It takes a Kashmiri living in Kashmir to be able to discern what has or has not changed for its people since 1990, the year that transformed the place in ways none would have imagined. The armed conflict and subsequent militarisation have had a profound effect on the way life is lived here. Imagine living with the knowledge that you are being manipulated and monitored—even your thoughts— constantly, and you can do nothing about it except keep modifying your behaviour, a conscious condition that becomes your life.
This difficult condition, complex and impossible to fathom from any single point of view, is what Aamir Bashir, actor-turned-director and a Kashmiri himself, has attempted to portray in his debut film, Harud. Harud, the season of autumn, is a prelude to the bleakness of a Kashmiri winter, which must be endured in the hope of a future spring of life. And, it is that hope—a violent yearning for azaadi or freedom—that the film opens with, offering an overarching context to the story that follows.
The film revolves around Rafiq, a young man whose brother, a small-time photographer, disappeared during the early years of a bloody conflict. Each time he appears on screen, Rafiq is quiet, sad and tense—even while at home with his father, a depressed traffic policeman, and his mother, a woman among thousands of others struggling to keep the hope of finding their loved ones alive. Like tens of thousands of Muslim boys during the early 1990s, Rafiq, too, attempts to cross the Line of Control for arms training in the hope of fighting Indian forces to liberate Kashmir. But he is brought back, worsening his sense of helplessness.
The world Rafiq inhabits has nothing to be happy about. It is a world of gun-wielding soldiers, sandbag bunkers, tangled barbed wire demarcating each space, checkpoints, militant Kashmiris, his somewhat detached friends, anger and an overbearing sense of siege that gets under your skin. With excellent camera work, the director employs a distinct cinematic style to portray the atmosphere in which you locate his central character Rafiq. This all-pervasive reality that continues to define life in Kashmir forms the inescapable background and ambience of the film’s central narrative.
Rafiq’s lower middle-class upbringing and personal journey intersects with a number of stories that have their own smaller and localised contexts, not always in sync with the larger narrative the film traces. His friends have their own way of dealing with the situation and nurture fantastical ambitions. Rafiq’s struggle to find himself amid the uncertain conditions of the conflict brings him in touch with a senior journalist whose life he helps save when unknown gunmen shoot at him. A large number of civilian killings in Kashmir have been attributed to ‘unknown gunmen’, generally understood by people as killers backed by the State’s security forces.
The restless Rafiq suddenly starts imagining a purpose when he stumbles across his brother’s camera (with an undeveloped film inside) at home and uses it to garner help from the journalist. But again, the unskilled young man finds himself exploited and abused by an arrogant local conflict photographer. His undefined dream is never fulfilled.
In the attempt to make Rafiq a guide to Kashmir and the conditions its people endure, the film often overburdens its central character. He bears the indignities inflicted by a newspaper vendor he works for and wades through the world of journalism to witness how Indian journalists report an event like the introduction of cellphone services in Kashmir as the Central Government’s ‘Eid gift’ to its beleaguered population. He also has to bear the burden of seeing his friends collaborate with the havoc that militarisation has wreaked on Kashmir. There is also a strand thrown in about the distress sale of ancestral property by a Kashmiri Pandit, which is used to highlight the near absence of the community in their homeland.
The film becomes very interesting when Rafiq prints out photographs that his brother had shot. In one photo, he discovers a girl whose brother, too, had disappeared. You expect some sort of relationship to develop with the girl. But following and chasing her whenever he finds an opportunity leads to nothing, just like most other strands of the larger story. However, he begins to understand his mother’s pain, and accompanies her to the monthly silent sit-in protests by the relatives of those who have disappeared, demanding to know their whereabouts. The poignant protest is still staged every month in a park in Srinagar, ignored by the government and largely even by the media.
Once, in the quiet of the night, when Rafiq is chatting with his visiting militant friends, his father experiences an overwhelming sense of restlessness. Perhaps he feels a need to save his son from an impending danger he senses. He runs out to the street. He is shown approaching a military bunker but quickly returns home, crushed, when ordered to raise his hands. The act, brilliantly performed by Reza Naji, is left open to interpretation.
The story ends with Rafiq’s killing outside his house, perhaps by militants who suspect that his policeman father had informed security forces of their presence. However, there is no direct indication that the military, whose soldiers surround the house after the father’s appearance near the bunker, is not involved in Rafiq’s murder.
Most of the actors in the film are amateurs, except the father, played by the accomplished Iranian actor Reza Naji, whose dubbed dialogues in tacky colloquial Urdu don’t do justice to the calibre of his acting. Such a film ought to have been made in the Kashmiri language to retain certain idiomatic inflexions alongside its original visual ambience and location.
If you have actually lived in Kashmir, you will realise the story of Harud is informed by many real life stories, but all looked at from a roving point of view to fit them into a single narrative. But there is one moment, when Rafiq’s militant friend tells him “Jannat ka raasta Pakistan se ho kar nahin jata (the way to heaven is not via Pakistan),” that dramatically shifts the political context of what is essentially a liberal film.
Parallel to its story line is a rich visual narrative that attempts to look inward into what militarised political conflict does to a society. The film is full of metaphors, and ends with the Abrahamic symbolism of sacrifice, not of an animal but a Kashmiri, Rafiq, on the day of Eid-ul-Zuha.
That any film on Kashmir can be contentious, the makers of Harud appear acutely conscious of. Therefore, they employ a particular kind of imagery and visual texture that alludes to the overwhelming Kashmiri yearning to win agency. Since that yearning is routinely ignored or dismissed outright in the ‘mainstream’, director Bashir approaches the subject as an artwork open to the viewer’s sensibilities.
At the end, Harud draws you in and forces you to experience and ponder the brittleness and bitterness of the harsh socio-political circumstances that suffocate Kashmir today.