The opening scene of No Fathers in Kashmir features its protagonist, a Kashmir-born British citizen named Noor (Zara Webb), telling her friend that she’s going to Kashmir on holiday. Her friend, who is also of South Asian descent, ignorantly tells her to take a picture with a terrorist, off-handedly naming Al-Qaeda and Taliban. Soon after, the words “Based on true stories of the world’s most secret war” appear on the screen.
Quite succinctly, writer-director Ashvin Kumar outlines the lens he wants to explore this world through.
The British teen who barely knows anything about her roots, the inadequate understanding of the Kashmir conflict among those unaffected by it, the manner in which news of the Valley’s grim realities have been kept within its borders, all represent a journey of an outsider — for outsiders.
The film’s core narrative is a process of discovery. Noor’s arrival in Kashmir starts a journey to find out what happened to her father.
The reason for the visit is that Noor’s mother, Zainab (Natasha Mago), wants to marry a foreign services officer, Wahid (Sushil Dahiya), which she cannot do unless her current in-laws agree to legally declare their son dead. Noor, who has grown up believing that her father left her mother, gets a shock when Parveena (Maya Sarao), the wife of one of her father’s friends, tells her that he was actually taken by the army.
This serves as a catalyst in Noor’s life as it gives her a single-minded resolve to find out what happened to her father. Her quest is symbolic of the struggle of Kashmir’s 'half-widows' and 'half-orphans' and all family members of the 'disappeared' men of the Valley. At the same time, it contrasts Noor with full-time residents of Kashmir for whom such disappearances have become a way of life. Parveena’s husband also disappeared with Noor’s father, Basheer — but a struggle for a livelihood doesn’t allow her the privilege of searching for him.
The world of No Fathers in Kashmir is a small and simple one but encompasses a much bigger and more complex one.
Noor’s grandparents — Abdul Rashid (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) and Halima (Soni Razdan) — symbolise the Kashmir that has simply learned to live with loss and grief. Parveena represents the women whose lives have become a mire of sexual exploitation and scraping by.
Arshid (Ashvin Kumar) signifies the few men who make it back, albeit scarred for life and radicalised, despite being highly educated. Parveena’s son, Majid (Shivam Raina), captures the lost innocence of the Valley’s half-orphans and serves to highlight Noor’s privilege of being a British citizen. And Wahid embodies those in power who are completely apathetic to the plight of Kashmiris.
The film’s portrayal of the army is a mixed bag. In parts, it's humanised, but often paints it as one-note villains. (Source: YouTube screengrab)
The writing, however, isn’t without flaws. Ashvin Kumar’s Arshid, though extremely important, is somewhat caricatured as an extremely conservative Muslim who dreams of an Islamic state and a double-agent who pretends to work for militants as well as the army. His beliefs lack conviction, possibly because they’re misfits in the context of Kashmir’s separatist movement. As a result, he comes across as overly didactic. When Noor finds out about him playing both sides, a potentially life-threatening event, he does nothing to silence her — which comes off as contrived.
Even attempts at creating an air of childlike innocence around Noor and Majid involve actions by the characters that seem inexplicable — despite being aware of Kashmir’s oppressive climate, Majid poses with a gun in order to get Noor her photo with a 'terrorist', and even agrees to set this as his Facebook profile picture. It seems absolutely bizarre and only exists to set up a plot point later in the film.
The film’s portrayal of the army is a mixed bag. In parts, it seeks to humanise it by showing the kindness and suffering of its soldiers. But often, it paints its officers as one-note villains who lack any empathy. Their actions too, are occasionally illogical and only serve to create melodrama.
Attempts at creating an air of childlike innocence also involve actions by the characters that seem inexplicable. (Source: YouTube screengrab)
Ashvin Kumar’s visualisation of Kashmir as the most militarised zone on the planet deserves a special mention.
A shot of a number of soldiers having tea on a boat brilliantly captures how a symbol of Kashmir’s status as a tourist’s delight and disproportionately large army presence have blended together to create the new normal.
The cinematography by Jean-Marc Selva is a standout as the camera becomes a key instrument in the film’s narrative. The Kashmir it shows has vestiges of raw beauty — but its violent past has seeped into each shot. The bleakness of its reality is seen in the grey that dominates every frame. The grey tint is often juxtaposed against images from Noor’s camera phone, which show a far more cheerful, Instagrammised version of the Valley. Handheld shots are used conservatively at the right moments to complement the chaos, uncertainty and violence of the lives of the characters.
Performances by the film’s lead cast are found wanting, perhaps due to the clunky dialogue which, more than anything, reveals that the film is primarily aimed at international audiences that will rely on subtitles.
Veterans Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Soni Razdan do the best with what they have, but the three leads — Zara Webb, Shivam Raina and Ashvin Kumar — are unconvincing at best.
Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Soni Razdan do the best — the others are unconvincing. (Source: YouTube screengrab)
Webb is almost robotic — very few things seem to really elicit a believable reaction from her. Raina is bogged down with English dialogue alien to his character, and Kumar simply does not have the screen presence required to play a character of such significance. However, the reason for issues in casting would appear obvious, given that it is a highly controversial film with the budgetary constraints that accompany crowd-sourcing.
The film begins with Noor going to Kashmir and ends with her leaving it. As her car drives away, Majid chases it but eventually gives up. It drives home the film’s message. Outsiders have the luxury to tune out the Valley’s suffering because they have no real stake in Kashmir. Their ideas about what happens in this heaven-turned-hell-on-earth are barely the tip of an iceberg too big for them to comprehend. Past the garbled information that comes through all filters, there is a world of hurt.