Kashmiri actor Aamir Bashir made his directing debut with Harud, or autumn, in 2010. Bashir always meant to follow-up the sobering study of a young photographer’s experiences with the Kashmiri autonomy movement with a film about maagh, or winter.
Twelve years after Harud and several challenges, Maagh has been completed. Premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in October (where it won an audience choice award), Maagh is being shown at the International Film Festival of Kerala (December 9-16).
In the gap between planning Maagh and actually filming it, there has been a seismic change in Kashmiri politics. “I started working on the idea in 2012,” Bashir told Scroll.in. “Things have changed in terms of the structure, but not necessarily on the ground. The vision stayed the same, but the details changed.”
In 2019, the Centre revoked the special status guaranteed to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Constitution along with special protections for permanent residents of the region under Article 35A. The brutal suppression of protestors and political parties since 2019 find their way into the chronicle of a woman whose husband has been missing for years after being picked up in an Army sweep.
Zoya Hussain plays Nargis, a skilled pashmina shawl weaver. Nargis is doubly vulnerable: apart from being a single woman, she is also from the nomadic Bakarwal tribe.
The motif of a delicately patterned shawl that is being woven by Nargis runs through the quietly devastating account of loss and survival. Nargi’s husband Manzoor does return, but he is a shell of his former self.
Maagh has been written by Bashir and his long-time collaborator, the cinematographer and filmmaker Shanker Raman. The editor is Shan Mohammed, who has also edited Harud.
“Shankar and I have been friends before we started making films together,” Bashir said. “There is rapport and understanding and complete freedom. As for Shan, he loves the economy of our style.”
The film’s unhurried narrative style reflects the experience of winter in Kashmir, Bashir observed. “Time slows down, and the nights are way longer,” he said. “It is the lowest part of the year, in that it is physically and spiritually demanding.” Maagh’s English title is “The Winter Within”.
The long takes and intimate close-ups allow the eye to rest on the actors and Shanker Raman’s immersive detailing. Patches of colour punctuate the blankets of snow, in much the same way as bright spots are scattered across Nargis’s brown-hued shawl.
“Slowing things down is part of the watching experience,” Bashir said. “It gives the audience the time to engage a lot more with what is on the screen. The longer you are looking at a painting, the more you discover. Also, if you are engaging with a visage, a narrative starts building in your head.”
The shawl’s colours are reflective of winter itself, Bashir added. “I wanted a cold palette that enhanced the feeling of winter and the temperature,” he said. “This is broken mainly by the shawl. Nargis is weaving her life and her past into a shawl, but her present is this wintry palette. She is going through her winter, in one sense.”
For the rest of India, winter in Kashmir has another connotation – it’s a snow-filled and fir-laden paradise, a vacation spot for honeymooners and Instagrammers. Maagh explores the dissonance between tobogganing tourists and supressed locals through Manzoor, who reluctantly finds work accompanying visitors on their sled rides.
The film was shot in 2019 and 2020, across two winters in Kashmir. Apart from Zoya Hussain, whose credits include Mukkaabaaz, Laal Kaptaan, Ankahi Kahaniya and Grahan, the cast comprises non-professional locals.
“I had worked with Zoya on Laal Kaptaan,” Bashir said. “Zoya has the ability to merge and disappear into a crowd – that’s how she stands out. She had to deal with an alien language in Maagh. We translated the script into Bakarwali for her and then told her she had to speak Kashmiri. She had to adapt to Kashmiri, like her character.”
Manzoor is played by Manzoor Ahmed Bhat. “I saw his face and asked him what his name was,” Bashir said. Shabir Ahmad Lone, who plays Nargis’s employer, actually runs workshops in shawl weaving for women.
For Bashir, who grew up in Srinagar and has family there, events in Kashmir are never too far away. While he lives and works out of Mumbai, he continues to be connected to the latest headlines, many of which are filled with despair.
Despite – or because of – the Article 370 decision, the ground realities in Kashmir have only worsened. Arbitrariness marks the Centre’s governance of the region, from apple exports left to rot on highways to an arbitrary decision by a Ganderbal functionary to ban the domestic use of electrical heaters during the punishing winter (an order since withdrawn).
“For Kashmiris, post-traumatic stress disorder is an ongoing thing,” Bashir observed. “It’s not like you have had an event in the past and you are now suffering from it. Especially now, we politically have no ground to stand on.”
Maagh offers no false promises or easy solutions. The film loops back to Harud by featuring the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. Like the Argentinean group Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, APDP has been holding peaceful protests since 1989 to demand justice for their missing family members.
“What APDP is asking for is like a habeas corpus petition – please present the body,” Bashir said. “Many of them reconciled to the fact that there is hardly any chance of their family members being alive.”
In an ideal world, there might be a time when Kashmiris can look back on these events with emotional distance, but that moment hasn’t yet arrived. “The whole point is that there is no closure,” Bashir observed. “These are recurring themes, they are ongoing. I would love to make a black comedy on Kashmir someday, but for that, things have to stop and you have to have a retrospective view where you can find the humour in the tragedy.”