Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ajay Raina, who lives in the United States now, gets nostalgic on visiting Kashmir. A Biscoe boy who graduated from Regional Engineering College Srinagar talks to Syed Asma, about his community’s migration and his work
Kashmir Life (KL): Tell us about your journey as a filmmaker?
Ajay Raina (AR): A filmmaker’s journey is a never-ending endeavour of struggle and hope. It started immediately after I finished a film direction course from FTII (Pune). I straightaway opted for professional documentary making. But back then, documentary filmmaking as a career was yet to take off in India. At the same time lot of things were happening like Kashmir was burning, Hindu rightists were on a rise following Ayodhya controversy. At the same time, satellite TV was proliferating across India. For a documentary filmmaker, those were difficult years, as nobody was interested to finance films in Urdu or regional languages.
So for survival, I started writing screenplays – on social, cultural, corporate subjects, depending on where the sponsors came from. I also assisted in a few feature film, tried my hands in writing episodes for daily soaps and reality TV.
KL: Tell us about your films?
AR: I specifically love films I had made during the initial years of my career. The first documentary I made was about ‘History of Indian Telephone’. Then there was a poetic series of documentaries on different moods of the morning. Later I made a corporate film for NHPC, which helped me in getting more corporate work. But my best film during that period was about the victims of the Bhopal gas disaster. It was a very angry film about bureaucratic, judicial injustice, and the denial of compensation to the victims.
In 1999, finally, the big break came when Public Service Broadcasting Service (PSBT) approved my proposal regarding a film on Kashmir. The film ‘Tell Them, The Tree They Had Planted Has Now Grown’ is close to my heart as it is about my journey back to Kashmir after 11 years. The film won me the Golden Conch Award at the Mumbai International Film Festival for Best Documentaries (2002).
Later,I made two more documentaries exploring Kashmir issue. The second one, ‘Wapsi’, was partly shot in Pakistan, Gujarat, Punjab and Kashmir. It bagged me National Film Award for best script and voice-over narration. I returned this award a couple of months back.
The third one is called Apour te Yapor. Na Jang na Aman, Yeti chu Talukpeth (Between the border and the fence).
This film looks at Azaadi movement in Kashmir in the context of lives of those living near Line of Control (LoC).
KL: You visited Kashmir after a decade to shoot films. How was the experience?
AR: The visit in February 2000 was an emotional one as it happened after 11 years. The film was about homecoming. I believe, only he, who has a migrant life, can understand the pain of staying away from his homeland.
Incidentally, I reached Srinagar on the day three Fidayeen attacked J&K Police Control room at Batamaloo. All three attackers, from PaK, were killed. I visited their graves for my third film in 2010.
During the shoot of the film in (2000-2001), I met a number of people including some JKLF leaders. I visited my village, my ravaged home. I talked to people to know their side of the story, what they think of the Pandit migration etc. I wanted to understand what drives the sentiment of Azaadi. I wanted to question it and the migration. I wanted to walk the streets of Srinagar with the same lack of fear or apprehension that I had before.
During my visit, I travelled unprotected, without the security of Indian army, or any militant organisation.
I was sceptical about lots of stories I had heard or read about. Those unanswered questions made me visit Kashmir again.
KL: What actually prompted you to explore Kashmir issue?
AR: I always wanted to make films on Kashmir. After 1996 elections when Farooq Abdullah was reinstated as CM of J&K, I decided to visit Kashmir.
At that time, no TV channel in Bombay or Delhi was willing to finance a film on Kashmir. Perhaps they thought Kashmir was unsafe or too controversial. I then thought of self-financing, but there were not many people willing to accompany me as my crew. Finally, in 1999 I was able to raise funds for a film on Kashmir.
KL: You are part of the Oral History Project on Kashmir. Tell us about it.
AR: I try my best to stay connected to Kashmir through my films, writings and by organizing events that foster communication between Kashmiris across the divide.
