Book review

Love, pain and film-making in Kashmir make this novel an unusual story from the state

A novel of grace, sadness and self-discovery that sidesteps the obvious.

Kashmir has been special to Hindi cinema since the 1960s and those Eastman Color images of Shammi Kapoor serenading Sharmila Tagore on a shikara, the lovely vistas of the Dal Lake, and local beauties in costumes that must have seemed very exotic to viewers in other parts of the country. This was – to use a cliché – paradise before it was lost, and decades before a newer sort of film was forced to deal with the state as a place of violence and cultural confusion; where love might still unfold in idyllic settings, but accompanied by a sense of urgency and the knowledge that it all might suddenly be lost. In Cine-Kashmir 2.0, a gentle melody like “Chupke se sun” (from Mission Kashmir) overlaps with a violent childhood memory, and the title song sequence of Dil Se surreally places images of passion against a backdrop of bullets and barbed wire, to create an effect drastically removed from that of “Yeh Chaand sa Roshan Chehra”.

Selina Sen’s novel Zoon is about the making of two very different sorts of Kashmir films, shot ten years apart: one in the late 1980s, and the second, a continuation and completion of the first, in the late 1990s. The book’s premise derives loosely from the circumstances surrounding Muzaffar Ali’s shelved real-life project Zooni, starring Dimple Kapadia and Vinod Khanna. But as it weaves fiction out of a factual footnote, Zoon becomes a moving story about the gap between innocence and experience, as filtered through the perspective of a young woman named Joya.

The two films

Joya, when we meet her in 1988, is a film-school graduate who lands a dream job as assistant to the respected director Sudhanshu Rai. A rare creature in the Bollywood of the time, Rai is taken seriously for his artistic integrity but has also recently had one big commercial hit. Now he wants to make a period film about Habba Khatoon, the 16th century poet who became queen to the ruler Yousuf Shah Chak before their love story ended in tragedy, and whose plaintive songs are still remembered and sung in the Valley.

Researching this medieval tale, Joya quickly proves her worth. Though haunted by dark childhood memories, she has a good head on her shoulders along with a willingness to work hard – even if she shows her age occasionally by being a little pretentious (dropping names like Dali and Bunuel, trying to sound well-travelled despite never having been out of India).

Arriving in Kashmir for the shoot, she meets the other members of the crew, including an Oscar-winning British cinematographer, becomes fascinated by the land and is gradually drawn towards one of her co-workers, a young historian named Rashid. Their relationship moves from mutual wariness to empathy and then attraction, but bigger forces are at work around them. As so often happens, art is suffocated by local politics, the film shoot is abruptly cancelled and the two lovers are separated, much like Habba and Yousuf were centuries earlier.


Apart from being a gracefully told story about self-discovery, loss and redemption, Zoon is an account of the many interlinked challenges of filmmaking: a director of photography finding the right look for a character or situation, a location scouter for a period film ruefully abandoning an idea because research shows that a building or a flora type wasn’t around during the era in question. It is a reminder of the little things that go into the creative process – the mechanisms of inspiration, how hard work may be complemented by serendipitous discoveries.

The contrast between the two Kashmir films also raises questions about the relationship between art and life. Without giving away too many details, the film that Joya eventually helms a decade after Rai’s abandoned Zoon is more wide-ranging and formally ambitious than the original. The first Zoon is a somewhat circumscribed story about two people, with a certain amount of political detail inevitably woven in; the second merges past and present, using the Habba Khatoon narrative to link the many struggles and personal histories of modern Kashmiris. By this point, Joya’s own experiences have made her conscious of the need to tell a story through as many perspectives as possible, to be balanced and fair.

Big picture or small?

It is possible, of course, to argue that good art doesn’t usually come out of a self-conscious effort to be “balanced” in this sense, and that a well-made film which wants to be “simply” a love story can be every bit as worthy as a well-made film that is more explicitly political and ambitious. But such a thesis can fall apart in a place as beset by strife and the weight of history as Kashmir is: is it possible here for a filmmaker (or a novelist) to focus on individuals without recognising how they are affected and moulded by the larger stories playing out around them? For me, one of the achievements of Zoon’s last few chapters was that after reading the descriptions of the second film, I felt a wistful desire to see it.

I had a few minor reservations too, most of them involving what felt like “first-draft errors” – cases of a rushed production process where an early version of a manuscript wasn’t given adequate attention by a copy-editor, and a few rough-hewn passages made it to publication. There are some typos and grammatical errors: tenses are mixed (“The story of Zoon has been set in motion and Rai was constantly on the phone every night…”; “He examined her aerial views of the Valley at dawn, the ones she has taken from Shankaracharya Hill…”), and other little mistakes, such as “ostensibly” being used where “ostentatiously” was probably intended (“She wished she had chosen her white shirt instead of this conspicuous colour. This shirt, so ostensibly orange…”). Sudhanshu Rai’s name changes to “Shantanu Rai” and back again.

The book also felt longer than it needed to be, swamped at times by detail and description, over-written in places (“Joya felt a tightening in her chest, heart strings pulling tight. Rashid, next to her, exuded a similar feeling of constriction, a clamping of fingers into fists”; “…the turmoil of unbearable guilt and self-loathing, a summons which pummeled her with schizophrenic refrain”) and a little too adjective-heavy (“The disparaging note hummed down the wire with an audible sniff”). Despite bouts of annoyance, these things didn’t interfere much with my reading; if it’s plot and narrative that you’re mainly concerned with, Sen keeps things moving along at a good pace.

A strength of her writing is the verisimilitude in the depiction of the two time-periods, even when it comes to throwaway details (such as Joya’s email ID – a plausible vsnl.com). Those of us who lived through these years will be reminded of how much changed between the 1980s and the late 1990s: the internet and cellphones were in their nascent form during the latter period, irrevocably altering our accessibility to information and to each other; the multiplex era had started changing the way films were conceived and distributed; some types of stories – about people losing trace of each other, for example – that made sense in the 1980s had become laughably dated a decade later.

Without delving too deep into Kashmiri politics, or turning her novel into a tract, Sen has created a simple but engaging story about the relationship between the personal and the political, full of snapshots of people, their conflicts, little glimpses of what they may or may not have done – eventually leaving the reader with a dull ache for a way of life being slowly eaten away, and for a land that continues to be a beautiful enigma. Or as the old film song would have it, “Koi raaz hai iss mein gehra”.

Zoon, Selina Sen, Tranquebar Press.

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