First City magazine | New Delhi | May 2007
“I don’t know the answers, but I certainly think I may know a few of the questions that need to be answered. And there’s too much bullshit going on for anybody…” FC FILMS with documentary Filmmaker Sanjay Kak, unraveling the poetic violence behind his film based in Kashmir, Jashn-e-Azadi. One barbed wire at a time.
A HOLE IN THE UNIVERSE
Aekhir gayre yaelle noon chond drav
Dai zaanan, kaemsana vanay rov
Yus tsaenan aus paghuk raz
Sui darvesh, mastaney rov
(At the last, when we leave with nothing
God knows, what places where lost
The one who knew tomorrow’s secrets
That dervish, that mad seer is lost)
– Piarey ‘Hatash’, Kashmiri poet, Jammu
“Actually, the near-euphoric reaction in Kashmir makes me happy, but that’s not the audience. I mean, the real audience is here,” says Sanjay Kak. He’s considerate, even indulgent of my slightly-glazed, overwhelmed eyes after sitting, still, through his Jashn-e-Azadi. “It’s not even abroad, because so much of what this film is about will not make sense to a non-Indian. In that sense, it’s very much intended to implicate people, through their flag, through their nationalism, through their notions of azadi. So that you really get people’s teeth on edge, you create a discomfort about their own certainties,” he articulates. “It’s not just that we were trying to make them uncomfortable about what’s happening in Kashmir, but to make people, at a fundamental level, uncomfortable about what goes on in the name of nation, nationalism, national pride and jhanda and tiranga…”
Jashn-e-Azadi is a two-and-a-half-hour film on the Indian military occupation of Kashmir, or as they put it very well themselves on the film’s blog. It’s a paean on how we celebrate freedom. How the film unravels itself consciously is not as conversation-worthy as how much power it wields sub-consciously. Intensely subjective, the film is very much what Sanjay Kak, a documentary filmmaker from Delhi, a Kashmiri Pandit by birth (a fact that’s been made much of, given his even-handed look at the Kashmiri struggle fought mainly by Kashmiri Muslims), saw when he went back to Kashmir. “It was an image. I just happened to reach Srinagar on August 13. And everybody asked me why I had come then, because August 14 is a hartal because of the Pakistani Independence day. And August 15 is a hartal for the Indian Independence Day. So, the whole place sort of starts winding down by the 13th. So, on the 15th, I decided to walk out of my aunt’s house. And we were very close to Lal Chowk, the central part of Srinagar, where the flag raising was. And it was unbelievable– there was nobody there. Jaise kehte hain na, mara hua kutta bhi nahin tha vahaan pe. And that image was burnt in my head. I knew that whatever happens, I’m going to start my film with August 15.” And he does, the bare Lal Chowk and a lonely flag hoisting, the ridiculousness of freedom speeches to nothing but the whistling wind ridiculing freedom itself.
“The title of the film came three weeks before the end, but the idea of the Jashn-e-Azadi was always there. And also, it’s not some sympathetic number. But I do believe that whatever value any of the work I’ve done has, is that it gives you a sense of how people there are looking at it…. So, the simple question for me was, what are people in Kashmir so angry about? Partition happened in 1947…. And for the last 18 years, they’ve been fighting this crazy struggle, what is it? Must be something na, I didn’t know what. As a Kashmiri and as a Kashmiri Pandit, I did not know what. So, what is it? And inadvertently, it is an attempt at understanding, what do Kashmiris want? And if the short answer is something vague called ‘azadi’, well then that’s what I’m communicating. I’m not saying I know exactly what they mean, is it going to be a secular democratic paradise…but that’s what they want. All of us are free to want things that don’t make sense and make sense…” he says, leaning back quietly.
Visual set-pieces, barely set-pieces in real viewing time, but falling together like rain in retrospect, shot inside a psychiatric hospital, where a doctor tries counselling a woman because she keeps seeing dead bodies everywhere, even in her dreams. Feet march you by. A father goes grave-to-grave in the Martyr’s Graveyard to look for his son’s grave, fizzy about its location, since it’s been so long, and there are so many to look from. Rifles load up. A troop of Kashmiri players (Bhand performers) paint their faces and mock themselves and us on a street, for the merriment of many. A surveyor goes village-to-village counting the shahid, never reaching a consensus. Some say 15 dead in the last year, some say more. They discuss the number like the sensex. There is some firing, lots of crying. It’s a din, this soundscape, which echoes for days.
