Pakistani filmmaker Sabiha Sumar began to work on Azmaish: A Journey Through the Subcontinent in 2013 and completed it in 2017. But even though it is six years old, the film is still extremely relevant, as it discusses the rise of religious extremism in Pakistan and India.

The documentary is now available in India on the pay-per-view platform Eventscape through March.

Sumar’s films include the Partition-themed Khamosh Pani and Good Morning Karachi. In Azmaish, she conducts interviews and field visits to explore the effects of fundamentalist thought on her country. The spirit of dialogue and inquiry extends to the device of using the actor Kalki Koechlin as an Indian collaborator. Koechlin echoes Sumar’s quest and has her own set of conversations about the rise of Hindutva thought in India.

“The concept of the film began germinating when we saw similarities between religious nationalisms in Pakistan and India” that culminated in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in the parliamentary election in 2014, Sumar told in an email interview. The party’s repudiation of secularism as a binding principle of the Indian state and its push for recognising Hinduism as the basis of Indian nationhood reminded Sumar of how Pakistan had “similarly sought to unite the diverse ethnics in the region using the ideological glue of Islam”, she said.

“We set out to explore why the two countries that diverged at independence – one promoting religiosity and the other celebrating secularism – began to converge to a similar religious identity,” Sumar added. “The current political discourse in India eerily resembles what I have witnessed in Pakistan over the past several decades. It’s very worrying.”

Sabihar Sumar (left) and Kalki Koechlin in Azmaish. Courtesy Vidhi Films.

Among the Pakistanis Sumar interviews is a wealthy tribal leader who decries the exploitation of religion for votes and comments that just because a man has a long beard, it doesn’t mean that he is a true Muslim. In India, Koechlin chats with a bunch of Holi revellers and asks them if India should be regarded as a “Hindu country”. While some vehemently agree, others point out that Hindutva politics is a distraction from the issues that matters, such as poverty and unemployment.

“It is communication and exposure to each other that helps us understand ourselves better,” Koechlin observed in her email interview. “When we are secure in ourselves, we are more compassionate and willing to cooperate in life. As an actor too, my struggle and aspiration is finding empathy for my character no matter how far removed they may be from my own personality.”

The documentary’s title loosely means “an attempt” or “an experiment”. Sumar and Koechlin visit each other’s countries too, taking forward the theme of mutual dialogue and empathy. Sumar lived in Delhi between 1999 and 2008 when her husband was a research scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. She moved back to Karachi in the 2000s for personal and logistical reasons – as a Pakistani, it had become increasingly difficult for her to get a visa to India, she said.

Koechlin managed to visit Pakistan for the documentary. She accompanies Sumar on some of her travels. The actor’s experiences of Pakistan were eye-opening, she said.

“On ground, the similarities are uncanny, from food to language to the hospitality of the individual and the hostility of the mob, even the truck decorations and the sense of celebrations are similar,” Koechlin recalled. “The sense of poverty and neglect in rural areas versus the abundance of the few in the cities, the oppression of women, the male gaze, are very similar. I would say the main difference I felt was that Pakistan is very much controlled by this agricultural feudalism and India is more industrialised and therefore more democratic.”

Azmaish (2017).

Sumar picked Koechlin as her Indian counterpoint because of the actor’s “open-mindedness, sincere and direct approach to the research and the necessary curiosity for getting under the skin of such a sensitive story”, the filmmaker said. Koechlin’s dual identity – she was born to French parents in Pondicherry – was an added attraction, Sumar said.

“We were attracted by Kalki’s unconventional body of work in Indian films as well as her committed activism in support of numerous social causes,” Sumar added. “Her unconventional approach to life and work promised an out-of-the-box contribution to Azmaish. In many ways, I share her unconventionalism in my work and life.”

The 85-minute documentary includes disagreements between the interviewers and their subjects as well as between Sumar and Koechlin. The fallout of politicising religion is already evident in Pakistan and is unfolding in distressing ways in India too, Sumar says in the documentary. Koechlin is far more optimistic, remarking that a “majority vote doesn’t mean the country doesn’t have other voices speaking”.

Given recent events in India, particularly the raging Islamophobia, the documentary’s worst-case scenario of India coming to adopt Pakistan’s most disquieting impulses seem to be coming true. “I think her [Koechlin’s] hope for a people’s movement to re-establish secular politics still holds true,” Sumar said. “The BJP’s landslide victory in 2019 may make that seem unlikely. However, it’s too early to expect a people’s movement in a country as large as India. It’ll take time but I am confident the people will rise to the challenge and the movement will happen.”

Koechlin, who gave birth to a daughter in 2020, remained buoyant about India’s prospects. “As long as there is life growing, I feel there is hope, I say that even more purposely now that I have a child,” she said. “There is a renewal and reminder of the basic needs of life when you have a child, love, friendship, air, water and food. We all need this no matter what we believe in. And whenever I lose hope, I imagine the world leaders and power-hungry figures as once being small children. Somehow it helps.”

Azmaish (2017).