Sunday, February 16, 2020

How the "camp life" was brought to screen in Shikara

Guest post by Nitin Dhar on how the "camp life" was brought to screen in Shikara (2020). How the sets were not just movie sets but more than that. 

I was born in 1993, three years after my family like all other Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) families were forced out of our homeland, Kashmir by the radical Islamist terror outfits and separatist groups for their aim of 'Aazaad Kashmir' to cut Kashmir off India and make it an Islamic state. Selective targeting of renowned Hindus in Kashmir began from mid 1989, followed by gang rapes of Hindu women, abductions, loots, burning of our houses and desecration of temples. It was a massacre and an ethnic cleansing on religious basis on the soil of independent democratic India.

My family lived in the refugee camps in tents where my parents got married. Like Shiv and Shanti in 'Shikara', the only thing they had was love and hope through all these years of exile. I was born in Jammu and lived in refugee camp called Purkhoo Camp till the age of 14. The only thing that all parents in the camp focussed on was educating their children and not letting their religious persecution sow seeds of hate or revenge. It truly was our resilience and belief in education, love and peace that made us stand on our own feet. We did not pick up stones or guns. We chose pens, peace and hope. And here we are prospering, even in exile.

Almost three decades after the the Kashmiri Pandits' ethnic cleansing, I got the opportunity to work on 'Shikara'. It was an extraordinary learning for me, like thousands of those young Kashmiri Pandits who participated in the film and portrayed themselves in it, to witness the tragedies our families went through before our birth.

Ever since I started pursuing photography and filmmaking as my career, I used to think many times that I would definitely have photographed our life in the camps had I been a photographer then, to record images of our tragedy for the world to know.

My grandfather passed away in 1997 due to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). During the early years of us living in the Purkhoo Refugee Camp in the isolated outskirts of Jammu, he would wear his pheran (long woolen coat) in the scorching heat and run away from the quarter thinking he going back to Kashmir. In less than a kilometre he would faint and fall on the road. People who recognised him would bring him home on their shoulders. He would then take a while to recover. This repeated several times. I will never forget him bringing pieces of bricks and wood to build a small house model and tell me that's how we would make our house again, a house that we could call home in Kashmir. He was not alone, there were thousands of old men and women who went through PTSD and succumbed to it. Such PTSD is also visible in obsession about news on Kashmir and watching DD Kashir no matter where we live in exile. Besides that, hundreds died because of snake bites, scorpion bites, sun strokes, brain tumour, cardiac arrests etc. For me, every death in exile is martyrdom. It was not just the Kalashnikovs in the hands of Islamic Jehadists in Kashmir that made the Jhelum weep of the Hindu blood, but also the deaths in exile due to the direct consequences of the forced displacement, lest we forget.

On the sets of Shikara, I met many such fellow Kashmiri Pandit refugees who suffer from PTSD. Who wept looking at the recreated camps and who's chins shivered during scenes that haunt them in their dreams even today.

People who lived in the extreme cold climate of Kashmir, had to suddenly suffer temperature above 48°C, face scarcity of drinking water, electricity and no sanitation or health care. It takes unimaginable courage to look forward and build prosperous lives despite being brutalised and persecuted by one's own neighbours, and being failed by one's own state and fellow citizens.
Nevertheless, we stand united in our belief in unity, education, justice and non-violence, come what may.

The refugee masses in 'Shikara' are not actors. They are real Kashmiri Pandit refugees who still live in Jagti Refugee Camp in the outskirts of Jammu. This film is the first of its kind.

