Director: Ashish Pandey
Writer: Ashish Pandey
Cinematography: Sushil Gautam
Edited by: Pallavi Singhal
Cast: Saima Latief, Sanya Manzoor and Afreen Rafiq
Streaming on: MUBI India
I’m a little wary of children-in-Kashmir films. On paper, this prism makes sense. Viewing an “adult” conflict through the unfiltered eyes of a child is the most effective way to critique the futility of war. You suddenly see a problem for its consequence rather than its cause – you see the fundamental truth stripped off its politics and power, sans history and ego. Death is not “collateral damage” to a child, it’s just that: loss. Over the years, Indian cinema has overused this template to the point of manipulation. It’s not easy to direct kids on screen, let alone make them narrative surrogates for grown-up thoughts and theories. They tend to say wise and curious things that filmmakers and writers want to convey. Their journey is visibly “designed” to affect, even as their tragic fate is fetishised by the excesses of mainstream storytelling.
But Nooreh, a 22-minute short film by Ashish Pandey, is a moving reclamation of formula. It’s a timely reminder of how violence is, at its core, a systematic siege on innocence. There is no loud posturing – just a clever combination of sound, images, psychology and subtext. Nooreh is a school-going Kashmiri girl living in the high-altitude LoC village of Izmarg. Pakistan lies on one side, India on the other. The adults of the village are pensive, serious, scared – they understand the context of fear. Nooreh’s father is stern, recites his prayers at night and retires to bed. Her teachers look preoccupied, too.
But the kids are still enviably pure – the border is an inherent part of their existence just like snow, toys and books are. Their daily routine consists of counting bullet holes in the walls on the way to school, teasing a grumpy old woman (“who died today?”), looking out for a “moochh-wale fauji uncle” (moustached soldier uncle), skipping across live minefields, and spending school recess joking about why their parents chose a border as home out of the whole planet. It is what it is. Little Saima Latief is perfect for the title role; she has the kind of immensely photogenic face that one might expect to find on the award-winning covers of Nat Geo magazines. The makers and cinematographer stop short of turning her into a war cliché, instead constructing a premise that relies precisely on her “reading” of the environment. In short, her face has every reason to be in the frame: unblemished but also scarred.
This gaze extends to the central motif of the film. An early scene features Nooreh in bed, late at night, struggling to get some sleep. She hears gunfire and shelling on both sides – the sound design plays a crucial role here – and decides to play a game of sorts. She notices that the second she opens her eyes, the attacks stop. But the echoes of bullets flood the valley the second she shuts them. The scene is long and patient, staying with the girl and urging the viewer to think like her. Over the next few nights, she uses her studies as an excuse to stay awake. Her theory seems to work: maybe the world needs her to stay alert. When she tells one of her friends about her “secret,” we envision several endings to the film. We’re conditioned to imagine that news spreading in a sensitive region is often an ominous sight. Danger lurks just around the corner. But the climax of Nooreh is disarming, featuring a final shot that lends new meaning to the light-in-darkness metaphor. It reveals so much with so little, the mark of a story that fully grasps the cinema of visual language.
Unlike most Kashmir-based movies, the makers resist exoticisation of the valley for the heck of it. We see what the kids see. The paradise-like ‘look’ is incidental. Most importantly, the striking montage of the bridges and the streams and the pristine air contribute to our perception of the last scene. What looks like just another picturesque “establishing” shot of the sleepy village acquires a sense of poignancy and gravity. The image depicts what a hundred conversations cannot. It suggests that in areas where strife is a way of life, the line between superstition and hope ceases to exist. It also suggests that perspective is everything – Nooreh thinks she controls peace, but it’s the sound of violence that lulls her to sleep.