After the 1979 Iranian revolution, which toppled the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlav and led to the birth of the Islamic Republic headed by the more conservative Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iranian filmmakers were in a flux.
Although Khomeini was believed to be a fan of cinema, censorship laws tightened and directors were forbidden from showing things such as women’s hair or unmarried men and women getting intimate.
In India, as censorship remains arbitrary and particularly stringent for films about Kashmir - one of the most militarised zones in the world - Ashvin Kumar (Inshallah, Football, Inshallah, Kashmir) seems to have embraced the Iranian cinema model - of driving a complex point across through the seemingly innocuous experiences of children, or in this case, teenagers.
In No Fathers in Kashmir, a powerful drama that terrifically encapsulates the robbed childhoods and broken dreams of Kashmiri adolescents, Kumar uses a British-Kashmiri teenage girl to propel his narrative that dwells deep into the darkest, most horrific corners of the valley.
Noor (Zara Webb) has come to Kashmir with her parents, her mother and step-dad to be, Wahid (Sushil Dahiya) a government servant. After a short stay with her grandparents, played by Soni Razdan and Kulbhushan Kharbanda, she realises that the truth she was told - about her father having left their family - is actually a lie and he was actually ‘picked up’ by the Indian army.
Along with Majid (Shivam Raina), a 14-year-old boy she befriends, Noor sets out on a quest to find her father’s grave, encountering terrifying hostility from the Indian army, a separatist leader, and most importantly, her own family. Why does she want to find the grave of her father who she never met? For the same reason the half-widows of Kashmir want to know the whereabouts of their missing husbands and sons - closure.
In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film, Noor goes through the family albums only to find the photographs of her father missing. Photographs, in this film, play a key role. Noor, being a teenager, is obsessively filming everything she sees around her - for her it starts of as just a way to add colour to her Facebook feed, but in the end, it becomes a weapon that the establishment wants to erase.
In an ironically meta twist, Kumar’s film had a months long battle with the Censor Board, which only illustrates the State’s anxiety over films set in Kashmir that subvert the establishment’s propaganda to present a dissenting view.
As Noor would eventually realise, Kashmiris, who’ve endured the brutality and been victims to the several human rights violation of the Indian army, have internalised their traumas and learnt to edit the truth by manipulating their own memories.
In a later scene, the Army major, an impressive Anshuman Jha, would confiscate a device and do the same thing to it what the family does to the photo album - destroy its very capacity to memorise.
Truth, if cannot be confronted, is best obliterated, Kumar seems to be saying, while simultaneously exposing the tyranny of State and its dehumanising infringement on the sovereignty of the Kashmiri people and their bodies.
In a cinema-scape cluttered with quasi-propaganda movies that unabashedly celebrate the military, No Fathers in Kashmir, is one of those rare features that tell the story of conflict from the Kashmiri point of view, much like what Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider attempted to do (it had an entire song dedicated to the unmarked graves in Kashmir).
The film humanises a conflict that has existed since time immemorial and doesn’t appear to end anytime soon, given the recent tensions that have gripped the valley and the attacks on Kashmiris across India.
“Give me a clean fight. An enemy I can see. Every villager is an enemy, a countryman, who do I fight, who do I protect?” the Army major says in a scene that singularly captures the complexity of the Kashmir issue.
While No Fathers in Kashmir, which is stunningly shot (Jean-Marc Selva and Jean-Marie Delorme) and crisply edited, forces the viewer to face uncomfortable truths, at the heart of it, the film is an achingly beautiful story of the potency of young love.
Both Zara Webb and Shivam Raina are outstanding and carry in their eyes an endearing affection for one another. His eyes caress her face with unrestrained longing, she looks back with sincerity, both painfully aware of the inevitability of heartbreak.
In one beautiful scene, they keep searching for the last traces of their missing fathers without realising that the day has ended. As night falls, they sit and light a small bonfire, safe and present in the silent company of each other.
In Kashmir, often called paradise on earth, love blossoms even in graveyards.