When the tent camps were being recreated, I remember, Vinod Sir asking me to walk with him during our multiple recces to make sure of authenticity. He even asked me if I had things that the govt. might have provided when my family was in tents, and coincidentally I remembered that we still had an Usha table fan and a couple of blankets that were provided by NGOs and govt. I got them the next day and we put them in Shiv and Shanti's tent. Another short incident that I will never forget is when we got the refugees from Jagti Camp to the tent camp set, I overhead a little girl sitting in the lap of her mother inside one of the tents. As her mother was emotional and nostalgic, the little girl asked her, "Mumma, aap itne saare log itne chote se tent mein kaise rehte the"? There was silence. I bit my lower lip and walked away to hide tears swelling in my eyes as the mother gave her child a teary smile and a big hug. There are many such examples and stories from the sets of Shikara of how the realism of the sets reflected in the moist eyes and wistful smiles.

Sonal ma'am [Sonal Sawant], who was our production designer made everything look so real. I was myself always surprised as to how she would make the texture of the mud, aging of the tents and the tiles in the narrow lanes of pucca quarters resembles the ones I had in my memory.
Ranga Sir [Rangarajan Rambadran], who was our cinematographer and my HOD did a magician's job with his imagery, giving us first set of pictures that represent our painful past with so much authenticity.

I can never forget my chats with Rahul Pandita about our exodus and the great event of this film finally being shot. He and his extraordinary book Our Moon Has Blood Clots, have been the source of inspiration for this film and for me in many many ways. He's our hero. Our real life Shiv.
Here are some more pictures that I present from the sets of Shikara. Hope these images will reach hearts and pull out some kindness. It's never too late for solidarity and support.


You can catch the full set of pics and stories at instagram of Nitin Dhar [@wordslivelonger] where the whole series is available there.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Artist in Exile - Invoking the grief within, with shaky hands

Guest Post by Jheelaf Parimu, daughter of Painter Late Bansi Parimu. This piece was triggered by the film Shikara (2020).

As we complete 30 years in exile, I reflect on my recurring journey of disconnect. I go back to more than three decades to revisit the routes I navigated, that seemed disparate from my co-travellers. My life in Kashmir is like a dream playing repeatedly on a spool where I recall the image of my late father as someone secular to the core. That we co-existed peacefully with a Muslim majority is a fact, that there were instances of subtle undercurrent of distrust towards Pandits is a reality too. Precisely in that milieu my father like many others followed humanism and compassion, that became my ideology in my growing years by default and consequently by design. My DNA defies what most like to call ‘logic’.

My parents in Ganderbal, Kashmir, 1971.
Takhleeq (creation) our modest cottage, was an artistic marvel designed and built brick by brick by my father in 1968 – it was his sanctum sanctorum. Years later he purchased his sister’s house, adjacent to Takhleeq, and named it Tassavur (imagination). Both my parents were artists, wrote and spoke Urdu fluently, were multifaceted and self-made. They rubbed shoulders with many a talent, from Begum Akhtar to M.F. Hussain. Music and Art were their religion, money was scarce, dreams were simple, passion was abundant. Life was merciful.
There may have been a disconnect between my reality and the reality that most Kashmiris lived or projected. The disjoint being purely a consequence of being raised in an unconventional and liberal yet somewhat sheltered set up. My experiences were different, my mindset was different, my life was different – by no means perfect or superior. I was privileged.
My father and my younger sister, Takhleeq in backdrop and Tassavur seen partly, Srinagar 1987.
My reality changed the night of 19th January 1990 when I first heard the announcements from the mosques, the decibel moved higher with each elevated slogan, the footsteps grew louder on the streets. Like many of us, I too hoped it was transitory and would soon be under control. 
A Muslim woman, who was a stranger to us, kept calling on our landline that night, reassuring my mother that everything would be fine, she even knew my father was away. Her husband had been summoned to join the protest too, she confessed. Perhaps that was the faith and camaraderie we were habituated to; the unpreparedness for the events that would unfold was therefore inevitable.

