The inaugural International Film Festival of Kashmir unspooled at Tagore Hall this past weekend. Screening more than a dozen features, documentaries, and shorts from a handful of countries over three days, the Experimental Moving Image and Theatre Association (XMITA) event was a godsend for local cinephiles and an opportunity for one and all to experience varied and valuable points of view.
Despite a turnout hamstrung by the weekend's political rallies and traffic jams and several technical glitches that marred early screenings, the mood was upbeat.
"This is just the first one," said festival organizer Aarshad Mushtaq, a local filmmaker and theatre director. "We plan to do this if every year, and hopefully each one will be bigger and better than the last."
Many of the films commented directly or indirectly on the conflict in Kashmir. Temporary Loss of Consciousness, a short by Monica Bhasin, analyzed the legacy of Partition, while Anand Patwardhan's two-part Father, Son, and Holy War dissected communalism through the efforts of India's majority Hindu community to launch a baby boom as a means to overwhelm Indian Muslims. Paradise on a River of Hell, by Abir Bazaz and Meenu Gaur, shined a light on the havoc and destruction wrought by the violent struggle in Kashmir.
Amidst the rabble, one gem gleamed: Amandla, a feature-length documentary from Lee Hirsch. The sleek, professionally-made film reveals how Black South Africans used enduring traditions of music and dance as primary tools in their decades-long struggle for freedom. In doing so, the film celebrates the indomitable nature of the human spirit and highlights an ingenious undermining of an oppressive regime.
Apartheid, the social and political system in which an elected white Afrikaaner government segregated and treated as inferior black South Africans, began officially in 1948. A charismatic black leader named Vuyisile Mini emerged soon after: political figure, actor, poet, composer and singer, he spread the message of the freedom movement through song. His most lasting tune was "Look out, Verwoerd," which warned Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, known as the "architect of Apartheid" and South African Prime Minister from 1958 to his assassination in 1966, that the blacks were coming to get him.
Buoyed by an endemic song-and-dance culture, Mini sparked a trend that came to define the black South African movement. Starting in the mid-70's, Radio Freedom, the propaganda wing of the pro-black freedom African National Conference, brought the songs, ideas, and energies of the movement to a large and hungry audience, even as its propagators courted arrest. As the years passed and the suffering deepened not a rally, protest march, funeral, or public gathering of any sort would pass without group singing of freedom songs old and new.
"I want to join your revolution!" renowned American jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie is said to have admitted to one of the better-known South African musicians in the 1960's. "Everybody's always singing and dancing."
This movement expressed in song succeeded mainly for two reasons. Firstly, group song and dance is inherently appealing, with pleasing rhythms and smiling faces, and was thus allowed and even supported by the authorities. Second, the songs were written and sung in a language -- predominantly Zulu -- unfamiliar to the oppressors, and thus went unnoticed for years. Celebrating life as it denounced oppression, the music encapsulated a quest for freedom even as it freed a people.
"It wasn't liberation music," explains Abdullah Ibrahim, a musician, composer and activist forced into exile for almost 30 years. "It was a part of liberating ourselves."
In the last couple decades Kashmiris have failed to do the same. Admittedly, Kashmiris are not a people that breaks into song or dance at the drop of a hat, but Kashmiri history does include cultural touchstones capable of serving a similar purpose.
Sufiana is the most analogous musical form, mournful and spiritual; Kashmiris have embraced its soothing tones for centuries. It also represents a form relatively unfamiliar to our oppressors.
An even better alternative might be bhand pather, a respected yet slowly dying dramatic art. Alternatively comic and pathos-filled, pather is perfectly tailored for expressing, exagerrating, and satirizing oppression, and in fact many of the traditional tales make light of or point up Kashmiri suffering at the hands of various historical tormentors. This artform could undoubtedly have been dusted off and polished for a new era, used in the service of a new and more intense struggle. Instead, the most outspoken of Kashmiris embraced victimhood, and when independence seemed nigh, turned to violence.
[Black South Africans also took up the gun, in the 1980's, and experienced the most violent period of their struggle as a result. But as an underground movement it was never widely embraced. Also, no "friendly" neighbor offered a helping hand.]
The road to freedom has been a long, torturous and winding one for Kashmiris, but it seems the long-suffering people of the Valley have finally set aside the gun. On top of a considerable decline in violence and militancy of late, recent signs suggest Kashmiris are beginning to liberate themselves, as Mr. Ibrahim put it. Plays about disappearances and fake encounter killings have been well-received, a major screening of a lively pro-people film drew an animated crowd, and a Kashmiri-authored graphic novel about militancy has put the plight of Kashmiris in a vibrant and easily-digestable form.
Could it be too little too late? It's never too late to end needless self-destruction, but maybe Kashmiris have grown too comfortable with their sorrow.
"When we left the gravesites after a funeral we didn't weep," a South African freedom fighter says in the film. "We sang, because if you mourn for too long you start to lose hope."
Kashmiris have made mourning and victimhood a defining trait, thus rendering legitimate liberation anti-thetical to their way of life. Let's hope recent developments herald the birth of a new movement, one that finally brings true Amandla (power) to the people of Kashmir.