A Gorilla Filmmaker

It took him four years to capture his subject’s innocence, struggle, and survival on camera. An award-winning documentary filmmaker Jalaluddin Baba’s work reflects his quest for perfection. Syed Asma tells his story

Jalaluddin Baba, Kashmir’s green filmmaker

The  auditorium in Nehru Science Centre, Mumbai was jam-packed when Jalal ud din Baba, 44, was quietly sitting with his fingers crossed.

Jalal was there at 6th National Science Film Festival (NSFF), with his first documentary – ‘Saving the Saviour’.

Jalal was among thousands of filmmakers whose work was analysed by jury members like Shyam Benegal and Dr Mike Panday. Qualifying for the finals with other 64 documentary films, Jalal was very nervous before the results, he says.

“Being nervous was genuine,” Jalal says, “My work wasn’t technically as sound as my competitor’s. But I was confident about the subject of my film. And it paid off.”

‘Saving the Saviour’ won Jalal, the best film and best direction awards with a total cash reward of Rs 1,20,000.

Jalal believes his film was one of the low budget documentary films at the festival. He had spent just Rs 3 lakh from his pocket, shot with Canon 5 D Mark III camera, without any crew to help. “I think I am a Gorilla filmmaker, I do not look for a team and estimate budgets, I just conceive an idea and go out on the field to research and shoot,” says Jalal.

“Other films screened in the festival had spent crores of rupees and used world’s best technologies,” says Jalal. “Mine had a strong subject.”

Jalal was right; his protagonist Bilal’s story was strong enough to stand out from the rest.

‘Saving the Saviour’ tells the story of the largest lake of Asia – Wular, and its struggling for survival, through Bilal.

Jalal has co-related Bilal’s story with that of Wular. Bilal’s father died of cancer. His family spent all their earnings on his treatment. A labourer by profession, Bilal’s father did not leave much savings for his family, forcing him out of school. Bilal was just seven when he started to earn. He is eleven now.

Bilal’s first job was as domestic help in Srinagar which he left within a few months. Reason: he was asked to operate a microwave oven, something he had not seen before. This irked his employer and he got fired.

Born in Laharwalpora, Bandipora, Bilal tried to earn for his family by doing all kinds of odd jobs. But that didn’t work. Then he decided to follow his late father’s footsteps, but differently.

Since then, every morning Bilal takes scavenges trash from the Wular Lake and sells it off for recycling. He dumps the rest – mostly non-biodegradable, beneath the soil.

“I was impressed with Bilal’s work. His concern for the conservation of lake was laudable,” says Jalal. “That is why I chose him as the subject of my documentary.”

In 2012, Jalal met Bilal in Srinagar at a tea stall; he was then researching about Wular. “I wanted to make a documentary on Wular.”

While sipping tea, Bilal’s voice, particular his (Bandipora) accent caught Jalal’s attention and he asked him about his whereabouts. Bilal replied: ‘Chai piyo aur niklo’.

This made Jalal curious about Bilal and his story. That day onwards, Jalal started regularly visiting the tea-stall. “The intention was to befriend him,” says Jalal.


One day, Jalal learned that officials from the Labour Commission had stopped Bilal from working at the tea stall, and imposed fines on the owner under the Child Labour Act. Then Jalal visited his village. “There I actually saw what he did for his living,” says Jalal. It took Jalal four years to complete the documentary.

“What made my work outstanding was the element of a devastating flood, 2014.”

Jalal traced Bilal during the floods and caught his loss on the camera. Bilal lost his house as well as cattle to the floods. “Following a subject for four successive years and recording every event of his life made my documentary special,” believes Jalal.

While Jalal was trying to trace Bilal in September 2014 floods, he meanwhile filmed life, struggle and losses of the disaster and came up with his another documentary called ‘Shrouded Paradise’. It is yet to be released.

However, Jalal was not always into cameras; he aspired to become a doctor. A native of Aadipora in Sopore, Jalal’s father worked as a labourer to help his children study. “We had no landholding,” says Jalal.

