29 July 2012

Film Review: Harud shows us a Kashmir we rarely see on the big screen

Movie Review: Harud shows us a Kashmir we rarely see on the big screen

In the last three decades, Kashmir in popular Hindi cinema has meant films about terror and militancy, almost always filtered through an Indian nationalist lens: Roja, Mission Kashmir, Fanaa. Before that, from the 1960s technicolour moment of Junglee and Kashmir ki Kali, up until as late as 1982 when Amitabh Bachchan and Rakhee sang “Kitni khoobsurat yeh tasveer hai, mausam bemisal benazir hai, yeh Kashmir hai” in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Bemisaal, Kashmir was the ultimate Hindi movie cliché for beauty.

Aamir Bashir’s 2010 Harud (literally, autumn) which releases in several Indian cities today under the PVR Director’s Rare Initiative, is quite aware of this strange cinematic history. As someone who grew up being an Amitabh Bachchan fan (until a screening of Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief in Delhi “thankfully severed [his] relationship with ‘Bollywood’” ), Bashir knows the subconscious expectations with which a Hindi-movie-goer enters a film about Kashmir – and sets out very consciously to dismantle them.

First of all, Harud refuses us the luxurious otherness of a beauteous landscape in which we might comfortably immerse ourselves. Shot entirely in Srinagar, the film captures an everyday Kashmiri urbanity rarely seen on the Indian screen. The one exception I can think of is Onir’s I Am, where the Srinagar segment, with Juhi Chawla and Manisha Koirala as childhood friends divided by history, was strikingly shot by Arvind Kannabiran, creating a vivid sense of a city beleaguered in time. Here, Bashir’s direction and Shankar Raman’s surefooted camerawork (he also shot Peepli Live) create a world that is more languorous, dreamier—and yet somehow waiting to erupt.

The sense of a dreamscape is created primarily through Rafiq (Shahnawaz Bhat), the adolescent boy at the film’s centre. We often see him actually sleeping: eyeballs rolling beneath closed lids, dreaming unsavoury dreams. Even the rest of the time, despite his wide-open eyes, one wonders if he is quite awake. He seems to inhabit a world of his own—and it is not a pleasant one. The seething anger he clearly feels—about his ‘disappeared’ elder brother, his father’s ineffectual slide into mental illness, his mother’s refusal to grieve—remains almost entirely suppressed.

That sense of feelings tightly wound up – of things simmering beneath the surface and not being allowed to come up – is integral to the film. Be it the low-key performances with their refusal of drama, the minimal dialogue, or its very colours, Harud feels deliberately muted. The film’s palette sticks close to the chilly half-light of an autumn evening—the buses, the interiors of houses, even the jackets and phirans never stray far from dull blues and grays, only interrupting them occasionally with the rich gold of fallen leaves.

At one level, Harud documents the unremarkable ordinariness of life in Srinagar: there are autos, there are red Marutis with PRESS signs, there are hawks in the sky at twilight, and young men who loll about in parks talking about imaginary football teams and dreaming of making it big. But it also shows you the walls with ‘Azadi’ scrawled in ink on every pillar, the slow-motion violence of identification parades, the guns pointing you in frame after frame that thread the slowness of the everyday with menace. And yet, when this violence erupts—when the stone is thrown, when the grenade bursts, when the restaurant is bombed—it is absorbed back into the everyday, almost as unremarkable as the stifled fear that preceded it.
The film gestures constantly to the crisscrossing registers in which ‘Kashmir’ is pictured, saying a great deal about the politics of images, without spelling it out. A photo studio plays ‘Tareef karoon kya uski’ in the background, but the pretty girl whose pictures have been developed is mourning a lost lover. Rafiq’s friend posing like a hero elicits an angry remark about ‘tourist photos’ from a news photographer whom we have earlier seen haggling for a better price for his pictures. The famous 1948 Cartier-Bresson photograph of veiled Kashmiri women has someone ask if it is Afghanistan. A Delhi journalist’s smiling P2C about the arrival of mobile phones in Kashmir is just patronising enough to echo the Central government ‘gift’ she is documenting.

Bashir has made a film of great restraint, in which many things crying out to be said are left deliberately unspoken. In its slowed narration, its often silent contemplation of landscape and faces, its reduced dialogues and its use of symbols (the short-circuiting wire, the falling leaf, the lamb readied for slaughter), Harud seems inspired not so much by Iranian cinema as by the melancholy minimalism of the new Turkish cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan (I was especially reminded of Distant) and Semih Kaplanoğlu.

It is not an easy film to watch, especially for the unaccustomed viewer—regardless of dialogues dubbed into Urdu/Hindi—but it is often a rewarding one.

First published on Firstpost.

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