15 Years Of Shoojit Sircar’s Yahaan: Striking Frames That Have Stayed With Us

20 images by cinematographer Jakob Ihre that capture Kashmir militancy, the military crackdown, and the love that bloomed among the muck
15 Years Of Shoojit Sircar’s Yahaan: Striking Frames That Have Stayed With Us

Shoojit Sircar is now part of the eponymous Juhi-Shoojit writer-director diptych. Together, they crafted films like Vicky Donor, Piku, October, and more recently Gulabo Sitabo, all having radical naturalism as part of dialogue and plot. 

But, before this naturalism came the staged beauty of …Yahaan (the title is indeed prefixed with ellipsis), Sircar's debut feature film. Set in the fraying landscape of Kashmir, this is the love story between a Kashmiri girl, Adaa (Minissha Lamba, who also makes her debut), and an Indian Army Commander of the Rashtriya Rifles, Aman (Jimmy Sheirgill). It is based on an article that Sircar had read way back in 1996 about a Kashmiri girl who falls in love with a Jawan. 

Seen in the context of his filmography, …Yahaan feels like the most "Un-Shoojit" film, because it relies entirely on poetry and not prose to make its point. (Gulzar wrote the lyrics, Piyush Mishra, Somnath De, Sameer Kohli, and Sircar are credited with writing.) The scenes transition with "flash" sounds, the spare dialogues don't have that lived-in quality, and the beauty is staged and composed meticulously in collaboration with Swedish cinematographer Jakob Ihre (who would go on to shoot the celebrated HBO limited series Chernobyl). 

Ihre's Lighting

Fifteen years after the film's release, we look back at some of Ihre's frames of Kashmir and its people, something we had never seen before and have not since seen more of. In one of the Facebook lives that cluttered the internet in the post-COVID19 world, Sircar told Moitra, "[Jakob] came with a different eye… of how most Indians see Kashmir." It has the romanticism of Norman Parkinson's photos, without the fear of being too dark, with a lot of silhouettes and shadows. The first image we see of Adaa has her milk-white skin among the unlit blues, with guns framing her pallor. The drama is inherent. The same inherent drama is seen in how he frames the landscape, and its people. Sircar and Ihre consciously frame Adaa, wearing lavender, in hospitals among whites and in the midst of khakhee uniforms, making her stand out amidst the landscape. 

Yahaan was also Ihre's debut feature film. This was a curious cultural exchange, for Ihre brought in the unusual quality of light and darkness from the Northern regions of Europe into the blue-dappled frames of Kashmir. This landscape of beauty and blood is made inherent in Adaa too, who has ties to both. She cannot fathom a universe that doesn't have these two in equal measure, wondering how Aman, from Pune, had lived prior to coming here. 

"Pune mein barf padti hai?"
"Chinar ka ped hai?"
"Vahan Goliyan chalti hai?"
"Kaisa ajeeb lagta hoga na?" 

Song Picturization 

Produced by Gary S and Robby Grewal, the film couldn't make a mark on the box office when released in 2005. Mumbai was reeling from the July 2005 cloud-burst. But the movie has endured in the imagination due to its memorable music composed by Shantanu Moitra. (Moitra has composed all of Sircar's firsts- his first ad with Dettol, his first music video with Shubha Mudgal, and his first feature film too.) 

The first song of the film, 'Urzu Durkut' (which means "good health and strong knees", for this is an inclement landscape requiring lots of climbing) has Adaa frollicking in the waters, and rolling in the hills, serenading wild flowers. Despite all the colours being pulled back, the joy translates. Ihre brings out the purple of the wildflowers and the mist of the mountains to capture that feeling of being on the fence between innocence and violence. 

The visuals of 'Naam Adaa Likhna' cut through the clutter of love songs that have crisp, clear visuals. Here, everything was bathed in grim indigo, the silhouettes more stark, and even when the lovers make love, the crackling fire in the breeze only lights up small parts of their bodies- their fingers, their nose, their eyes. Where one begins and the other ends, no one knows. 

There is also a marriage song that feels very much in the Mani Ratnam universe of colours anchored by the actress in white. Adaa keeps changing her outfits to appease Aman, and by the end she realizes he liked what she was wearing in the very beginning. The song ends in her swirling in heady ecstasy in her heavily pleated ghararas that unfurl. Like Ratnam, Sircar has also placed the infamous mirror. 

Politics In Frame

Any film with post-1990 Kashmir as the backdrop cannot possibly ignore the insurgency and the military crackdown, the "zinda dozakh" that the state became. This film begins with a shootout and a chase sequence, where a journalist who is being hounded by the military ends up taking refuge in militancy. There are three other shootout sequences in the film that involve the armed militancy and the armed army jostling with bullets and blood. (Sircar, a National-level football player, is also credited with "Action") Ihre frames them meticulously, dead men bleeding onto white posters, and an old man shot dead by a bullet, half the screen bathed in blackness. 

The film inevitably wears its politics on its sleeve, referencing Article 370 (now abrogated, bathing the valley in the aforementioned blackness), and the fight for "Aman, Chain, aur Hifazat" (peace, respite, and protection). Aman, the commander, incidentally isn't supportive but nevertheless sympathetic to the plight of the militants. "Ek terrorist mein utne hi sentiments hote hai jitne ek fauji mein." He takes a stand against the unbridled violence of the army, and ends up paying the price for it, embroiled in a war of blame. 

There is also a media-related sub-plot, where Adaa is trying to prove Aman's innocence to the Indian public. When she later weeps in the cold blue country for her lover to return, you can see the sliver of the hopeful sun reflecting off her curled lochs. There is a vague sense of sunlit hope, but even so, the sun itself is nowhere to be seen. 

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