My mother decided to pack us off for few days, opting to stay back till our father returned. Clearly, our family was left off the Governor’s fictional guest list, the unaffordable flight tickets served as curfew pass; the journey was uneventful. My sister was sent to Jammu, I landed in Delhi, both oblivious to what lay in store.
Ignorance was not going to be bliss this time round.
My mother [Jaya Parimu] in center, with her sister, brothers and the legendary Begum Akhtar.
Srinagar in early 70’s
Come July 1990, my father, who up until then was refusing to leave Kashmir, arrived in Jammu. Still in denial, still hoping things would settle down in few months. The whole family gathered there, trying to figure out what to do with our lives, with each passing day the reality started sinking in; we were not going back home. My Maasi (mother’s sister), who had migrated too, owned a house in Jammu and readily accommodated us. We struggled to adapt to the new environs.

By now my father was restless. Days were dark, nights were long with no sign of dawn.

My short stay in Jammu had exposed me to a myriad of challenges my community was facing due to our sudden exodus - the initial hostility and suspicion from locals, the minuteless meetings in Geeta Bhawan, multiple members of a family holed up in one room tenements, the serpentine relief queues, sunstrokes, scorpio and snake bites, termites vining up the walls, transit camps, waitlisted appointments with renowned Neurologist Dr. Sushil Razdan, premature deaths and obituaries in Daily Excelsior, encountering hordes of Pandits in mini buses with moist towels on their heads, trying to beat the heat.

And my beautiful grandmother transitioning from a graceful sari to a frowned upon paper thin cotton maxi, her exemplary ‘survivor spirit’ intact. The list can never be exhaustive, the pain can never be articulated - we certainly had not chosen this. Yet, I must admit, I was far more privileged.

My father, in those briefest 12 months of exile, did everything in his power to darn the shreds. He even secured my admission in the prestigious IP College in Delhi University under migrant quota, mother had preferred I study in Jammu. My parents had limited resources but had sensibly invested in a small house on the outskirts of Delhi in Ghaziabad, barring that we had nothing left. A non-Kashmiri friend suggested they name it Swarika - an abode of art and music- my parents were not destined to rebuild nests.

My mother, a Professor in the Camp College continued living in Jammu with my sister who was enrolled in Presentation Convent. I moved with my father to Ghaziabad, we had to share the house with our sympathetic tenant who did not wish to render us homeless all over again. Swarika remained a dream.

My father was even contributing to the formation of ‘Panun Kashmir’ in its very early days. I am not sure what he was thinking, perhaps he would have steered it in a different direction had he lived longer. He was possibly going through his own manthan(churning) at that point. In the same breath he was not losing sight of reality and would often sigh “the common Kashmiri is now trapped between the security forces and the militants, where will he go?”. He was thinking a lot, about innumerable issues, while thoughts and intents of the heart were getting usurped by failing survival instincts.

I was frivolously revelling in my newly found freedom in Delhi, my father was withering away in melancholy, the shedding leaves of autumn were renouncing the ensuing seasons. Back in Kashmir I had known him as a fighter who had triumphed bigger battles single-handedly, a rebel, extremely strong willed and self-respecting, a non-conformist who did not believe in God but certainly in good deeds. Fearing that people’s respect and adulation for him would instinctively raise expectations of me, I would at times want to go into hiding. His imprint was so overpowering.

And here I was living with him in exile now, helplessly watching him shrivel and grieve, buried in sorrow, slowly becoming a nonentity. What ailed him?

One sultry evening in Ghaziabad, in his sparsely furnished bedroom cum studio, I saw him seated on his swivel chair facing the easel, gazing at an unfinished painting, his back towards me. I stepped closer to read his pain and then I heard the sobs. That was the first and the last time I saw my father break down. Kashmir was his salvation; clearly, he was choosing it over his young wife and loving daughters.

My mother nonetheless was accommodating, she suggested he return to Kashmir given his constant pining and yearning. He dismissed the suggestion “bu tarre’huh, magar su maahol keti ruud” (I would return but that ambience does not exist anymore), he was anything but bitter. A year of separation appeared like a lifetime to him. On 29th July 1991 he was gone, his galloping gangrene paled before his bleeding heart that perpetually lamented for home.

