Reel Life: The Kashmir melancholy

It’s Chandra’s telling of the story that makes all the difference. Suffocation and fear are embedded in its frames and leap out of the screen, simple scenes brim over with melancholia

A still from 'I Am Not The River Jhelum'
A still from 'I Am Not The River Jhelum'
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Namrata Joshi

Prabhash Chandra’s Be Ches Ne Veth (I Am Not the River Jhelum), begins with a painterly shot of tranquil waters and sturdy mountains of Kashmir that flow into and merge with the vacant, inscrutable face of a woman even as we hear discordant sounds in the background.

She is the film’s protagonist Afeefa (played by Amba Suhasini K Jhala) whose seeming placidity is incapable of masking the turbulence in her eyes that have been witness to several silent tragedies. It’s a sequence that sets up and underlines Chandra’s own belief, that the worst sufferers in any situation of strife, at any place or time in history-- be it Afghanistan, Palestine, Syria or Ukraine-- are women.

In his debut film, he evokes the larger, overwhelming mood of perpetual uncertainty, fear and anxiety in Kashmir through the personal trauma experienced by Afeefa and her near and dear ones.

The Hindi film (with additional narration and dialogues in Kashmiri) premiered in the International Competition section at the International Film Festival of Kerala in March where it won the FFSI KR Mohanan award for Best Debut Director from India. It screened in the competition section of the International Film Festival of Thrissur where it won KW Joseph Jury special mention and was recently shown at the Kolkata International Film Festival.

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Prabhash Chandra
Prabhash Chandra

The Kashmir of the film is the one that we keep getting updates about at a distance. A land of endless curfews, incarcerations and tortures, a Kashmir torn between terrorists and armed forces where its residents themselves have been invisibalized, their voices quietened; many have gone missing, many had to leave homes to never be able to return.

It’s Chandra’s telling of the story that makes all the difference. If there can be word to sum up I Am Not the River Jhelum, it’d have to be atmospheric. Suffocation and fear are embedded in its frames and leap out of the screen all the way through the film’s run time. Be it the grey and blue colour palette or the dim lights or the deliberately gentle pace, the mood is persistently sombre and subdued, the tone eerie and violence, whether physical or mental, is implicit when not obvious and heartbreakingly matter of fact.

The empty streets, with the sirens breaking the silence, posters of a missing girl, the bare classrooms and the desolate school labs, the fear in going out for errands. Simple scenes brim over with melancholia. A walk past the rows of graves with a man saying: “The dead are selfish. They make us cry and don’t care. They stay quiet in the most inconvenient places. We have to carry them on our backs to the tombs. As if they were children. What a burden! Unusually rigid, their faces accuse us of something, or warn us; they are the bad conscience, the bad example; they are the worst things in our lives. The bad thing about the dead is that there is no way you can kill them.”

A still from 'I Am Not The River Jhelum'
A still from 'I Am Not The River Jhelum'

That indeed is the dilemma. How to write off losses? How to obliterate bereavements? How to deny injustices?

Chandra is a physics scholar who likes his science mixed with philosophy. And can’t resist nods to Newton and gravity, Carl Sagan, cosmos, galaxy, stars, planets, and the black hole in the film. His characters are passionate about astronomy and peace within their homes even as the world outside is spinning out of control.

He also brings in his experience in theatre, along with his immense love for poetry and literature, Tagore, Iqbal, Ghalib, Faiz and Manto. There is the movement back and forth in time, theatrical set-pieces, poetry readings and stylized acting to break the distance between the reel and the real. “I wasn’t bound by the form; I wasn’t thinking of the structure. I was just looking for the right expression for the situation,” he says of his cinematic experiments.

Hailing from a lower middle-class family from the village Rampur near Hajipur in Bihar, Chandra moved to the Capital after schooling to graduate in physics from Delhi University’s Deendayal Upadhyay College. It’s here that his interest in theatre also took roots. “Theatre used to give the hope that something good will happen in life. I used to do more theatre rehearsals than attend classes,” he says. It was a way to gain confidence and the ability to communicate for the small-town boy thrust into the rush of the big bad city.

After graduation he moved on to doing M Tech in nuclear science and technology and was posted at the Tarapore Nuclear Power Plant. Here he wrote his dissertation on the socio-political effects of power plants, how they contribute to wide-scale displacement. It was obviously not well received by the department, but Chandra’s mind was made. That he wouldn’t do any advocacy for nuclear energy.

He came back to Delhi to continue teaching physics and holding theatre workshops. Meanwhile, his interest in cinema got fuelled on attending the film appreciation course at Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. Kashmir came on the horizon when he went to Pulwama in 2014 to take a theatre workshop with school and college students.

“I kept listening to the students. I saw their resilience as well as anger. I kept reflecting on that after my return. I read a lot. I knew I wanted to make a film but wasn’t sure if it would be a documentary or a feature film,” he recollects. Finally, a 20–25-page structure emerged and from that came along the film script for I Am Not the River Jhelum.

Chandra shot the film in Pulwama just before the first lockdown in January 2020. Well-known filmmaker-editor Paresh Kamdar, who he regards as a mentor, helped with the edit and a lot more. “He also helped me understand the meaning of filmmaking, the aesthetics. I never went to a film school. This became my learning process,” he says. Manoj Sikka (Parzania) did the sound design. Sukriti Khurana has done the production design and Anuj Chopra and Pratik D Bhalawala are the cinematographers. Chandra cast actors from both the local and Delhi theatre.

He made the truly independent film with his own money and loans taken through credit cards and from various friends, 20% of which have been repaid, he tells us.

Could we call you a political filmmaker? I ask. “I believe in resisting and protesting oppressions,” he says of himself, both as a person and a filmmaker. The film’s title and its characters also stem from the same spirit. “River Jhelum (nature) sees and accepts a lot in its folds over a period, but my characters are not submissive. They will resist,” he says. Meanwhile, he has already begun envisaging the script for a new film on struggles and striking back of another kind, of the migrants who come from Bihar to Delhi in search of life and livelihood.

(This story was published in National Herald on Sunday)

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