Ever since he took the Road to Ladakh almost a decade ago, filmmaker Ashvin Kumar’s has been taking the route not taken. He followed up that 48-minute film that almost didn’t get made with the Oscar nominated 15-minute short ‘Little Terrorist’ (2005) that helped in the release of a Pakistani 12-year-old boy who had crossed the border to retrieve his cricket ball, ‘The Forest’ (2008) an environmental thriller mostly shot in Corbett National Park and Bandhavgarh National Park and more recently, the controversial ‘Dazed in Doon’ (2010) that was initially commissioned and later disowned by his alma mater The Doon School on the grounds that he had shown the school in bad light.
His last film ‘Inshallah, Football’ was cleared with an Adult certificate after a long battle with the Censors. Tired of constantly having to assert his freedom of expression, Ashvin Kumar on Republic Day this year, went ahead and released his new film ‘Inshallah, Kashmir’ on the internet. (You can watch the film here). The film has since got over 50,000 views and generated a heated debate for his criticism of the Indian armed forces in Kashmir. We talk to Ashvin Kumar about the aftermath and his journey down roads not taken by his peers.
What was the response after you put up your film on the internet bypassing the Censors?
In no time, there were about 300-400 comments, some violent criticism, right-wing vitriolic that my film was funded by fundamentalists… it was not easily digested by some but the balanced comments outnumbered these voices. But it was surprising that over 50,000 people watched it, fanned by just posts to friends over Facebook. There’s a market out there for films like these. It was a last minute knee-jerk reaction when an assistant suggested we just go ahead and put it up on the internet after what happened to ‘Inshallah, Football’. The only bit of publicity we got was through social networks. Facebook and Twitter and it just spread.
Tell us about your personal journey during the making the Inshallah films – did that in any way affect how you looked at the concept of state and nation? Have you been called anti-national for making these and how do you usually respond to that?
Just like we have fundamental rights, we have fundamental duties. When you see yourself in a place that’s the whirlwind of the conflict, you have to do something. I didn’t go there to make Inshallah, Kashmir. I went there originally to make a film on football. While making that film, I saw the other stuff. We were given unprecedented access into Kashmir and people who aren’t willing to talk opened up with honest testaments about the accounts of people who have been picked up by the State and subsequently ‘disappeared’. How do you explain 10,000 people missing in Kashmir? How do you explain picking up civilians and pass that off as national security and have it continue for the last 20 years?
Cinema is the one thing has censorship. But for every other medium, if people are offended, they go to court. But for cinema, censorship continues. It’s an archaic governing body that was enforced years ago by the coloniser. The British are no longer using it. When I left to Kashmir to shoot ‘Inshallah, Football’ I came across the most horrific things. I had no idea what I would find. I thought I had done my research but other than government propaganda, there’s no material out there on Kashmir. I like to keep myself informed about what’s going on. If this is how little I knew, then what chance does anyone have to know about what’s being perpetrated there? It’s a situation that needs to be discussed. We think of us as a democracy when there are still certain parts of country that’s run by the police state. These are things that irk me. I was a firm believer in armed forces, we looked up to a whole bunch of officers from the 70s and the 80s. But today, I am faced with disillusionment about what has happened to us. An entire generation of Kashmiris are not happy with us. How do you deal with them? For the last 20 years, they have seen India as a man with the gun. No child, nobody reaches the age of 14 or 15 without having any violent interaction with the Indian armed forces, without having been humiliated or slapped around. Journalists who write on such matters would have their phones tapped. That’s the level of intimidation and indignation that led me to make this film. A patriot would be shamefaced about this. He would be ashamed to know what is going on. Patriotism doesn’t mean launching a flag, it’s the idea of freedom. That’s what we fought for. Freedom for every citizen of the country. Let us walk in the streets, protest, allow journalists to write stories, not whitewash in the name of national security. Even freedom to SMS was something that is a recent development in Kashmir. The Indian state comes across as a heavy hand. A real patriot is he who comes out and says there’s something wrong here. The first step towards reconciliation is acknowledgement. You must have strength of character to look into the mirror and say we did something wrong.
Where you worried about the risk of endangering lives of ex-militants who came on camera given the sensitivity of the situation?
It continues to worry me but I found the bravest people over there. I am against violence. These people when they spoke on camera were like: “What more can we lose?” They had come on camera to make a point. Kashmir deserves a 100 films. If you have a problem with my film, why don’t you go make yours. The answer to a movie is another movie. Not banning it. Why repeat the stuff that has been in public domain? Every document written on Kashmir has only the State’s version. The government point of view has exhaustively been covered.
There’s a short byte/ reaction from Omar Abdullah that’s cut short abruptly to black in your film? (The film has a scene where a militant gives his version first hand to the CM Omar Abdullah)
I like the guy. He seems like a good guy. Though personally, I think he could do more. He’s young and he’s made some efforts. He went on camera to say that though he’s heard these stories before, it was the first time he was hearing them straight from a militant. You need to meet these guys who form a huge part of your electorate and see what’s happening. From whatever I have been reading, he’s doing his bit to rectify the situation but I am doubtful of what I read in the papers. I shouldn’t be saying this to a journalist.
How does Censorship affect the economics of documentary filmmaking given that the avenues for revenues seem limited?
It massacres, it slaughters it. A small part of it why I put it up online was that people aren’t going to watch it. I called for RTI about the CBFC discussion on Inshallah, Football and read that they found that the characters are not believable. It costs 25,000 to 30,000 to make an appeal to the Censor board. You have to rent a Films Division theatre, serve them tea and snacks, show it in 35 mm. The idea seems to make it more and more difficult. The appeal committee is more conservative than the censor board. And if you aren’t happy, you go to the High court and then Supreme court. It takes 18 months or three years before you might get a favourable verdict. Every little recourse is there to frustrate.
The Censor board does not realise it is now called the Central Board of Certification. I favour certification, CBFC should restrict itself to certifying, not banning. It should comprise of people who understand cinema. It should be run by the film industry itself. The guidelines should be crystal clear, not whimsical, not somebody’s idea of patriotism. Given all this, the money you make out of India as a documentary filmmaker is like pocket money. The Indian film distribution system is particularly obsessed with a certain kind of cinema. It’s lazy, unimaginative, run by people with very little qualification. It’s a round robin with the same people are judging, churning out the same nonsense every time. Education in cinema is wholly deficient. It’s not surprising that you don’t get to watch films that test your boundaries. It’s a business run by gamblers putting their money on hope.
An edited version of this interview appeared here.
Watch the first seven minutes free below: