Ashvin Kumar’s No Fathers in Kashmir, paying tribute to “half-orphans and half-widows,” begins on a note of unexpected humour. The film opens in London, where 16-year-old Noor (Zara Webb) meets her boyfriend, who is wearing a burqa, at a religious get-together. When Noor and her family are vacationing in Kashmir, a signboard on the top of a houseboat reads, “Love me Tinder”.
On the same boat, Noor’s mother, Zainab (Natasha Mago), insists her husband, Wahid (Sushil Dahiya), get a picture clicked in a Kashmiri attire. Wahid’s defiant in his refusal: the scene then cuts to both of them wearing a local costume – Zainab beaming, Wahid sulking.
As Noor comes to stay in the Valley with her mother’s in-laws, Abdul (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) and Halima (Soni Razdan), the story introduces the Kashmir we know. We first see the (literal) writing on the wall: “Indian dogs go back”, “stop genocide in Kashmir”, “go India go”. But the film doesn’t even need visuals, just some stray words (“disappearance”, “militant”, “picked up”), referenced in dialogues, are enough. Noor’s father, Basheer – Zainab’s first husband – like numerous men in the state, disappeared 14 years ago. Wahid, her current companion, signals a new beginning: He’s a civil servant for the Indian government.
The larger conflicts, though, soon start to shrink, as Kumar sees this world through the eyes of two teenagers: Noor and Majid (Shivam Raina), the son of Basheer’s childhood friend, who, unlike her, has spent his entire life in the Valley. These perspectives, so fundamentally distinct, keep clashing with each other, framing conflicts and violence in newer contexts. Noor, for instance, wants to click a photo with a terrorist. “Militant,” Majid corrects her, “someone who fights for independence.”
This scene is more disconcerting in hindsight when we see the porous separation between a young civilian and a militant. This difference is also evident in the way memory functions: Majid, inured to violence, wants to forget – he’s not interested in finding his father’s whereabouts; Noor, a stranger to this injustice, wants to remember, going to great lengths, in multiple ways, to exhume her dad.
Making Noor the film’s centrepiece – someone without history and context (a near-perfect embodiment of a ‘neutral’ observer) – is a clever decision, as it frees the film from a blinkered, straightjacketed narrative and gives the audience the power to choose. Thorny issues like Kashmir – centred on human rights, violence and nationalism – often spawn strong sentiments. A story that is open to dialogue, such as No Fathers in Kashmir, feels both cerebral and essential.
Eschewing the simplistic ‘Us-versus-them’ shtick, the movie shows the disagreements among the locals, too. In an early scene, Abdul meets Arshid (Kumar) – once a close friend of Basheer’s, now a staunch Islamist hiding militants in his home – saying, “We were doing fine before your petro-dollars”, and soon adding, “What is this freedom that you talk about – and what would you do with it?” Both Arshid and Basheer were “picked up” by the army; the former’s genitals were electrocuted during interrogation, rendering him impotent. These details are crucial to a drama like this, for they provide new information and issue subtle caution against knee-jerk judgements.
But despite these merits, No Fathers in Kashmir tends to lose its way. A lot of subplots compete for attention: besides Noor searching for her father, the movie is also about the awkward relationship between a wife and her in-laws who, after years of waiting, has finally remarried; the interactions between the army and the locals, threatening to explode or have long-term dire consequences; the troubling mindsets of the Islamic fundamentalists, which keep providing fuel to fire; and finally, the love story between two teenagers, a final sign of hope in a land ravaged for long.
The film, as a result, lacks a formidable pivot. There are sequences that overstay their welcome, stagnating the story, diluting curiosity. But more crucially, a sizeable chunk of subplots and themes, explored in other films set in the Valley, feels familiar – especially the recently released Hamid, which, like No Fathers in Kashmir, sees the conflict through the eyes of a young Kashmiri. None of this makes this drama shoddy, yet, at the same time, prevents it from being a trailblazing, consistently riveting, piece.
The acting hardly disappoints though. This is Webb and Raina’s feature-film debut, and they look neither inadequate nor too young for roles both challenging and complex. Similarly, Mago, only in her second movie, complements the veterans, Razdan and Kharbhanda, encapsulating her grief and grievance with impressive economy. There’s another debutant here – filmmaker Kumar turning actor – who plays his role, of a fundamentalist Muslim blinded by faith, with strained effort: a character calling attention to an actor.
No Fathers in Kashmir, however, gets a crucial facet right about the conflict-riven lands – that such a place, where death and disappearance are common, upends every meaning of life: an entire generation of adolescents, with half-childhoods, struggling to understand when they became adults.