If you work with silence as your frame, every sound gets registered. If you work with scarcity as your chosen form, every little detail is capable of a denotative surplus. Aamir Bashir takes this formal technique and builds from it his film Harud that matches, shot by shot, the gravitas of its subject, carefully ‘seeking dignity,’ as he puts it, ‘in a violent place’.
Harud is set in Srinagar. It is about a Kashmiri Muslim family coming to terms with the disappearance of their son Tauqir. The film takes place in that breach which refuses to close when someone in the family is enforcedly disappeared by a power that is almost beyond redressal. In each shot, Tauqir’s younger brother Rafiq and his parents Fatima and Yusuf are seen attempting to adequately mourn a loss that they do not know the final shape of, that they necessarily cannot know the final shape of. When someone dies, you mourn their death. The certainty of their going away is the vehicle of the mourning. When someone disappears, even that certainty is withheld from you. You live a kind of daily life in which no hope remains uncontaminated with despair, where the object of your loss is both perpetually retrievable and permanently lost at the same time. In such an anchorless world, we see Rafiq and his family trying to find directions, but as if with a compass that is missing the lodestone.
When he was asked to give a brief synopsis of the film to an interviewer in 2010, the year this film released, Bashir summarized that Harud, or Autumn, ‘is about decay, it’s about psychological decay, and you see this…through the family, primarily through the protagonist…Rafiq’. The film could not have released in any other year. 2010 was its necessary place in time. It was in the summer of that year when this decay, so acutely shared among so many in the valley, transformed and erupted from the hands of thousands of Kashmiri boys on the streets of Srinagar, most as young as Rafiq, who picked up stones and hurled them at police and paramilitary forces on whose shoulders the Indian occupation in Kashmir rests. The film begins with this real time footage of stone-throwing. These young men on the streets provide the film its epigraph.
2010 was also when the actual story of the disappearance of the Nadihal men – a story more terrible because it mirrored many more like it – had broken out. A Special Police Officer had offered army jobs to three young men in the Nadihal village. Mohammad, 19, an apple farmer, Riyaz, 20, a herder and Shahzad, 27, a laborer were given a paltry sum of money and were taken to a remote army camp in Machil where nine soldiers shot them down. This was done to claim the reward money that the Indian state offers for the killing of ‘militants’. In the script that the army wrote for its press release shortly after the massacre, this herder, laborer and apple farmer were found in the possession of three AK-47s, one Pakistani pistol, ammunition, cigarettes, chocolates, dates, two water bottles, a Kenwood radio and 1,000 Pakistani rupees. In the last quarter of a century in Kashmir, if a young man goes missing, you shudder to imagine the possible consequences he or his body has met, what official script he or it has been instrumentalized towards. The endless speculation makes you fall apart, the cost of conflict comes home with every living second without him who has vanished.
This is why Harud patiently bears out its each second. The film makes of allocating screen time to objects, scenes and characters an art, marking affiliation with how time looks like when in grief. The camera focuses long on the face, particularly the scorching eyes of Rafiq, played by Shanawaz Bhat. It rests gently and with an always uneasy calm on landscapes. It saddles together the unmatched beauty of the valley with its fragility, with the constant fear that attends the streets of downtown Srinagar and their inhabitants. This constancy of fear hangs like a fog which obscures the legendary beauty of the valley. In fact, the film, as Bashir claims, is about the exact opposite of beauty, it is ‘about decay’, that particular passage of time when beauty disappears slowly. Autumn for Bashir is both a season and a metaphor for this decay that takes its toll almost silently. No matter how beautiful that time of the year is, ‘in Kashmir,’ Bashir says, autumn ‘is also a precursor to dark winters’, one has to prepare for them, one has to be ready to cope with them. In one of the recurring sequences of the film wherein the camera follows Rafiq closely as he vends newspapers at dawn in Srinagar, he cycles past a shop of wrist-watches that has not yet opened. ‘Timex,’ the shop front reads, ‘Life is Ticking.’ Bashir keeps his screen time patiently ticking, every moment pregnant with apprehension, till it explodes in the last shot.
But the opposite of fear also stalks the valley, that is, the real antonym of fear, not tranquility, but courage. In 1991, Parveena Ahangar’s son, like Tauqir, had also disappeared. He was at his uncle’s home where he had been studying when he was picked up by the Indian security forces during a search and cordon exercise and was taken away in a van. Javaid Ahangar was nineteen then and Parveena never heard of him again. Through these years the grief has remained as raw as the day she lost him. She went from every police station she could find, every interrogation centre, hospital and camp looking for him. During these searches, she met those who were her exact mirror images, scores of parents and relatives of men and boys who had been enforcedly disappeared in Kashmir. She invited them to make this search for their loved ones a collective one and in 1994 the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) was formed. Soon, those who joined APDP found that disappearances were not the crimes of a few aberrant officers of the police or the army, but that they were systemic and were implicit in the way an occupation structures itself on the land it arrogates. Families after families filed habeas corpus, literally ‘produce the bodies’, writs in the Srinagar high court most to no avail. In Harud Tauqir’s mother Fatima goes regularly for the sit-ins and protests of the APDP holding a portrait of her son. She is accompanied by many like her who have faced the sorrow of outliving their own children, each holding on to the portraits. Rafiq accompanies her.
