Documentary channel

Why the 2007 Kashmir documentary ‘Jashn-e-Azadi’ needs to be watched again in 2016

Made nearly a decade ago, Sanjay Kak’s film is grimly prescient about the new phase of militancy in Kashmir.

Sanjay Kak’s documentary Jashn-e-Azadi was completed in 2007. The film on Kashmir’s long “intifada” came under fire from rightwing groups. In Mumbai, the police cracked down on public screenings on the grounds that it did not have the clearance of the Central Board of Film Certification. Over the years, the film has been screened at cultural centres and festivals aimed at promoting free speech. Jashn-e-Azadi has finally seen its official web release through the ezine Raiot, at the end of a harrowing week in Kashmir where protests were put down by force and newspapers silenced.

Play
‘Jashn-e-Azadi’.

In 2007, the Valley was recovering from the wave of militancy that started in 1989, peaked in the mid-1990s and was winding down by the early 2000s. Burhan Wani had not yet left to become a commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, gather a fan following on the internet and become a local legend. His death had not yet pitched Kashmir into a new cycle of violence.

Yet, the 2007 film is grimly prescient. You hear the same words that would fashion a new phase of militancy in the Valley – 500 years of “zulm” or oppression under various “occupiers” and the “shahadat” or martyrdom of the few who took on the Army and the government. It is as if the Valley were fated for this new turbulence, as if the passions of a decade had been building up towards this denouement. It is hard to watch the documentary today as Kashmir revives its tragic romance with azadi. The same words are repeated, the same slogans break out again.

The tragedy is folded into the title itself, Jashn-e- Azadi, or “How We Celebrate Freedom”. As the documentary explains, azadi in the Valley is the object of eternal yearning, an ideal state that will come “one day”. Perhaps it is political freedom or perhaps it is “jannat”, the paradise promised to martyrs. Either way, it is always an absence.

This longing has spawned its own songs and slogans. Kak dwells on satirical sketches performed by Kashmir’s folk performers known as bhands, street marches where hundreds of fists are pumped in the air, and the insistent beat of “Hum kya chahte? Azadi.” These have elements of the carnivalesque.

But the carnivalesque is also found in an extravagance of grief. Kak’s camera travels over snow piling upon snow in a martyrs’ graveyard, where a father cannot find his son’s grave anymore. It stops at an old man counting the dead from his village and follows fires spreading wantonly across settlements, laying waste to scores of houses.

Grief lies in dirges sung for militants pledged to death, in the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali and Zarif Ahmed Zarif, in the constant fight against forgetting, in the horrors that patients at a psychiatric hospital cannot forget. This, the documentary seems to tell you, is how Kashmiris celebrate freedom.

This is a non-linear documentary, not particularly troubled by chronology, throwing up bits of journalistic detail only to have them melt away. How many dead, how many disappeared, what exactly happened? We may never know.

Ashvin Kumar’s Inshallah, Kashmir (2012), the other documentary that has shaped conversations on the Valley, is more deliberate in its storytelling, following specific cases and gathering evidence to build a picture of human rights violations. Kak seems more concerned with how things are felt to happen, with the ironies that emerge when one image is set against another.

Play
‘Inshallah, Kashmir’.

In Jashn-e- Azadi, footage from 2003 of unmarked graves still fresh on the ground is interrupted by grainy shots taken in the 1990s of militants training with guns, bodies on stretchers and crowds gathered outside mosques. The scene shifts to 2005, when a layer of dust has formed over old memories. The camera moves, fugue-like, through the years – 2003, 2007, 1991, 1992, 1993, 2004. It could have kept going into 2008, 2010, 2016.

If there is a story, it lies in the polemical energy of the images – the stillness of the Dal Lake, worshippers floating into a mosque, red chillies near the scene of an encounter, militants cresting a hill, the expressions on the faces of Kashmiri villagers rounded up by the army for a lecture on development.

Azadi, that eternal absence, is suggested in a dirge-like repetition of images. This repetition also seems to mimic the pattern of Kashmir’s history. Kak returns again and again to Lal Chowk on August 15, for instance, where police and army attend a flag hoisting ceremony every year. On Independence Day in 2004, guns peer out of windows and armoured vehicles rumble down the street. In the background, there are patriotic songs about that other azadi, won in 1947. It is a bleak celebration.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

Play

For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.