When watching No Fathers in Kashmir, it’s hard not to be struck by filmmaker Ashvin Kumar’s emotional and political intelligence, and when we had the pleasure of sitting down with the Indian auteur during a visit to London, it came as little surprise to learn that he exhibited such traits in real life. A thoughtful, articulate speaker, when we sat down he asked if he too could record the conversation. We can’t blame him, for if we spoke so eloquently we’d like to listen to ourselves back, too.
The film, which is a coming-of-age story of a young girl (Zara La Peta Webb), tells the tale of a young British Kashmiri who retraces her roots, and discover the whereabouts of her father who disappeared, and through her eyes we witness the devastation taking place on this tumultuous landscape. For Kumar, having spent time in Kashmir, and with family ties to the Indian region, part of his intent in telling this story was to show the world a side to the place he feels has been grossly misrepresented.
“There was a sense of disbelief when I went there because nothing I was seeing was being contextualised in the media, that should’ve done,” he began. “The fourth estate had really abdicated its duties when it came to Kashmir.”
“Kashmir was a national trauma for us as a country, and considering we’ve had nuclear arms pointing at each other, Kashmir is a contentious issue, it felt largely ignored and under-represented. But nothing prepared me for the real horrors that I found and saw, so the sheer injustice of it acted as a spur, and continues to do that.”
The projects marks his third film in Kashmir, and he explains that through his experiences, he’s changed greatly as a person, and a filmmaker. “I was not a political person nor was a documentarian, so Kashmir really woke those elements in me,” he said. “I’m very grateful, because my filmmaking style has also been very deeply influenced by the documentary filmmaking style, I was a lot more classic before that, in some senses. I owe Kashmir a great debt of gratitude for helping me blend human complexity and emotion with a sense of freedom of camera and the way it flows.”
“It’s been a concern because they’ve been so poorly represented, particularly by Bollywood, who has made caricatures out of Kashmir. That’s adding insult to injury and perpetuating a stereotype which doesn’t allow the narrative to explore the complex depths and nuances that actually should be appreciated. There is a huge ethical and moral responsibility that Kashmiri’s themselves should embrace and champion the film. They are a loss of words to explain the magnitude of what is going on and having understood a little bit of what is happening, I wanted to make a film that would stand for those words.”
Given the ongoing political issues in the region, Kumar admitted this affected his creative process, even locking horns with very own employees during the making of this production.
“There’s a protest scene, and my own line producer said I was doing anti-national things, and they were going to report me to the police. This is a guy who was taking a salary from me,” he said, looking almost as surprised now as he would’ve when the incident occurred. “That kind of thing is not something you see on screen, but that comes on and then you have to deal with it. Because the line producer had all the taxi guys with him, they pretty much just surrounded the hotel and wouldn’t let us leave, and extracted lots of payment. It was basically an extortion. This kind of stuff went on, which was difficult to deal with.”
So we asked him about facing these very challenges, and if he felt that being pushed actually brought out something in his filmmaking, if he perhaps thrived on being pushed to the limit.
“I hope not, because I’d like to live a little longer than I would if I kept doing this all my life!” he laughed. “This film has shaved off about a decade of my life. It took a decade to make it, and now I’ve taken off another decade out of it, so all in all you’re not looking at a very profitable situation. I wouldn’t say I thrive on challenges, I’d like there not to be any. But I like creative challenges and I embrace them. I didn’t have to make the film, to delve into Islam in such a big way, but I did because I thought it would be relevant and important to do. I didn’t have to take on the issue of the Indian army in the way that I did, I could’ve made it more subtle. But I didn’t. So there are things I could’ve done but when I’m writing a film I’m not thinking about this kind of stuff, I’m just thinking about what emotion I want to conjure in my audience and that’s the only agenda that’s on the table in that moment.”
But these incidents prove just how delicate this material is, and we were interested to know if he ever had any apprehensions in tackling such sensitive issues, akin, perhaps, to what Iranian filmmakers like Jafar Panahi have encountered: a director no longer allowed to make films in his very own nation.