“This film is constructed from the opposite of access. When I went there, I realised there’s nothing you can film. You can’t film the army, this or that. You can’t talk to people, because people really don’t know why they should talk to you and if they talk to you, they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear. Kashmir is a very, very complex place. It’s so shot through with tensions, intelligence and security and army and filana-dhimkana that nobody wants to speak the truth. If there is such a thing. And for a documentary film, that becomes very difficult territory, especially if you’re used to figuring out your universe bytalking to people. But what I did was I made a lot of friends, because what I had was time, so endless cups of chai. And little by little, they figured that I hadn’t come with some agenda, I was really curious and that’s not something people there have encountered, either with journalists or with filmmakers. They’re very used to people coming and looking for a reinforcement of something they already know. And say ya, if there were only no human rights violations it would be fine… So it began like that, somebody would say achcha come with me… So imperceptibly, it started opening out a little bit, but even then, there was no grand strategy, there was no big idea of what we’re going to do and until my first shoot, August 15, a year later…”
The subliminal sense of violence carried over from 1989 gains particular poignancy, due to Kak’s use of archival footage, filmed by anonymous Kashmiri camerapersons over the years. Grainy and powerful, Kak uses these images of speeches and blood, protests and crackdowns, largely for juxtaposition and to assimilate you, the audience, into the Kashmiri landscape. “I always knew there would be video… After all, this was the nineties, and there were video cameras everywhere,” says Sanjay, when asked how he found this rather spectacular record of history, as it happened. “…everyone had said no, no, no. Because if anyone was filming in the nineties, it was also quite dangerous for them to possess this video… And I’d almost finished shooting, and I must have told around 20 people to find some videos, and then, in a slightly fairytale kind of way, one of these 20 people dropped a carton at my aunt’s house which had these 12 to 15 VHS tapes. And they were green with age and disuse and moisture and we brought it back here, opened each VHS tape and physically cleaned and dusted it with muslin… And a lot of it was junk… Speeches… But suddenly in the middle of all that, you see starting things. I’ll tell you this, that what is on those tapes, I haven’t even used one-tenth of the kind of horrible, horrible images that exist, of what was going on. Because it was very clear to me and Tarun (Bhartiya, editor) that archival material like this are like steroids. You’ve to use it very judiciously. If you just tip it over, it would run away with the film,” he says, the temptation and its resolution clearly playing out in his head. “And so, we used much the same approach which was, to use the non-moments… There’s a dead chicken, five soldiers marching, crunching of boots, blood being swept… You suggest a long period of time, and you suggest that things have happened. But it’s always at the level of suggestion. And I think that works for me.”
The aesthetic interface that Sanjay Kak developed with his editor Tarun Bhartiya, plays with the film’s rather simple argument in highly complex ways. Tarkovsky-ish in the liberties it takes with time, space and visual serendipity (and never with interviews and testimonies), with sounds and feelings, with symbols and atmosphere, and always, always, with splendid use of irony (in a remarkable sequence, after an hour of the audience counting the dead, we see the army giving out Philips Radio Sets in a ceremonial gesture of goodwill). And the rather relentless time-span of the film is a conscious choice they made. “The long film has very different dynamics,” he says, thoughtfully, “Very early on in the cut, Tarun said boss, this is two hours, and that’s a decision we have to take now… And I said okay, because my experience with the Narmada film (Words on Water, 2003) was that people will watch a long film, and may be some people won’t, but those who will, will be impacted in ways that they won’t be by a short film. And some documentary moments demand length. You have to give some things four appearances, because each time you get attuned to hearing a little more. It’s a kind of arrogance, but sometimes it’s important to irritate, and not through incompetence. It’s like: you think you’ve understood this, but I’ll give you a little more, and you’ll wonder why am I seeing this again? And then, if you listen, you’ll realise, okay, now it’s this…”
Last month, Habitat World saw Jashn-e-Azadi. There were friends and protestors, sympathizers and critics. But, for Sanjay, the screening in Srinagar was special for the people saw in it a film he didn’t even set out to make. “A lot of people who came to see the film were moved, and said, you know, we had forgotten. Like this lady said, you know, this is our life and over here you teach yourself to forget, you don’t want to remember. Because I kept saying it’s a very superficial film, I hint at something, I hint at a past, I hint at this, I hint at that… She said yes, but just to see in all come together, it’s indescribably sad for people. Suddenly, there is a very simple enunciation of an argument. And people there live in such chaos that they’ve forgotten that. There is a feeling of colonisation, which has a long history to it. And when you have the present, where the only thing you have is your martyrdom. That’s all you can do, and it may not have any end to it but you cannot pull out of it either, “ he pauses, waiting to see how much deeper I’m willing to go.
“And you know, I know that this is not the sort of film that people can dismiss, whether they like it or not. I know it’s a substantial piece of work, and I don’t mean its length. There are parts where I know I am pushing people, I am going over the same ground again. And that is not un-intentional. You don’t know if it’s working or not. But I know why I’ve done it. I‘ve had these varied responses, and a lot of it is silence…” he says with a perplexed smirk. “Everybody hasn’t come out of the theatres sort of clapping and singing hosannas. But they can’t also get it out of their heads, whether they like it or not. So, it’s a good starting point for me. I wasn’t trying to please people, which should be obvious. One was trying to find a form in which to make a very difficult argument, not difficult, but let’s say a very unpopular argument. And then, finding a way to put this unpopular argument so that people can’t say, oh, it’s a load of crap.”
(For further discussions, reviews, blog entries and DVD information on the film, log onto http://www.jashneazadiflim.com)