David Lepeska | Kashmir Observer | Wednesday April 4, 2007
Srinagar, April 03: “I have a bit of nervousness,” filmmaker Sanjay Kak told a Tagore Hall audience before unspooling his documentary Jashn-e-Azadi (“How We Celebrate Freedom”) on Saturday. “Screening a film like this in Kashmir, it’s an act of some courage.”
His concerns were both validated and unwarranted.
But first, some background. Finding mostly empty Lal Chowk streets while visiting Kashmir during Independence Day celebrations in 2004, Kak was intrigued. “I wanted to understand what that silence on the streets of Srinagar meant,” he said, adding that the film was for an Indian, not a Kashmiri audience.
Yet on this afternoon he was stuck with a paragon of the latter. All ages and perspectives were represented, not to mention a few celebrities. Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy hid beneath a shawl near the front. Natali Award-winning human rights lawyer Parvez Imroz and leading psychiatrist Dr. Mushtaq Margoob – both of whom appear in the film – settled down in back rows. Countless journalists, intellectuals, and political leaders were also dotted among the rabble. As voluble students filled up the back sections the place teemed and fizzed.
Then the lights fell, and pheran-garbed villagers were suddenly running from a shoot-out. The audience froze with conflicting emotions. Here is home, on screen and larger than life. But here too is that most taboo of all topics: how we feel about the conflict.
A minute of stillness passed before awareness dawned. It was then that the gathered understood that it would be alright. That there would be no interruptions. That for two hours in this theatre on this day there would be freedom in Kashmir. And without any swearing in ceremony or swapping of blood, two hundred Kashmiris – like restless Soviets finally getting their hands on samizdat – became part of an exclusive club, privy to the rare, shared intimacy of viewing an honest document about the endless struggle that is their lives.
“Watching this film here is really fascinating, and moving,” said audience member and art instructor Showkat Kathjoo during intermission. “The emotions are coming out; some people are weeping.”
Indeed, the near-overflow crowd treasured every moment; the film proved cathartic, awakening dormant passions in both young and old.
A father visits the martyr’s graveyard on a snowy Eid and can’t find his son’s grave, and the audience is transfixed. Minutes later political leaders such as JKLF president Yasin Malik, Shakeel Bakshi, and APHC (G) Cheif Syed Ali Shah Geelani stir the pot with rousing rhetoric.
“They are bandits in uniform!” Malik tells a crowd of villagers, referring to the Indian army. “This land belongs to us, these trees belong to us, this jungle belongs to us; this all belongs to us. Where the hell do you come from!”
To this query the crowd broke into loud sustained applause, and indeed the raw, immediate content soon provoked responses that built steadily in volume, length, and intensity. At one point in the film a crowd of seething Kashmiris began the call-and-response azadi chant that Valley residents know by heart. The youths in the back of the theatre immediately took up the chant in unison with their onscreen brethren; the great hall shook with anger and vitality.
They say life imitates art, but rarely has the flattery been so brazen. “These are young students who were not old enough to take part in or witness the struggle when it was at its peak, a decade ago,” Kathjoo explained. “My generation and those older than me have a different experience, and a different response.”
Sure enough, older Kashmiris expressed themselves in their own way.
“You have touched the heart of Kashmiris!” an elderly gentleman told Kak after the film ended. “We want to get rid of all these occupying forces.”
Jashn seemed to open the emotional floodgates for long-dammed Kashmiris. The post-film discussion was part therapy session, part expression of gratitude, and part decompression. Political leader Shakeel Bakshi choked up while praising the film and gave Kak what he called his “resistance shawl.”
With euphoria lingering, the director was asked what he saw for the future of Kashmir.
“I see difficult times,” he began. “What they’re needs to be is some honest conversation; I don’t think that’s been possible for the last 20 years.”
For one day in Rajbagh, it was – thanks to Jashn-e-Azadi.