In I Am Not the River Jhelum, the days are like nights and the nights are like nightmares. Writer-director Prabhash Chandra imagines the Kashmir Valley as a place dipped in grey and soaked in unending uncertainty.
Shot on streets that are empty save for the presence of soldiers and inside dimly lit homes in which characters dream of astronomy and peace, the film gives a powerful and haunting sense of what it means to live in one of the most heavily militarised zones on the planet.
The array of techniques – a non-linear narrative, stylised acting, performance pieces, readings of poems – builds up to an unnerving experience in which normalcy is moot and regular activities, from going to school to stepping out for an errand, are fraught with anxiety.
The film was conceptualised before 2019, the year the Centre removed special status that Jammu and Kashmir had been guaranteed under Article 370 of the Constitution along with special protections for permanent residents of the region under Article 35A. Yet, I Am Not the River Jhelum could well be taken as a depiction of what it means to be in a post-370 world, in which basic freedom of movement is curbed and violence lies just beyond the doorstep.
“I would have made the film even if Article 370 were still in place,” Chandra told Scroll.in.
After a premiere at the International Film Festival of Kerala in March (where it shared the FFSI KR Mohanan award for Best Debut Director from India), I Am Not the River Jhelum will be shown at the Kolkata International Film Festival (April 25-May 1). For Chandra, the Kerala award, which included a cash prize of Rs 50,000, was a massive boost for the low-budget production.
“I produced the film by doing theatre workshops,” said Chandra, whose debut feature Mera Ram Kho Gaya came out in 2019. “We would wait for money in come in and shoot only then.”
Chandra based I Am Not the River Jhelum on the time he spent between 2013 and 2018 in Pulwama, conducting theatre workshops and physics classes. Although trained as a nuclear physicist, the 31-year-old Delhi resident has devoted himself to writing and directing plays for the theatre group Alpana.
Chandra’s years in Pulwama were an eye-opener, he recalled. “There was silence all around, and when you went out, you would see very few people, maybe a single dog,” he said. “There was a sense of emptiness. People had become numb. I saw it in the kids too.”
A few incidents stand out in his memory, both as a reminder of his outsider status as well as of the resilience of the Kashmiri people to their unimaginable conditions.
There was the time when, during a pleasant meal of biryani, Chandra’s eyes began to water and he started to cough. “People casually told me that stone pelting was happening a couple of blocks away and tear gas was being used,” he said. “When I went to bed that night, I thought I am trapped, I won’t survive this. But what was frightening and traumatic for me was normal for them.”
There was the other time when protestors had blocked the road to the airport but allowed Chandra to pass because he had a flight to catch. Our fight isn’t with you but with someone else, the protestors told him.
At the homes of students and friends, Chandra saw a side of Kashmir that has often escaped national attention, he said – hospitable, loving, and courageous.
In 2019, Chandra began assembling his experiences into a screenplay. Chandra made the film predominantly in Hindi because of his lack of fluency in Kashmiri. He used both local actors and performers from Delhi and Mumbai.
Seventy per cent of the shoot was completed by cinematographers Anuj Chopra and Pratik D Bhalawala in January 2020. The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic derailed the already fund-strapped production, compelling Chandra to wield the camera himself for some scenes.
Among the bold breaks from conventional storytelling is the inclusion of a performance piece inspired by the play Enter at Your Own Risk, directed by Sukriti Khurana and Rashi Mishra (both Mishra and Khurana have worked in I Am Not the River Jhelum in various capacities). The sequence draws a comparison between Saadat Hasan Manto’s short stories about the violence suffered by women during the Partition in 1947 and excesses by the Army in Kashmir.
“My training is in theatre, and I also wanted to draw parallels between Manto’s writing and what happens in places where there is insurgency,” Chandra said.
Chandra’s collaborators included Paresh Kamdar, the veteran director and editor. Kamdar has given the film a rhythm that is both nervous and smooth, melancholic and defiant.
The opening sequence is a hat-tip to Mani Kaul’s Before My Eyes. Made in 1989, the year the Kashmiri independence movement burst out into the open, Before My Eyes is a document of the Valley’s natural bounty. The film ends with an ominous visual – the shadow of a helicopter snakes across the mountains.
In I Am Not the River Jhelum, the harsh sound of a plane interrupts a view of the titular water body, serene in its beauty.
The voice reading out poems about Kashmir as well as translations of classic works belongs to the artist Inder Salim. The thoughts of writers and poets long departed – among them Jagan Nath Azad and Rabindranath Tagore – resonate in the tragic present. The dead are selfish, they make us cry and don’t care, a voiceover observes.
The film’s title is from Salim’s poem I’m Not River Veth (Jhelum), which can be interpreted in several ways, Chandra said.
The Jhelum, like the principal character Afeefa (played by Amba Suhasini K Jhala), has “seen so much”, Chandra observed. But unlike the river, Afeefa refuses to accept her lot, as do other characters.
“The characters are not submissive, they resist through theatre, film and poetry,” Chandra said. “Whatever happens to Kashmir, the land will always resist.”