“Noble and necessary, but flawed throughout.”
Since 1947, the region of Kashmir has been in perpetual conflict. India, Pakistan, China, and militant groups have been vying for control ever since the British partition of India, which split the Kashmiri population along religious lines. It has escalated into three wars between India and Pakistan. Skirmishes and attacks are common. Last year, a suicide bomber killed 40, sparking a new wave of retaliations on both sides. The conflict has been the cause of thousands of deaths and will undoubtedly cause more.
No Fathers in Kashmir is a film about the savage divides of country, religion, family, and status. While the film is undeniably flawed, it does justice to the complexity of the Kashmir conflict, and the lives of the people tangled up in it. The production itself was even impacted by the conflict: in 2016, the initial shooting plan had to be cancelled after the popular militant, Burhan Wani, was killed. Kashmir was placed under lockdown as protests erupted and insurgency flared up; the shoot was delayed by six months. After rescheduling, the project stumbled again as filmmaking in Himalayan winter on a tight schedule proved impossible.
However, by no small miracle, the film eventually did get made. Directed by Ashvin Kumar, whose Oscar-nominated short, Little Terrorist, also concerned the Indo-Pakistani border, it follows a British-Kashmiri girl named Noor (Zara Webb) who travels to her absent father’s home village in Kashmir. It doesn’t take long for Noor to realise that her father didn’t leave her mother as she was told – he was “disappeared” by the Indian forces. Noor, with the help of local boy Majid (Shivam Raina) sets out to find the truth of what happened to her father.
His case is common – the film is based on the hundreds of forced disappearances which have taken place in Kashmir. No Fathers in Kashmir is about one village, but it could be about many; each village has its own complications; each family has its own history. The film is best when it grapples with the seemingly irreconcilable differences which tear communities apart: an old friend of Noor’s father, Arshid (played by Kumar), is an Islamic nationalist, fighting with the militants for an Islamic Kashmir; but Noor’s new step-father is an Indian official. The tensions between members of the same community is palpable. Noor’s mother wants her dead husband’s parents to sign their son’s death certificate so she can move on with her life, but this would mean letting the Indian authorities off the hook for his murder. “What am I, a widow or a wife?” she asks in one of the film’s most thoughtful moments.
It’s a shame, then, that the film isn’t always so potent. Much of the difficulty lies with Noor, upon whose shoulders most of the narrative rests. As a character, she isn’t up to the task – her blossoming feelings for Majid fail to provide a compelling through-line to navigate the intricacies of the village relations. She ends up as the least interesting person in the film – which is an issue when she has the most screen time. The blankness of her character can be explained by her function in the story: she’s a vessel through which the audience is intended to learn. But this suggests that the film’s desired audience is foreign, not Kashmiri, Indian or Pakistani. This seems a shame – a film about the Kashmiri people should be for Kashmiri people (yes, Noor is Kashmiri too, but this duality isn’t convincingly explored). Ultimately the film itself feels foreign; it nobly illuminates some important issues, but its authenticity is limited.
Kumar also has his limitations as a director. The cast is wildly uneven, a sure sign of inattentive direction – Raina as Majid is charming, likeable, and above all convincing, but Webb struggles to connect to the Kashmiri cast. She puts in a brave, laudable performance, but she lacks the experience to make it believable. The visuals work best when they let Kashmir speak for itself: the natural beauty of the region is spectacular, and the man-made chaos amongst it is a source of great sadness. But – disappointingly, for a film in which history is so important – it’s too busy barrelling forward with plot to fully appreciate the surroundings. However, Noor does incessantly take pictures on her iPhone, which Kumar shares with the audience – a technique which alternates between insightful and irritating.
For all its faults, No Fathers in Kashmir doesn’t stint on honesty. There’s no attempt to wrestle the Kashmir conflict into a pat tale of friendship or love. Reconciliation between characters is boldly scarce. There are loose ends; there are scars that don’t heal. Yet the story remains one of hope, tentatively optimistic despite recognising the depth of the current situation. No Fathers in Kashmir is an important film, even when it isn’t a good one.
Dir: Ashvin Kumar
Prod: Ashvin Kumar
Cast: Zara Webb, Shivam Raina, Ashvin Kumar
Release date: 2020