In 2013, along with a few like-minded friends from Kashmir, I travelled across the valley to build an archive of memories, events etc since 1990. The idea was to acquire and archive old narratives on Kashmir. The narrative is recorded in various formats i.e. video, audio, text, transcript etc.
The objective is to help preserve the factual integrity of Kashmir’s contested past against attempts to distort, revise or falsify history. This archive is available at www.kashmiroralhistory.org.
KL: Being a Kashmiri Pandit how do you see your community’s mass migration?
AR: Migration of KPs in not a complex issue as it is created by certain vested interests in Kashmir and by some in the migrant Pandit community elsewhere. Everywhere in the world, wherever the majority becomes embroiled in violent extremism within, the minority is always the first target. Following the partition of India and during the last sixty-odd years, we have witnessed so many riots targeted at the ethnic, sectarian and religious minorities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The violence unleashed by the extremists after 1990 was unprecedented and had not been witnessed before. There were killings of many prominent Muslims and Pandits, as well. But the Pandit community was definitely targeted from the mosques and streets with anti-Pandit slogans.
The community as a whole felt isolated from within and unprotected by their neighbours and the state. Moreover, they did not feel included in the political movement or the political aspirations of the larger majority. Therefore, it is not so difficult to imagine why they left.
KL: As a researcher and a filmmaker what do you think has led to mass migration?
AR: As a filmmaker, researcher and storyteller, my first and foremost duty and responsibility is to strive to find the truth and tell it so, even being aware that we are caught up in our personal biases. I am not at all interested in pitching the suffering of Pandits against the suffering of common Kashmiris in the valley to score some political points. I believe it important that as long as we remain mired in our respective victimhood and carry our sufferings like some kind of a capital to be redeemed for our political fights, Kashmir will not move on. The focus of my work is centred on reconciliation and dialogue. We must respect and empathise with each other’s pain.
KL: How do you see former governor Jagmohan getting Padma Vibhusan from GoI?
AR: I was not surprised that Kashmiri Muslims saw this award as adding insult to their injuries, but the shock was when I heard a large number of self-styled spokespersons of Kashmiri Pandits hail it as recognition of his role as their saviour.
Like any Kashmiri, I am nearly certain about whom to blame for my exile, but I am not sure if there is anybody I can claim as a saviour of my community.
It was not only the Kashmiri people, who in general failed each other miserably but also the state and the institutions of India and Pakistan.
It is difficult to forget that Farooq Abdullah, then CM, abdicated his responsibility by resigning and running away to the UK. It is important to remember that late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, then as Home Minister, was the one decided to parachute Jagmohan to firefight the insurgency in Kashmir.
Moreover, Mufti Sayeed silently gave nod to India’s surrender before JKLF militants by letting them go free in exchange for his hostage daughter. By doing so he became instrumental for adding fuel to the fire of Kashmir insurgency.
KL: What is the scope of art and cinema in Kashmir?
AR: In present circumstances, the scope of creating Kashmiri cinema is very limited. First of all you need a viewing public and running theatres. You need inclusive spaces where youth from colleges and universities can gather to watch the cinema of the world and be able to discuss films.
You need film societies, regular and organised film screenings, film festivals. You need institutional support from the state and the public. Most importantly, you need filmmakers in Kashmir who can mould and influence the next generation. You need a vibrant artistic and cinema culture, but it is not there. So as of now, I am not very optimistic about cinema in Kashmir.
However, I am excited that young Kashmiris have taken to age-old forms of artistic expression – writing, music, painting etc. – in a more organised and rigorous way.
To me, as long as we remain fixed in abusing video as a tool of agit-prop the documentary and cinema as a form of art will not be able to arrive.
I say all this from my experience as Jury in film competitions organised by J&K Academy of Art and Culture in 2014.
The best films made in J&K were from Ladakh and then Jammu. Unfortunately, Kashmir was way behind despite having one of the first TV stations in India since the 1970s.