David Lepeska | Kashmir Observer | Sunday April 15, 2007
Film Review of Sanjay Kak’s Jashn-e-Azadi
By David Lepeska
About an hour into Sanjay Kak’s documentary feature Jashn-e-Azadi, a wan, middle-aged Bandipora villager is asked by a visiting surveyor if she knows the identity of her son’s killers. The woman sighs heavily and greets the questioner with fathomless eyes.
“They came at night,” she says listlessly. “What can one say about dark times?”
Without adequate illumination, very little — a truism Mr. Kak proves with this film.
The director was inspired to make the feature-length documentary after visiting Srinagar during 2004 Independence Day celebrations and finding disinterested locals and mostly empty streets. Intended for an Indian audience, the film seeks to explain why Kashmiris still refuse to become part of the world’s largest democracy. In taking over two hours to present an argument any observer could outline in a few minutes, Jashn becomes just as meandering and diffuse as the discourse of your average Kashmiri. Mr. Kak tries valiantly to plumb the depths, but with little coherence and minus an overarching message, the truth stays mostly hidden.
The film opens on villagers running from a shooting in Bandipora, and the viewer is quickly engaged. But then as the narrator (Mr. Kak) recounts an abbreviated historical summary we are shown scenes of shikaras moving slowly through the backwaters of Dal. Why? We don’t know where they are going and there is no reason to bring up Dal, whose sad devastation deserves its own film (and several have already been made). The boats never appear again and but they are shown here for lengthy shots as Kak rushes through the background of the dispute: Sheikh Abdullah’s leadership; the devastation of Partition; land to the tiller leads to freedom; and then how with Indian mistreatment hope turned to disillusionment, then to mass resistance, and finally to armed struggle. Forty years of Kashmir history telescoped into a single, aloof sentence and we are deposited into the midst of the conflict as if onto a wooden raft on stormy open seas, without compass or paddle.
Which may be the director’s intention, but the filmmaking choices suggest a lack of clarity. Images clash and rub up against strange bedfellows, for instance. A father visits a martyr’s graveyard on a snowy Eid and can’t find his son’s grave. But back and forth cutting to archival footage of angry villagers and an empty Lal Chowk undermines the scene’s impact. And then suddenly tourists are snapping photos at Nishat and on top of a snowy hillock in Gulmarg, dubbing the Valley “paradise” and “heaven on earth.” The contradiction between the Indian perspective and the daily life of the average Kashmiris daily life is indeed shocking, but there is so little context that the message is musted. At the end of the film Indian visitors hold AK-47’s and pose for pictures with armed, camouflaged soldiers, as if mocking the state’s disputed status. If most Indians are as ignorant of the current situation and ongoing violence and anxiety in Kashmir, they do indeed need a wake-up call. This, however, is not it.
Undoubtedly, the film has considerable merit. The Valley is convincingly portrayed as overwhelmed and under siege. Several scenes of grief-wracked locals again brings home the devastation of the conflict, at both the personal and national levels. And in a short but potent scene of unmarked graves and burial in Kupwara, the current hot-button topic of encounter killings is addressed without hyperbole. “Bodies materialize as if from the earth and forest, part of Kashmir’s ledger of loss,” the narrator intones. The local in charge of burying the unidentified corpses is benumbed by the daily brutality. “Our hearts have turned to stone,” says the gravedigger. Expressionless, he adds, “Once we received a body without a head.”
A bhand pather performance – broad, comedic, self-flagellating – highlights how local perspectives of the persecution and oppression have changed over the decades and centuries. The mental fallout of the conflict is highlighted in an early section at the Psychiatric Medical Hospital. And the piercing irony of a scene in which Indian soldiers hands out radios to Kupwara village elders is hard to miss. “We want you to be able to listen to what’s going on in the world,” the lieutenant tells them.
But there’s no backbone, no structural skeleton to which these hunks of flesh and bone can adhere and form a complete and recognizable whole. Scenes jump from 2005 to 1992, from 2006 to 2000, and from 2003 to 1993, as if the year or the context does’nt matter. As if the last 19 years have been a vacuum in the Valley.
Such a view suggests little familiarity with nuances of recent life in Kashmir. But look around: at the budding protest theatre community, at successful demonstrations against unhealthy and illegal garbage dumping; at separatists’ involvement in roundtable discussions; at significant drops in violence and militancy and serious talk of troop withdrawal by key political players; at graphic novels on Kashmir militancy and films like Jashn screening in the heart of Srinagar. Late in the film an Indian motivational speaker is talking about change to a group of interested professionals in Delhi. “Once we go past resistance,” he tells the crowd, “then we start to explore.” Recent events on the ground suggest that time has arrived, while Jashn argues that locals are still stuck in first gear.
One would hope that a documentary about the conflict made by an experienced, highly regarded Pandit filmmaker would shed some light on the dispute — offer a comprehensive picture, uncover new insights, or take a fresh angle. Instead, darkness weighs heavy on the film. In portraying Kashmir as stagnant over the last two decades – as defiant, yes, but also hard-headed, benumbed and tied blindly to armed resistance, victim-hood, and any semblance of control – Mr. Kak ignores the visible progress, underestimates his subjects and leaves Kashmir in the dark.
Five years ago this film might’ve been groundbreaking. Today it’s old news.