While producing a mini-documentary series on Kashmir’s Winter Business, the challenging assignment to the youngest member of the Kashmir Life newsroom was too heavy a weight. But getting into the frostbitten frames in a snowless winter was not the only challenge that I faced, writes AimanFayaz, while providing a behind-the-scenes blow-by-blow account of what mentoring is all about
Celebrating the “moment” is an idea that I understood better in my newsroom at Kashmir Life. Regardless of how the situations push this movement of life around, every pulse of life is vital. I saw the discovery of the ‘flip side’ of the moment very closely while assisting in the filming of Jash-e-Ramzan in 2023, not knowing that I would be entrusted to rediscover the business of the freeze and the chill of the currency when Kashmir shivers down to spine in Chilla-ie-Kalan.
It happened as, as I am told, as it always happens. Newsroom meets, discusses, decides and you are at work. Many narratives have been generated about the celebration of Kashmir’s winter in Kashmir Life but, I was fortunate enough, to be entrusted with shooting a series of short films on the business of winter. In a matter of an hour, almost everything was thrashed out to the last detail. It was too challenging for a 21-year-old intern to handle the subject but I always knew the newsroom does not push individuals to assignments only, it handholds until the last moment. I was supposed to partner with camera person Shuaib Wani for the project.
Amidst the positive feedback and trust garnered from my seniors in the newsroom, I found renewed vigour. The project was to start with the onset of Chilai Kalan and conclude with it. While the dry spell helped in faster and easier movement, the project took the first hit when Shuaib Wani withdrew, as he had to fill the gulf created by multimedia editor, Aijaz Ganai’s sabbatical. This presented the initial and most formidable challenge of handling the series without a dedicated cameraperson.
Facing a sense of overwhelm and isolation following a breakdown, I navigated the camera situation independently—a situation demanding a mature approach. Fortunately, Umer Dar, stepped forward, offering collaboration and support to see the series through to completion.
Juggling college commitments until the afternoon and then traversing the market on a scooter with Umer demanded considerable effort and dedication. Initially, it looked difficult but the project came with its ease of its own.
Securing contacts for various winter business proprietors involved extensive brainstorming within the newsroom. Collaborative efforts were made to identify individuals linked to specific businesses.
As we embarked on our shoots, the expectation was to capture insights from businesses regarding the current state of winter business in Kashmir. Surprisingly, persuading individuals to express their opinions on camera posed a challenge. People, all of a sudden, have gone mute, not many people are willing to talk. While they freely shared their thoughts off–camera, a reticence and hesitation took over once the Umar would get into action.
While filming the tin-bukhari business in Akhada Gali, Maisuma, Umar and I were abruptly asked to leave the street. Faced with verbal abuse, the Bukhari-making tinsmiths, expressed concerns about media misrepresentation, asserting that it exposed them to potential police threats. These incidents underscored the importance of respecting privacy and adhering to media ethics in our journalistic endeavours.
This prevalent camera aversion frequently resulted in a lack of stories to cover for the entire day. Despite these challenges, our commitment to the task remained steadfast.
Our exploration centred around the Shehr-e-Khas of Srinagar, where we dedicated most of our days to engaging with local businesses. In our pursuit of eliciting personal narratives, we visited established, time-honoured shops where artisans devoted their lives to their crafts.
There is always a flip side to a situation. Some conversations extended into profound narratives, with seasoned shopkeepers transforming into storytellers, sharing historical chapters through their lived experiences.
Artisanal shops, managed predominantly by individuals aged 60 to 70, specialised in handmade goods. Each establishment exuded a nostalgic ambience, accompanied by a softly playing radio featuring timeless melodies by Mohammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar. Notably, these tunes appeared to provide solace for the elderly shopkeepers. Despite challenges like weakened eyesight, they displayed unwavering dedication and commendable commitment to their craft. Observing their enduring passion in the twilight of their years offered a poignant lesson in patience.
The series was supposed to be a 10-episode offering. Due to the non-availability of some human resources we managed to reduce it to eight distinct episodes. These eight episodes involved diverse winter business baskets with stakeholders talking about their areas. From the making of kangri from the intricate willow twigs to staying up all night just to prepare the big copper pot-filled Harrisa every day, every shop had its story to tell.
The warmth and hospitality we experienced at specific shops were particularly heartening. A notable instance transpired during the Harrisa shoot, where we dedicated an entire day to an old Harrisa maker in Srinagar’s Rajouri Kadal. Greeted with utmost respect, this marked the first time they agreed to a full-day shoot. They graciously permitted us to document every step, from lighting the burner to the intricate Harrisa-making process and even served it early in the morning. Their cooperation and generosity not only yielded a comprehensive shoot but also ensured contented stomachs throughout the day.
The unusually dry winter in Kashmir significantly impacted the economy of winter businesses, especially those operating on the streets. The charcoal and kangri markets experienced a decline in demand due to the absence of snow. Kangri sellers, typically hailing from the Kashmiri periphery, encountered substantial challenges in selling their traditional warming pots. Established shops dealing in items like pherans and electric heaters also faced adversity, though customers continued to visit them for aesthetic purposes.
Sometimes, assignments one manages to one’s satisfaction fall short of the expectations of the senior. As the editing process began, our multimedia editor instructed us to revisit the market for additional cutaway shots necessary to commence the editing phase.
Disagreements occasionally arose between Umer and me as he expressed frustration with my approach, insisting that we already had sufficient cutaway shots. This pushed me to get into a directorial role and dictatorial too. Disagreeing with the senior on professional issues is so uncommon in Kashmir Life that sometimes I dislike it. This time, however, I enjoyed it. I took charge of meticulously sourcing specific cutaway shots and angles, while also crafting questions designed to elicit engaging narratives from shopkeepers about their businesses.
The journey extended beyond the fieldwork. At times, I recorded comprehensive notes on the newsroom whiteboard, addressing our editor. These notes highlighted challenges such as the absence of camerapersons at a time of need and disagreements with the video editor regarding the editing process. It was only a shock of my sort when I came to know that while it was written on the board, he read it only when the series was almost complete. Even without him telling anything to anybody or even going through it personally, these notes helped me sail through.
As the series approached its conclusion, the magnitude of challenges initially made the prospect seem impossible. However, through determination and assertiveness, I ensured that everyone fulfilled their respective responsibilities. This proved especially challenging, compounded by my status as the youngest member of the newsroom, where my input was not immediately taken seriously. Nevertheless, I overcame this hurdle, and witnessing everyone’s contributions at the end was a deeply gratifying experience.
I express my gratitude to Umar Dar for his patience in reshooting my piece to camera shots multiple times and to Aijaz Ganai, an outstanding editor who exceeded expectations. Special recognition goes to Babra Wani and Iqra Akhoon for their assistance with the Kashmiri scripts, and Shadab Gillani for encouraging me to complete the series. Faiqa Masoodi and Raashid Andrabi, along with the rest of the team, for their steadfast belief in me.