8 September 2019

No connection home

(This was my Mirror column on 11 August 2019, six days after the Indian government announced the abrogation of Article 370, stripped Jammu and Kashmir of statehood, and bifurcated the region into two Union Territories -- while simultaneously plunging it into a total communications shutdown that continues indefinitely.)

The innocent Kashmiri child saved from a vengeful, violent future may still work for a Hindi film audience. But is it a delusional hope?

In Aijaaz Khan's Hamid, a CRPF soldier finds himself in an ongoing conversation with a little Kashmiri boy. One day, Hamid calls from outside when Abhay is on his way to disperse an ongoing protest. “I hope you're not with the stone-pelters! Go home!” Abhay yells into the phone. “I don't throw stones,” says Hamid. “Abbu used to say, you throw stones, they will shoot. And stones can't compete with bullets.” “Your Abbu made perfect sense,” the soldier agrees approvingly. “And Abbu also said, only Allah has the right to take away life, no one else,” the child patters on. “Tell me, have you ever taken a life?” The soldier's pleased expression crumbles.

Hamid, which won the National Award for Best Urdu Film last week (and can be streamed online), is built on a one-line premise: when the seven-year-old Hamid connects to Abhay, he thinks he's on the phone with Allah. Why does Hamid so badly want to speak to Allah? To urge him to send back his father, who disappeared a year ago -- and who he has been told is now with Allah.

The film uses the cuteness of its child protagonist in manipulative ways, draws out its one-line premise to excess, and often feels stilted in its performances. But in scenes like the one I described above, it opens up the possibility of conversation. The innocence of the child asking the question forces the adult to take a moment to confront his guilt – instead of responding, as Abhay does the rest of the time, with a torrent of thoughtless anger. In a time when all questions asked by Kashmiris seem only to elicit taunting counter-questions, when both grief and grievance is sought to be angrily bulldozed into compliance, such a cinematic moment is of great value.

The child protagonist is not a new device through which to view a conflict zone, and the effects do not need to be childish or cloying. Think of the marvellous clear-eyedness of Andrei Tarkovsky 1962 classic Ivan's Childhood, of Ziad Doueiri's atmospheric debut West Beirut (1999), Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi's moving Turtles Can Fly (2004) or Yosef Baraki's underwatched Kabul-set film Mina Walking (2015). But Indian cinema hasn't really got there yet, certainly not with regard to Kashmir.

The best we seem to manage is the child poised on the precipice of losing his innocence – which in the case of Kashmir, seems to invariably involve losing him to a violent movement for Azadi. In 2008, Santhosh Sivan directed a film called Tahaan, also named for its child protagonist, and when I went back to watch it this week (it is also available online), I was amazed by how much it shared with Hamid. Sivan's film, like Khan's, centres on a young boy with a missing father, and a grieving mother who hasn't yet given up, but whose finances and hopes are fast dwindling. Unlike in Hamid, the object of Tahaan's cinematic quest isn't directly his father, the 8-year-old spends the film trying to get back his donkey from a merchant (played, interestingly, by Anupam Kher). But like HamidTahaan contains scenes in which the protagonist's mother makes a harrowing journey to identify what might be her husband's corpse, and later, joins a silent assembly of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (the APDP is a real UN-backed human rights organisation founded by Praveena Ahangar).

Sivan's English title for Tahaan was The Child With a Grenade, and his child actor spends a lot of the film being roped into transporting -- and almost throwing -- a bomb. There was a deep disingenuousness to that film, especially the way it staves off the threat of violence to produce an immediate, miraculous justice. Tahaan's delusional ending made it a political travesty in the name of a fable.

Ten years later, Hamid and his mother have given up hope of his father's return. But the film's depiction of their calm acceptance of this terrible injustice may be another sort of delusion.

Talha Arshad Reshi, who plays Hamid, has won the National Award for Best Child Artiste (along with three others). But the total communication shutdown since Monday's announcement of revocation of Article 370 and bifurcation of J&K has meant that Aijaz Khan has been unable to share the news of the awards with Reshi.

In July 2016, during one of the worst shutdowns (after Burhan Wani's death), a ScoopWhoop reporter asked six children in Kashmir what they thought of when they thought of India. 

“India is police who beats boys. I hate India,” said one. “India is a cunning country. They oppress us. If it would have been our own country they wouldn’t have killed so many people. We don’t like to be with India,” said another. “India is tyrant. India kills people and disappears them. I want free Kashmir. I don’t want to be with India or with Pakistan. I am afraid to go out. Policemen can do anything to me. I can’t trust them. They can kill me. I rarely study. And I can’t play outside. Who should I play with? The Indian army men on the street?” said a third.

No Hamid is likely to talk to Abhay. Even if his phone connects again.

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