Aijaz Khan and Rasika Dugal talk about making a fiilm in a conflict zone
Kashmir inhabits your being. All it takes is one visit or maybe, one film. Filmmaker Aijaz Khan and actor Rasika Dugal, sound overwhelmed, nervous and excited, as they talk about making Hamid which releases in theatres today. Our conversation is meandering: about the spaces we inhabit and the places that in turn inhabit us during the filmmaking process.
When a film is placed in a conflict zone ridden with political complexities and emotional casualties, much like Hamid is, it’s inevitable that the process will be more complicated. Hamid comes at a crucial time in terms of the political situation and the ongoing discourse in the country. The Indian film industry’s contribution to conversations about Kashmir has been rather significant this year with the success of Uri. Amidst, the recent incidents of violence against Kashmiri traders and students in India and the perpetual strife that people live through in Kashmir, what would Khan and Dugal want a film like Hamid attempts to convey.
The director of the film speaks about honesty and innocence that only children can have, and how that virtue is what the Hamid is trying to convey. He says, “What media portrays of that place, what you hear about it is completely different from what you see when you land there.”
The film is about a young boy, Hamid (Talha Arshad Reshi), who assumes that 786 is a direct phone line to Allah. When he calls the number, hoping to reach his untraceable father, a CRPF soldier posted in the State is on the other end instead.
Hamid was born out of a chance conversation between Khan and a friend from Srinagar. The latter talked about a play he saw the previous night, in which a boy dials 786 and gets connected to a Kashmiri Pandit. It was this single line which intrigued Khan enough to decide that the Mohammed Amin Bhat play had to be adapted into a film. The research that followed through several visits to Kashmir and conversations opened new boxes and doors. Khan shares that understanding life in Kashmir, and ensuring that the locale didn’t become a mere backdrop was always the core focus. The director credits his writer Ravinder Randhawa for achieving this goal. “A one-line idea was given to him and he fleshed out these characters, details and their world,” says Khan. Talking about the nuances they have layered the film with, he shares how choosing the profession Hamid’s father as a boat-maker was an intentional one. “Boat-making is somehow a coastal imagery. It was the contrast that caught our eye,” says Khan while reminiscing about the locations that led them to the artisans who build shikaras.
An actor prepares
Khan was clear from the beginning that he wanted to cast Dugal as Hamid’s mother. Says Dugal, “I told him, I think you should cast a Kashmiri actor because I was nervous about whether I would be able to do justice to this. I didn’t want to do injustice to the story of Kashmiri people because they’ve already been through too much. I felt that no matter how much I prepare, I will always be an outsider to that grief, to that story,” shares Dugal. It was Khan’s conviction that convinced Dugal to take on the role. Khan admires Dugal’s work to develop her character – a woman whose husband has vanished. “She came to Kashmir two weeks in advance to prepare for the role and get the accent right. It’s lovely to work with actors who come with more than 100%,” he says. Over the years, thousands of men in the State have gone missing and the endless wait for them is a reality lived by several Kashmiri women.
So how does an actor understand a character set in this context? “There is tons of material on Kashmir. I didn’t know which would be the one that would move beyond a political connection or even just an empathetic connection…,” says Dugal. The actor hoped her character Ishrat, at least, was able to truly inhabit that world. The research led Dugal to several books and documentaries and one that stood out most was Iffat Fatima’s Where Have You Hidden My New Moon Crescent. The documentary features the activist and founder-chairperson of APDP (Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons), Parveena Ahanger. The film draws attention to disappearances in the State through Mughal Masi’s story, who eventually died after waiting 20 long years for her son to return. “Of all the material I read and accessed, this film really became my central piece.” says Dugal who highlights a moving moment in the documentary where Ahanger and Masi talk matter-of-factly about their missing children. “It’s the most chilling thing that I had seen. It moved me in a different way… I cannot put words to it and belittle that experience,” she says. Dugal went on to see several interviews by Ahanger, to find herself further surprised. “To have that kind of strength in spite of that kind of grief. Overcoming that grief and helping people who are in a similar situation is something that I still can’t wrap my head around,” she says about Ahanger.
Perhaps this what cinema does to our lives. It brings us conversations outside of what we see through other platforms and stories. Dugal feels the same for her new film, “I’m hoping that Hamid will be that gentle conversation which I haven’t heard up till now,” she asserts.
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