If time begins to loom large when someone goes missing, that which is the visual becomes more defined. It becomes subject to an alertness that is pervasive and almost instinctive in the way that people see things around them in Kashmir. In fact, an alertness to all that is visible is the strategy of the DOP of the film, Shanker Raman, who is also one of the writers of its screenplay. A kind of alertness that people always have in zones of conflict, where every surface is capable of shock, where what you will see next cannot be predicted. As Raman shoots the calm surfaces of the valley, as he distills them into mind-bogglingly beautiful frames, the story he tells, keeps scratching these surfaces, his plot keeps exploring the crises into which these scenes plunge very often. In fact, the central conceit of Harud is also something which rests on the visual, on how we look, and how we strive to capture that which we look at – the camera. As a tangible object, it dominates screen time. As a plot device, it marks a watershed moment in the trajectory of Rafiq’s character. As a tool, it is how he engages with the world decaying around him.
Rafiq is part of an entire generation in Kashmir that has picked up the camera (or the microphone, or the pen). It is a generation of young film-makers, photographers, journalists, rappers and writers that have started telling the stories of Kashmir in the 90s, the decade they gave their childhood to. These stories and images were previously untold and unseen; they do not match the versions that circulate in Delhi’s big press circles or its parliament. These young men and women, based both in Kashmir and outside, have taken it upon themselves to distribute in any which way – whether leaking, publishing, uploading or shouting out – the stories of Kashmir’s autumn, that is, the stories of disappearances, of unidentified mass graves, of illegal encounters and of police violence on protests in the streets of Srinagar and in the snowed hinterlands of their valley. They give utterance to the word, one which remains graffitied on the walls of Srinagar (Rafiq cycles past it), azadi, and explore all that it could mean.
The camera that Rafiq stumbles upon in Harud was his brother Tauqir’s who had been a tourist photographer before he disappeared. In the two years after 2010, much noise has been made about the return of the tourists to the valley and their presence has been taken to mean that peace has come to roost here and that Kashmir has finally agreed to sign, no questions asked, on the covenant of perpetual belonging with India. Rafiq’s generation has made it amply clear that this calm is enforced and superficial, that this surface if stretched will not hold. It has not been easy for them to do this. The State government has attempted to censor online communication, has cracked down on facebook and twitter and has tarnished wikileaks, the nationalist media has ignored searing content that merits to be breaking news, dissenting individuals have been disallowed entry into J&K and several of the young, of the really young, have been put in jails on unfound charges. When Rafiq picks up the camera, he picks up that which photojournalists on the streets of Kashmir have been beaten up for picking, for stealing an image that does not fit into the narrative of peace that is being sold en masse to the rest of the world.
The tourist can never see what the Kashmiri sees. The tourists’ gaze is circular, he looks at that which others exactly like him also look at, so he only sees Dal Lake or its shikaras, in soft light and sanitized proportions, and he goes back to the hotel room at night. Above all, he leaves soon, and even when he comes to Srinagar, he comes mainly in spring or summer, not in winter or harud. Rafiq and his generation’s penetrating gaze cuts through the circularity of this gaze of the tourist. It does not look at the same places in Kashmir and when it does it does not look in the same, hurried way. They persevere with what they look at. They persist without hurry letting the places yield all their significances. When Rafiq photographs Dal Lake, as he does in an extended and central sequence in the film, he photographs a shikara with the paramilitary jawans sitting in it, each of their postures alert, each of their guns ready, and Dal’s silver waters extend for miles behind them. When you choose stillness as your frame, as Bashir and his protagonist do, you notice all the incongruities, that constant admixture of beauty and fear that becomes inevitable if you live in Kashmir. The images that Tauqir clicked – of Indian tourists in Kashmiri costumes – shied away from this admixture in selecting only the beautiful because the tourist desired only the beautiful. When asked why he chose a muted background score for his film, Aamir Bashir reasoned that he was ‘very conscious of the fact that’ he does not ‘hear any music in Kashmir [he meant Kashmir does not lend itself to an undemanding sort of music] because it is not that kind of a place anymore, in my eyes,’ he said, ‘it is not pretty anymore, there is so much mistrust in the air, it is such a dark place’. Does the tourist ever see the dark place in the place that he sees?
Other than the stone-throwers of 2010, one other man gives Harud its epigraph. The last couplet of the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali’s Tonight is the first thing we see – ‘And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee – / God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.’ Earlier this year, when I met a close friend of Shahid’s in Srinagar, he spoke of everything about Shahid and Kashmir other than how the police and army squashed the militancy through the 90s and later, this he could not speak about, how the police and army did this was the point at which words left him, he said, I will begin to cry if I speak of it now, not here, we were sitting in a public café off M.A. Road, and he left those stories at that, at that brink of speaking. These are stories beyond all accounting which are now coming so searingly into light. These are stories that defy reason and the basic measures of compassion that we expect even from the worst, let alone the one’s (allegedly) own government. These are stories like that of enforced disappearances. Like how so many of the 2010 children went – even official records say that more than a hundred perished that year – of them, there were the stone throwers who met bullets as a reply for their stones, but of them were also the boys playing carom, boys returning from their tuitions, boys looking at the protests from a distance. When you reside in Kashmir, you do not have to do a lot to be in the line of a bullet. Sometimes, you have to do nothing at all. Harud takes off from here and tells us that, going like this, a harsher winter awaits us in Kashmir.
(Akhil Katyal is a writer based in Delhi where he also teaches literature at Delhi University. His bilingual collection of poems 'Mad Heart/Bawra Ishq' is forthcoming with Vani Prakashan, Delhi this year.)