“I’m not in their shoes, they’re really much braver than I am, the Iranian directors are really brave, I don’t think I’d be able to do what they’ve been able to do under those regimes. That’s serious stuff. But the apprehensions are always there, but I always ask, if not me, then who?”
One of the things that enriches this narrative is by seeing it through the eyes of a youngster, a teenager who has a blissful outlook on life, naïve perhaps, but free of cynicism. For Kumar, this was integral in this movie working.
“It’s an age of assimilation, and an age of wonder, to be captivated by the world, and I thought what better protagonist to have to express this very difficult and fraught conflict, which has made cynics out of everyone, so I needed to inject a sense of wonder into the conflict so we look at it again. I also wanted to engage with the youth of India, because it’s very important they develop a sense of compassion which I think is all but lost when we talk about Kashmir, because of the violent misrepresentation from the media over the last 30 years. There’s a very narrow one-pointed narrative that emerges and if this narrative is being permeated that’s all they’re going to grow up to appreciate, so it was important for me to have a young, relatable protagonist who comes to the conflict with that clean slate, if you like.”
Kumar also admits that he was able to feel nostalgia, through the prism and perspective of his protagonist. “I’ve never been asked that question before, but 100% unequivocally yes. It’s a way of feeling a sense of belonging, even if you’re portraying characters who are equally in limbo.”
The project did elicit other emotions in the director, for he explained to us how it really mad ehis question his own identity. “What does it mean to be an Indian? In a larger, global sense of the word. I miss not being from a specific place. I was born in Calcutta, my parents grew up in Delhi, and I was at boarding school and then Bombay, and Goa, and I spent eight years in London. So I don’t know who I am and where I actually belong. Kashmir for instance, like Bengal, is a place of ancestry, I know I belong there but I haven’t really spent much time there. That homing beacon, if you like, that calls you back. Kashmir is a fractured state, a fractured reality, which causes me a lot of pain and concern.”
“The whole idea of being Indian is being challenged as we speak. There is clearly an alternate reality that is being imposed on us, which is a very majoritarian, narrow reading of the Hindu religion, which has been foisted on the citizens of our country and we’ve been asked to re-identify ourselves along those lines. I find that troubling and problematic. I’ve had to keep sharpening my definition of what is an Indian, but only thanks to the fact I don’t relate at all to this Indian, patriotism that has been foisted upon us.”
So we wondered, does he have a place he considers to be his home? “No, and that’s very sad actually I miss it. Maybe that’s the whole idea of these films, maybe it’s a search for home.”
Finally, and perhaps down to the fact we’re well in the thick of the awards season and have Oscars on the mind, but we were interested to know whether Kumar had felt positive repercussions of his own nomination, as he was shortlisted back in 2005 for Best Short Film, for Little Terrorist. He admits it did have an effect, just not the one we had envisaged.
“I don’t think it did anything. It gives you a toe into various doors, part of the reason why perhaps you’re sitting here. It sort of legitimises you in a sense. But beyond that, you’re just as good as what you do next and I’ve had my ups and downs since then. I got it on pretty much my first film which was not perhaps the best time to get an Oscar nomination because it gives you s feeling of omnipotence. Life has a way of knocking the stuffing out of you, and it did that also, it brought me back down. But that journey was very important, that feeling of being completely on top of the world and then being in the dark abyss, which happened over two years between the Oscar nomination and the next film. That reality check created a certain humility which had it not been for the Oscar nomination, may have taken much longer for me to appreciate. You cannot be creative if you’re not humble, you need to submit and surrender to what the world is offering you and what people offer you.”
“It’s important to make the process of making films valuable, and for that you need a lot of humility. God knows I’ve learnt humility on this film, from all angles, from my cast, the circumstances of the film, the fact a lot of festivals didn’t pick it up. But I wouldn’t have been able to deal with it as I have on this film, had that whole experience not have happened. So the Oscar nomination really helped, but not in the way you’re suggesting, in the opposite way,” he finished.