A few weeks ago, as I hit my bed in College Station, Texas, after yet another long day of work-from-home, I received a call from Ibrahim Baloch, my close friend and a film director, from Karachi.
“Shuja, get me a Kashmiri poet, I don’t know anything. Bye!” Ibrahim hung up.
I was startled. My tired mind suddenly sprang into action as I pondered the task. A Kashmiri poet? How in the world would I find one at such short notice? I panicked even further when I realised I didn’t know a single poet, Kashmiri or otherwise.
But before I delve deeper into this, let’s rewind a couple of months.
The beginning of the story
Last December, as I made my way to Houston airport to catch a flight home to Karachi, I came across a billboard with a bold heading in a tacky, bloody font screaming, “Free Kashmir!”
Growing up in Karachi, I’d been exposed to the Kashmir issue but I didn’t know anything particular about life in Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmir was, to me, a mythical place of beauty and conflict that I had seen in exotic Bollywood films and gory news coverage. And as a screenwriter and storyteller, I yearned to find out about what life in Kashmir was really like, stripped from the usual chest-thumping propaganda and exoticisation.
Enter Ibrahim Baloch, my childhood friend who recently transitioned to filmmaking from advertising after directing a well-received Pakistani commercial which we had worked on together.
In June this year, Ibrahim and I had come came across stories about Kashmiri women giving birth in miserable conditions during the post-Article 370-scrapping lockdown in Srinagar. Instantly, we decided to write a story about an eight-month pregnant Kashmiri girl, Gul-e-Rana, who is a victim of the curfew imposed in Srinagar following the reading of Article 370. Her misery and anxiety are compounded as she waits for her husband to return from work. In the current context of the COVID-19 lockdowns, the story of a curfew-like situation appealed to us even more.
However, writing the story was easier said than done. The first challenge we immediately faced as we set out to write the screenplay was: how do you write a story about a region that’s contested by three nuclear-armed countries without taking sides? We know politics in South Asia is heading deeper into blinding nationalistic fervour and conforming to any side would be the kiss of death for authentic storytelling.
Ibrahim and I decided that we would focus on the human element of the story and not add any sort of political flavour to the script. Our idea was to focus on the Kashmiri slice of life – a story that remains largely untold in mainstream South Asian storytelling.
But arriving at a shooting draft of Article 370 was not a piece of cake even after we’d made that decision. Ibrahim had a much more expansive vision of the movie that relied on the conventional tropes of mainstream cinema which was the result of his years-long spicy film diet of Bollywood films. I, on the other hand, had grown up on Hollywood and international cinema and my time at the Boston University MFA Screenwriting programme had only strengthened my attitude towards an offbeat execution of the story – a grittier take to authentically portray life in Kashmir. As per the traditions of Ibrahim-Shuja collaboration, we had screaming matches over our “visions” which resulted in bruised egos on both sides of our time zones. Perhaps, our confrontation seemed to reflect the tensions on both sides of the border.
A day passed and the full-blown anger of the two parties involved started losing steam as fear of the August 5 deadline gave way to empathy for each other’s vision. I understood how Ibrahim wanted to tell Kashmir’s story. He understood how I wanted to tell Kashmir’s story. After a ceasefire of egos, we jointly and wholeheartedly decided Article 370 was going to be a combination of two perspectives – a soft, poetic pace mixed with the stark jolts of the Kashmiri ecosystem.
With that in mind, we approached the co-founder of SEEME Productions in Karachi, Seemeen Naveed, who had worked with Ibrahim in the past on TV commercials and was looking to launch her new digital YouTube channel, Seeprime, with fresh and exciting content. As soon as she heard our pitch, she immediately supported the project and offered a budget of PKR 15-20 lakhs. Ibrahim was not used to such a number – he was used to scoring TV commercial deals for crores of rupees. To pull off a 16-minute short film of cinematic scale in a very short time period was certainly a gargantuan challenge.
Ibrahim and I didn’t think twice. We said yes and jumped right into it.
The voice that mattered
It was around that time that I received the call from Ibrahim demanding that we include a Kashmiri poet. During an introspective discussion, we had both realised that in telling the story about the world’s most embattled region, we had forgotten to include a Kashmiri voice that could add an authentic perspective.
That’s when Rumuz came into the picture, one of Kashmir’s leading female contemporary poets, thanks to an Indian friend who connected me with her. As soon as we said our salaams, it was clear that I had entered uncharted territory – here were a Pakistani and a Kashmiri from Srinagar instantly tearing down 73 years of distrust and separation by just asking simple things like, ‘How are you?’, ‘What are your hobbies?’, ‘Your Urdu sounds just like mine!’ and so much more.
I was in awe of every word Rumuz spoke because she became my window to a world unknown to me. She spoke candidly about the misrepresentation of Kashmiri narratives in Bollywood movies and was particularly furious about the abhorrent Kashmiri accents in those movies. During our conversations, Rumuz’s constant internet connectivity issues made me finally understand all those articles I had come across about Kashmir’s communication blockade and her impassioned stories about Srinagar began to wrap my mind around her deeply layered poetry that poignantly reflects life in the valley.
