3 December 2008
Split screen: Jashn-e-Azadi
Independence is both motive and metaphor in Sanjay Kak’s documentary Jashn-e-Azadi, says Trisha Gupta.
“Freedom’s terrible thirst” is how poet Agha Shahid Ali referred to it in his collection, The Country without a Post Office. But to many Kashmiris, the wave that has swept through the state over the past 18 long years is the “tehreek”, or struggle. The many meanings of azadi in Kashmir are the subject of Sanjay Kak’s new documentary, Jashn-e-Azadi, which treads a lot of visual ground already made familiar to us by the media.
Huge crowds attend the funerals of militant leaders, their cries resounding even through the grainy audio of the original VCR recordings. “Ham kya chahte hain? Azadi! Le ke rahenge, azadi!” But then the camera goes behind the rhetoric, where the TV crews rarely venture. Teary-eyed mothers show smiling photographs of their now-dead sons to members of the J&K Coalition of Civil Society who are doing a survey of deaths and disappearances: 60,000 killed, at least 10,000 disappeared. “An old man searches for his son’s grave in the snow-covered Martyrs’ Graveyard. A sign behind him reads, “When slaves are martyred, they are relived of their pain.”
The footage highlights the extent to which the idea of martyrdom dominates the Kashmiri psyche. “While researching the film, I realised that the Arabic word shahid also means ‘to bear witness’,” said Kak. “And so everyone in Kashmir is a possible shaheed, a martyr to the moment.”
The film opens with grainy shots of shooting in the streets, but we move almost instantaneously from gunshots to the almost soundless stupor of Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s central square, on August 15. The Indian flag goes up, as a group of soldiers parades. There is not a single local in sight. “For more than a decade such sullen acts of protest have marked August 15 in Kashmir,” Kak said. “In India, the real contours of the conflict in Kashmir are invariably buried under the facile depiction of an innocent population, trapped between the terrorist’s gun and the army’s boot. But there are no innocents in Kashmir. No one is merely a bystander.”
Sections labeled “Tourist Summer”, “Tourist Winter” and “Pilgrims” expose the Indian government’s misplaced belief that the mere arrival of “mainstream Indians” will bring about the “integration” of Kashmir. Kak manages to capture something of the valley’s serene beauty – although here too, he is ever aware of the larger context of domination. In one brilliant shot, Ranjan Palit’s camera lingers on a verdant landscape, as you listen to the gentle music of the rabab. Then, the camera moves upwards to reveal that the scene you’ve been admiring is actually the view through the eyes of a soldier.
In one scene, the film shows Zarif Ahmed Zarif sitting in a Srinagar garden, reading his poem “Yoot matsar kyah?”(What frenzy is this?). Piarey Hatash, a poet who also happens to be one of the few Kashmiri pandits still living in the state, recites his poem “Loss” to the filmmaker over the phone from Jammu. “Poetry is perhaps the only art form in Kashmir that has not only survived but is actually thriving,” said Kak. “Kashmir has always had a strong tradition of poetry; but in the last 20 years, other genres of writing – journalism, for example, or even conventional fiction – have come to be so tightly controlled, and poetry has become the chosen form of expression.”
The film was shot between 2004 and 2006. Kak also used news footage and video recordings. “Someone dropped off a packet of VHS tapes at the place where I used to work in Srinagar. I don’t know who shot the footage, so I credit it to ‘anonymous Kashmiri cameramen’.” Was it difficult to get permission to shoot, get people to talk? “There are no real interviews in the film,” said Kak. “I really believe that in Kashmir, people cannot tell the truth. They will only tell you what they think you want to hear. So I decided that I would just go to places where I could go easily and listen to what people were saying.”
When Kak asked the Army PR department for a letter of permission, he was told he couldn’t have a letter, but that he should keep the PR people informed about where he wanted to go and they would call up that division “to arrange things”. As Kak said, “I realised that I couldn’t film the army without them being aware of it well in advance. That’s why I met surrendered militants and went to all the army sadbhavana camps. I thought I might as well film them as they wanted it, presenting their best side – maybe that will tell me something new.”
Published in Time Out Mumbai, 2007