For once I wanted to live in my father’s shadow, but the mighty Chinar had fallen. I knew, life would never be the same.

The void became deeper, he could have lived but not to witness what ‘his Kashmir’ was turning into. Varied shades of ‘betrayal’ killed him - betrayed by the Indian state, by the institutional silence, by all those he considered his own, those who swore by him, revered him, trusted him, those Coffee House cronies, those aspirants he helped achieve political success without seeking recognition, those he mentored, groomed and supported silently and unconditionally, those who hailed him for his secular credentials. He was heartbroken. A bullet could not have done worse.

My mother turned out to be more resilient and resolute, after my father’s demise she kept returning to Kashmir; even courageously witnessed Takhleeq and Tassavur being taken down, to lay foundation for new homes for the new owners with new hopes. She had made a pact with destiny, ‘maahol’ notwithstanding. She made no claims, she was not going to wait for an invitation nor seek permission. And to her credit I got a little closure by visiting Kashmir, after 20 long years. Not many were as fortunate and are waiting till date.

As social media started gaining popularity, once again I became privy to innumerable firsthand accounts of Kashmiri Pandits and many facets of our collective tragedy. Consumed by my own survival and misfortunes, I had done nothing for my community, especially the underprivileged, the disconnect became evident. The suffering can never be compared, the humiliation can never be measured, the tragedy can never be underplayed.

Fast forward 2020, in my delusional optimism I still seek answers to countless questions, my father long gone, I can neither match his tenacity nor his foresight. However, as much as majority might want to justify political/religious aspirations, facts glare back - a innocuous ethnic minority persecuted, a community with no resolve to kill or terrorise, a minority that should have been protected not displaced, we were neither consulted nor given a choice – the gun alienated, the silence killed.

Those who refused to perform in the ‘Danse Macabre’ orchestrated by the devils, were not spared either; the syncretic social fabric was ripped apart, the mutual respect slaughtered, a whole generation raised on fabrications denying them the opportunity to seek truth; baseless insinuations that the victimized symbolized persecutors. Unquestionably human rights violations in Kashmir must not be brushed under the carpet, nor should the chronicles of betrayal be denied. The denial continues to betray.

While I am mustering courage, having watched the trailer and ‘behind the scenes’ of ‘Shikara’ and reading the mixed reviews from India, I am contemplating if it is creating a further rift between the already estranged communities. Truth be told, we need the state actors to play their role in place of movie directors, more so in backdrop of polarisation in the country. Needless to admit it has been my fervent desire, a film be made on our exodus. As Rahul Pandita rightly pointed, too much has been kept pent up for 30 years.

Insurmountable walls have been erected in place of steady bridges over these decades. Abyss has quadrupled the monsters.

The international release date of ‘Shikara’ awaits announcement, I may not even get to see it on the big screen, though I am visualizing myself in a cinema hall, both nervous and eager. I start vacillating between reality, utopia, dreams, slumber, wakefulness, wondering if there would ever be any ‘truth and reconciliation’ in my lifetime; will justice be delivered to Pandits, in an ideal world the first step would be acknowledgement.

I find myself transposed to a migrant camp where I discover the two communities, facing each other across a long wooden table. The table is laid, not for the ‘Last Supper’ but ‘Truth or Dare’. An intense game begins, few take turns to perform a dare, others put forth questions, candid responses are bartered. At the far end of the table I spot Haji Saab, seated right opposite him, my father in his swivel chair.

The game concludes, there are no winners.

My father speaks up ‘hum aayenge watan apne, magar su maahol keti ruud’. Dad was cremated in Delhi, I have no recollection of locale, I did not register anything, Raakh (ashes) could only travel to Chandrabhaga. Jhelum had changed its course.
Each one of us has our own ‘Shikara’ immured deep inside. It merits a vent.
My father in Dubai, 1978.

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