After Class 12, Jalal appeared for MBBS entrance but missed the chance by just seven marks. Two more failed attempts later, he finally pursued graduation from Degree College, Sopore. When he completed his bachelor’s in mid-1990, Kashmir was witnessing peak militancy.

A particular voice caught his attention. It was BBC’s local face Yusuf Jameel’s voice. “Every evening he would update about happening in Kashmir,” recalls Jalal. “I wanted to be like him. That is why I joined the Media Department, University of Kashmir.”

In the meantime, Jalal visited Delhi for a few days and met Iftikar Gilani, a journalist then working with Kashmir Times. “He advised me to pursue journalism from Jamia Millia Islamia instead,” says Jalal. After six months of preparation Jalal qualified the written test. In the second round, Jalal was asked to critically analyse a film. “I secured a zero,” recalls Jalal. Reason: Jalal had never watched television. He never had one at home. “I couldn’t make it to Jamia,” said Jalal.

Without losing heart Jalal started preparing for Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC). There he secured 7th position. “My financial condition forced me to rethink my decision of joining IIMC,” recalls Jalal. “But my parents backed me despite hardships.”

Jalal’s parents, despite never going to school, made sure that their children study. “My younger sister did her master’s from Aligarh Muslim University. But my younger brother couldn’t complete his studies because of financial issues,” says Jalal.

During IIMC days Jalal, who was interested in film production, met top journalists of India like Dileep Padgonkar, Anikendra Nath (Badshah) Sen, and Atul Kokas.

They started a media company named Asia pacific communications [APCA].

Jalal joined APCA at a time when Kashmir’s regional channel, DD Kashir, was started. In 2000, APCA proposed to Doordarshan, New Delhi to broadcast a 45-minute moJalarning show on DD Kashir. It was Jalal’s idea and direction. The first episode was telecasted on January 26, 2000.

“It was an off-beat programme and cameras went to a village to ask people about their [developmental] issues,” explains Jalal. About two dozen employees were working under him and the team produced 700 episodes in two years.

After seven years of association with APCA Jalal quit and started making documentaries on his own.

In 2001, while working with APCA, Jalal got his first laptop (Apple) worth Rs 3 lakh, then known as G 1.

Interested in film editing, he attended demonstrations from almost all the technology companies. But this product impressed him the most. “I suppose I was the first to purchase a G 1 machine in North India,” says Jalal, “In fact, when I purchased it, a team of engineers visited my apartment, then in Rajbagh, to check-out the place where the computer was to be installed.”

And then Jalal started working as an editor for some years. He had edited films made by Shafqat Habib, Bilal A Jan, and many others. Besides, he joined EMMRC, the University of Kashmir as an editor.

“While editing, I got an opportunity to learn the art of film making,” says Jalal.

After ‘Saving the Saviour’ and ‘Shrouded Paradise’, Jalal is working on his third project about Pashtoons.

“I wanted to study the Pashtoons across South Asia,” says Jalal. “I know I don’t have much [financial] avenues but I have a heart of Himalaya.”

Meeting the population in Gutilbagh, Watlaar, Senthan and Mattan, and tracing their relatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan is the new assignment taken up by Jalal. To catch the mood and real feel, it was important to travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he says. He has been to these two countries and traced relatives of the characters in his film.

“It was difficult to trace them and make them talk to each other after 80 or 90 years gave me happiness which I can’t explain,” says Jalal. He has been working on this project for the last five years now.

Jalal, who lives in a small house in Hawal, Srinagar, spent all his earnings, even savings of his children, on this documentary. Though it is still in its making he has high hopes.

Dedicating his success to his family Jalal says, “because of me my family is having a very tough time financially. But they support me throughout. They never complain.”

Looking at the work of filmmakers like Sharmeen Obaid, Jalal aims at Oscars. “If you don’t dream big, you are a failure,” he concludes.


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