Our insightful conversations led to Rumuz allowing us to use her indigenous Kashmiri language poetry Sawaal Kaetya which beautifully reflects the plight of Kashmiri women and was remarkably in sync with our story.
But there were troubles ahead. The production phase of Article 370 was on the brink of turning into a disaster. COVID-19 had made shooting Article 370 in the Pakistan side of Kashmir an impossible task. We had to look for alternative locations to shoot and replicate Srinagar. Location-scouting revealed that there are plenty of areas in the northern region of Pakistan which have a similar terrain to Srinagar.
So, in late June, the scouting team was sent to the scenic hill station city of Murree for a recce amidst the worst COVID-19 week of Pakistan. Luck was on our side. The team found a structure in Murree which could double as a middle-class house in Srinagar.
But this was just the beginning of our challenges. Many actors and others in the film industry were hesitant to work with us –they thought a film on Kashmir would be a risky proposition, while others wanted it to be a much more political story. But the upcoming Pakistani actress Mariyam Nafees was brave enough to accept the lead role of Gul-e-Rana, amidst a barrage of criticism.
With our complete cast on set, Ibrahim and I would go back and forth with Rumuz on voice notes in order to get the accurate Srinagar Urdu pronunciation for the dialogues so that our actors could sound authentic in their portrayals. She became so invested in our story that she advised us that the characters in the film should not react strangely to the curfew scenes; rather they should be shown as living through the curfew was part of their daily life.
A delighted Ibrahim returned to Karachi after a satisfactory stint of the principal photography. With the deadline of August 5 looming, he locked himself in an editing booth. During the post-production, Ibrahim brought on board Pakistan Idol finalist Sajid Abbas to sing Rumuz’s poetry in his melodious voice and Kamran ‘Kami’ Ismail, sound designer of numerous Pakistani films, to compose the tracks and score for the film.
The first rough cut of Sajid’s vocals on Rumuz’s poetry did not impress the poet from the valley. While she enjoyed Kami’s gleeful composition, Rumuz felt Sajid’s Kashmiri pronunciation was off the mark. A film about Kashmir with inaccurate Kashmiri pronunciations was something we could not afford to have. Thus, Rumuz sent another set of voice notes to emphasise the correct pronunciation and Ibrahim pushed Sajid to record a new set of vocals which eventually made it to the final cut of the film.
There were countless moments that could’ve broken anybody’s resolve in the process of creating Article 370 but Ibrahim’s faith in our story pushed him to release a short film in the record time of a month and a half. On August 5, 2020, on the first anniversary of the revocation of Article 370 in the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, Article 370 was released to the public on Seeprime’s YouTube channel.
Whose story is it anyway?
Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to think about why Ibrahim Baloch was so passionate about telling a story about Kashmir. He is not a Kashmiri, after all. But Ibrahim is an ethnic Baloch and as a Baloch in today’s Pakistan, he relates very well to the plight of Kashmiris. The question he asked himself very early on in the process was, if not him, then who is going to tell this story? The oppressor or the oppressed?
Soon, the Pakistani media came onto the scene. On August 5, Ibrahim, his ace producer Madiha Majeed and actress Mariyam Nafees attended the morning show of the leading Pakistani TV channel GEO TV to talk about the film.
However, it soon became clear early on that the Pakistani media was intent on using our short film as a tool for state-driven propaganda. Then, much to our dismay, Pakistan’s governing political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) tweeted about the movie while at the same time lambasting the powers on the other side, giving a political angle to the film. Ibrahim fought back those insinuations robustly.
Fortunately, we had won over Rumuz. She was extremely happy to see her poetry being sung over a romantic scene between Gul-e-Rana and her husband Mir Muhammad (played by Muqeet Khan) in a beautiful forest. She messaged both of us, praising the film and even commented on the actual video on YouTube, writing, “Great efforts put together by Ibrahim, Shuja and team. Shorter the movie, harder to depict and you guys have done it remarkably well, that proves the creative genius of the team. Well done. Loads of greetings.”
Seeprime’s Youtube channel has seen a massive uptick of subscribers in the past few weeks, from a mere 20-30 subscribers to more than 1,000 subscribers. Article 370, now crossing more than 20,000 views, has received comments on the YouTube video from passionate Indians, Pakistanis and particularly Kashmiris, vocalising their political stance.
Honestly, this kind of reaction was expected but we were still disappointed. Disappointed at the fact that the people on both sides of the border can’t go beyond their rigid political stances. It seems inevitable that politics will continue to define Kashmir and not humanity.
This is not what Ibrahim and I had promised ourselves when we came up with the concept. This is not what we had promised our team. And this is certainly not what we had promised Rumuz in Srinagar. And so again, with revived enthusiasm, we have set off to take our film to communities that this movie can inspire, festivals where it can be appreciated and hearts it can touch without malice.
To sum up the journey of trials and tribulations of our telling the story of Kashmir, only Rumuz’s poetic words can do justice to our own struggle.
Sawaal Kaetya Jawab Kaetya
Muhabbatas Manz Hisaab Kaetya
(How many questions, how many answers
Love entails innumerous trials)
Shuja Uddin was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. He is a screenwriter and filmmaker who graduated from Boston University with an MFA in screenwriting.