Nikhil Allug, the director of the independent film Shehjar (Shade), says that he got the story idea when he woke up one morning. “Many ideas come to me in my sleep, but they fizzle out in a few days,” he said. “This idea of a family coming down to a city and the many twists and turns and suspense that lead to a discovery stayed on.”
Shehjar is less dream than nightmare. The movie, which will be screened in the Indian Cinema Now section at the International Film Festival of Kerala (December 8-15), follows a Kashmiri family that travels to Mumbai on a mission whose true nature is revealed late into the narrative. The early sections are purely observational: Nasif (Sunil Kumar Palwal), Mariyam (Ira Dubey), Jasim (Zahid Mir) and Khalid (Burhan Wahi Itoo) use various modes of transport to leave behind the Kashmir valley for Mumbai, where they are holed up in a duplex apartment for an unrevealed purpose.
The initial silence that hangs over the family (the first line is spoken close to 13 minutes into the movie) gives way to revealing conversations. As the characters wait it out, their respective personalities come into view, as do their differences. Allug’s slow-burn approach in the interests of maintaining suspense allows the intertwined relationships to be fleshed out. Khalid, a brash and troubled teenager, emerges as the most uncontrollable member and the most interesting character.
“I picked each and every character and gave them a sketch and a motive and then the name at the very end,” 30-year-old Allug said. “The first act is about travel, the visual beauty of the changing landscapes, the boredom, the fatigue, the relationships. The second act is the viewers’ understanding of the characters. I could have taken them to Mumbai straight away, but we wanted to give audiences the sense of a journey.”
Although Allug says that the characters could have been from anywhere in the world, it is no coincidence that they hail from Jammu and Kashmir. The northern state’s ongoing struggle for autonomy and its endless troubles feature in the back stories of the characters as well as influence their present-day actions. Nasif explains the Kashmir issue in simple terms: it’s a fight between India and Pakistan, with ordinary people squeezed in between.
The movie was originally called Shikara (Houseboat), but Allug had to think of something else since the title was already registered by another producer. Shehjar means shade in Kashmiri. “I wanted to explore the terrain without romanticising it,” the filmmaker explained. The casting of local actors – Sunil Kumar Palwal is from Jammu, while Wahid Mir and Burhan Shafi Itoo are from Kashmir – increases the film’s claim to authenticity. Once again, Nasif provides a verbal clue to the movie’s ambition when he narrates a folk tale about a deer that looks everywhere for musk without realising that the essence lies within the animal all along.
Palwal was the first actor to be cast for the production. The Film and Television Institute of India graduate is best-known for playing a Kashmiri militant in Jolly LLB 2 (2017). “When the idea for the film hit me, I called called up Sunil and told him about what I had in mind,” Allug said. “He had done a few television shows, and he was the first guy I contacted.”
After unsuccessful attempts to cast Kashmiris living in Mumbai, Allug found his young actors from the state itself. “The characters are not based on real people, but they still come off as believable,” the director said. “These are people we have heard of or seen around.”
Shehjar will be Allug’s first movie to be screened in public, but it is actually his second production. He has directed a horror thriller called The Maya Tape, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Vishakha Singh, which he hopes to release in 2018. As for Shehjar, the movie will do the rounds of film festivals before looking at a release in late 2018.