue of the film– even before they had seen the film, mind you!– upset that the film had not adequately represented the issue of Pandits in Kashmir. The same people have used the public space of our blog to abuse the film and me. But I’m not upset by that. Kashmir is such a volatile and vexed issue that all sorts of people use any and every opportunity to use it as a platform to further their own agendas. Protest, abuse, rumour, is all used by professionals–NGOs, Governments, intelligence agencies, so many kinds of people¬–to brush aside what they find inconvenient. At the end of the day, all I can do is stand by my film, and the argument it offers
What has been your take on the screening here in Srinagar? What was the feedback?
The response here has been totally beyond my expectations. I’m not just talking about the tremendous emotional charge at the Tagore Hall preview, but also in what people say to me, in the way it is being written about in the Srinagar press. See, I had expected that people would react in an emotional way to the content of the film, to it’s images, and to the memories that it alludes to. But after the preview I feel almost embarrassed at the significance that is being placed on the film–the reaction has been larger than life.
There have also been some surprises- for example, I have images from an Army orphanage celebrating 15th August in the film: the images are used in a very ironic, pointed sort of way, trying to draw attention to the “social-engineering” behind such efforts. But people have misunderstood it as an endorsement of what the Army is doing! I find that very surprising- I wonder, is it because irony has long since been a victim of Kashmir’s troubles?
I’ve been thinking about it, and realize that in a situation where people have long felt their truths gagged, even this one documentary film does inevitably become the object of incredible relief, even elation. Too see the story of contemporary Kashmir, even modestly told, out there, up there, publicly and openly–that is why people have responded the way they have. So I see the reaction to my film as a very good indicator of just how choked public discourse in Kashmir has been.
Is the corporate media in India still not letting the truth go open about what has been happening here with the people of Kashmir?
Yes, of course, but then the discourse on Kashmir in India is such a hegemonic, closed one, that the corporate media is only a part of the mechanism that helps to keep the wraps on happenings in Kashmir. From our history text-books, to our political parties, everybody seems certain about their claims on Kashmir, and the Kashmiri people play a very small part in that claim. Almost as if Indians want Kashmir, even without the Kashmiris! So the corporate media doesn’t have to misinform, all it needs to do is obfuscate, to continuously suggest that things are so complex that they cannot even be understood!
But I’d also like to say that most people here, in Kashmir, seem to be unprepared to take on these flawed–even false–depictions of Kashmir. They seem to imagine that the Indian corporate media is some huge monolith, which is unshakeable, unassailable. I don’t think that’s true. Alternate information flows have begun, which can be used to embarrass, even challenge, the hegemonic discourse. Just because an Indian journalist gets half a page in a National daily to trot out the latest spin by the Intelligence agencies, doesn’t mean it can’t be taken apart and exposed on a blog run by three students sitting in Srinagar!