Filmmaker Ashvin Kumar is tired of talking about censorship. At a suburban Mumbai cafe, he tells me I’m the fourth journalist in 3 days to bring up the topic. Kumar’s film No Fathers In Kashmir has been stuck with the CBFC for almost a year with still no line of sight as to whether it will receive certification in time to meet its April 5th release date. Kumar is no stranger to censor troubles, however. His previous two films, Inshallah, Kashmir and Inshallah Football, both documentaries, faced similar issues with the CBFC. Ironically both films also went onto win National Awards.
No Fathers in Kashmir revolves around a teenage girl who visits Kashmir to find her father, who disappeared many years ago. She is helped by a local boy with whom she shares a budding romance against the backdrop of violence and militancy in the state.
Kumar repeatedly stresses on his aim of having the film appeal to young people and get them to empathise with Kashmiri people. “I chose two young protagonists for the film to echo the millennial reality. The idea behind having a teenage romance is I wanted to cut through all this political clutter and just go to that. If I can get people to relate to that, then the world opens up. Then you start understanding why this girl’s search for her father becomes your search for what the fuck is happening there.” Kumar spoke to me about his views on the issues in Kashmir, the power of cinema to raise awareness and his dream of one day banning the Indian censor board.
What does it to do a filmmaker when there’s such an uphill battle with the CBFC? What have the last few months been like?
It’s vindictiveness. It’s an outright effort to try and create as many hurdles as possible. When I wrote the script, I knew all this was going to happen since one has been through it a few times. That’s why it was written in a way that it would say what it needs to say but there would be no room for this kind of reaction. They have to really exercise a lot of grey power to try and figure out what was objectionable about the film and true to form they’ve gone to it with a machete. Just random stuff, only because it’s about Kashmir.
The concept of the story is a girl looking for her father. And I’m like ‘bring it on, tell me what you’re going to find objectionable about this.’ They are obviously finding it objectionable because it touches one of the holy cows of our country which is the Indian Armed Forces. No one has really called them on the numerous human rights atrocities that have been perpetrated and continue to be perpetrated as we speak.
“I don’t make films for the Indian film censor board. In fact, I want to ban the Indian film censor board. And I’ll do it at some point.”
You’ve previously said ‘A theatrical release is a glorified advertising campaign for a film’. Is that why you feel a theatrical release is so important for this film? Given the challenges you’ve faced with the CBFC, many in your position would’ve considered looking for a digital release instead.
I’m like why not? It’s my right as a citizen of this country to put my film where I want to, who the hell are these people to stop me? It’s the exercise of my rights under Article 19. And why are you stopping me? And I want to make a point of the fact that because of people like you who keep stopping me is why we have a Pulwama. Because you keep us alienated from the rest of the countrymen and women who are there. Particularly young people from here who are alienated from the people there.
The kids over there In Kashmir have been born into a state of war. They have not had either the choices or the opportunities of people who were born in the 90s in a state of consumerism. The country is already divided. You have one set of people – the majority who can dream and aspire. And you have another set who are in a state of regression because they are born into a war. And they need to survive. And their idea of survival isn’t to put food on the table, it’s to not get killed on the road.
Now what have the politicians done? They have censored everything that has come in from that side, so those people are continuing to agitate in their own little pond and these people are not understanding why that is happening. And this is the direct result of censorship. What should be removed is the censor board and all censorship on news coming out of the valley.
Have you ever considered more palatable topics at the writing stage to steer clear of this kind of backlash?
I don’t make films for the Indian film censor board. In fact, I want to ban the Indian film censor board. And I’ll do it at some point. We’ll manage it. These are all building blocks towards that. Censorship creates fear. It’s not films that create fear. Films and news allow people, sensible people to come out of their own and a very clear application of this on our YouTube and internet channels. There, stuff is completely unmediated and uncensored and yet it’s not creating any riots, it’s not causing a disillusion of the Indian state or splintering of the republic. What it does is it puts a lot of views and opinions out there for people to assume and absorb.
But films tend to be the first targets in situations like this.
Only because the situation has been engineered in this way. Censorship in India is only limited to theatrical and satellite. Now apparently Amazon, Netflix and Hotstar have also started asking for censor certificates which is a pain in the ass. I thought that I’ll fight the good fight with the censors as long as it’s limited to theatrical because eventually, I will get to release the film in its true form on the OTT platforms.
Do you think young people today are apathetic about these issues? Is cinema the right medium to change that?
It is, absolutely because you can make people feel. Like I said politics comes out of emotion. If I can emotionally engage you, invest you in the dilemmas of this girl who’s trying to find her father. The by-product of that is political awareness.
What do you think of the mainstream films made in the past about Kashmir? Do you feel Hindi cinema has done justice to exploring the region and its issues?
Absolutely not. It’s done damage. Grievous damage. Other than a few exceptions like Haider, it is perpetrated the stereotype and created more hostility, more suspicion, more fear and more ‘othering.’
Was casting No Fathers In Kashmir a challenge at all? Do actors ever get worried or put off by the idea of being associated with a political film that could get mired in controversy?
Actually, on the contrary, all the actors I worked with on this film were more than happy to be part of it. I mean Soni Razdan is a leading example of this, she’s really putting all her weight behind the film and hat’s off to her and Mahesh Bhatt both of whom have really adopted the film, and they really didn’t need to.
Does travelling the festival circuit alone do enough to generate buzz for films like this one?
I don’t know what to say about the festival circuit. We haven’t had terribly positive results from festivals. And I think a lot of the reason for that is the point of the movie is lost on them entirely. I mean I don’t know, I don’t want to conjecture. But the last festival we were a part of actually told me that their sponsors were not happy with the content. And this is in the UK. Maybe now, if it makes enough of a noise here festival will be more interested but I’m not holding my breath. In my experience festivals are a travel opportunity. What it actually does for a film, I don’t know.