Ashvin Kumar, director of the Oscar-nominated short film Little Terrorist (2004), finds himself in a censor board-related controversy for the third time with his new film No Fathers in Kashmir. Earlier this month, Kumar wrote an open letter to Central Board of Film Certification chairperson Prasoon Joshi after the board asked for cuts in his feature-length fiction in exchange for an “A” certificate.

Kumar’s documentaries Inshallah, Football (2010) and Inshallah, Kashmir (2012) were also A-rated. Both productions went on to win National Film Awards.

In his letter to Joshi, Kumar wrote that awarding an A rating to an independent film was as good as banning it, as the only way for makers to recoup investments for low-budget productions was through television broadcast rights. A film certified for adult audiences cannot be telecast, as per Indian law. Consequently, this hurts the film’s chances of bagging a digital distribution deal, Kumar wrote. The censor board is following a “Kafkaesque tradition” by repeatedly thwarting his films, he contended.

No Fathers in Kashmir. Courtesy Alipur Films.
No Fathers in Kashmir. Courtesy Alipur Films.

No Fathers in Kashmir revolves around British-Kashmiri teenager Noor (Zara La Peta Webb) who visits the Valley to find her father, who had disappeared many years ago. She is helped by a local boy, Majid (Shivam Raina). Love and heartbreak ensues amidst the backdrop of militancy and conflict in the state. The supporting cast includes Kulbushan Kharbanda, Soni Razdan and Anshuman Jha.

The film has “no sex, no violence, no vulgarity, no nudity, no drug abuse” and is a tale of hope and forgiveness set in an area of conflict, Kumar told Joshi. “Keeping the conflict shrouded in propaganda and misinformation that dominates national discourse creates demonic, hyperbolic and misleading representations of people who we would like to think of as fellow citizens,” Kumar wrote. “My film asks, isn’t it time we start telling the truth? Shouldn’t people be allow free and unmediated interaction with each other? Shouldn’t narratives of compassion be allowed to replace those of hate?”

In an interview to Scroll.in, Kumar, who is contesting the censor board’s decision at the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, explained what prompted the open letter and why he has had a tumultuous journey with the censor board.

Was writing the letter the last resort?
The situation is that if we don’t comply by the diktats of the censor board, we will be awarded an Adult certificate. Every cut to a film is damaging. If cuts were necessary, we would do them ourselves.

We appealed to FCAT [Film Certification Appellate Tribunal] more than two weeks ago and we will receive a date of meeting soon. But this costs money. I know that they will bleed me dry financially to the greatest extent possible till I get a certificate. Hence, I wrote the letter to expose this bloody, nonsensical system.

What is the major bone of contention for the censor board members? Did you get to present your stance?
I did not get the opportunity to debate at all. Neither during the first screening nor the second screening. They were not ready to listen to what I had to say. They just said that if you have to get the Adult certificate, you have to re-cut your film according to their diktats, and that if I want to challenge, I can approach FCAT.

I do not think I am at the liberty to talk about the exact cuts they wanted, with the FCAT hearing approaching. But the fact of the case is simple. It is a story about 16-year-olds without problematic elements. There is nothing anti-national or anti-Army in the film. I don’t know if the problem is simply that the film is set in Kashmir.

What could be the logic of banning Inshallah, Football and Inshallah, Kashmir and then giving them National Film Awards? All I know is that there is a strategy in place and is not coincidental. First time it happens, it can be oversight. Second time, coincidence. But third time? Come on.

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Inshallah, Kashmir (2012).

You have faced these troubles with the United Progressive Alliance government as well as the National Democratic Alliance government. Is the issue simply is that your films are set in Kashmir?
I must say that I am not going up against any particular government. I am just saying that this is anti-Constitution. It is undemocratic. What I know is that the objective is to make it difficult for me to release films in this country. The two screenings cost me two lakh rupees. For the FCAT appeal, I have to pay lawyers. As I wrote, this is death of a filmmaker by a thousand cuts.

Why make a fiction film set in Kashmir after two back-to-back documentaries?
Contrary to popular belief because of the notoriety of my work, I am not a documentary filmmaker. My documentaries began with Kashmir where I went 10 years ago with the thought of making a fiction film. My documentaries turned out to be human rights films that took a strong stand against the state to highlight irregularities in which things are operated here.

With my new film, I want to engage the youth of the rest of India and get them to empathise with Kashmiri people. It is an exercise to tell a youthful and hopeful story. It is a story of solutions, not problems. Of course, there are darker aspects of Kashmir at play, but overall, it’s a teenagers’ story of love and heartbreak. I wanted to engage young Indians who may or may not have an opinion on Kashmir and could perhaps look at Kashmir with less prejudice than elders carrying the baggage of partition.

Ashvin Kumar.
Ashvin Kumar.

You could have bypassed the censor board and gone for an internet release on a streaming platform.
But the system needs to be called out. It needs to be eradicated or changed or made filmmaker-friendly. If the government finds it important to keep a film certification body, let it be filmmaker-friendly. Let it not be a hostile situation where you are guilty before proving yourself to be innocent.

Your debut film, Irrfan-starrer ‘Road to Ladakh’ was also set in Jammu and Kashmir, while ‘Little Terrorist’ was set in the India-Pakistan border. What attracts you, who was born and raised in Kolkata, to these areas?
I am as Calcuttan as I am a Kashmiri. My grandparents are Kashmiri. My mother was raised in Kashmir. The Kashmir crisis continues to challenge our democracy in ways which are revealing about the way we conduct ourselves as a society or nation. The levels at which human rights abuses keep happening there at the same as us claiming it to be a part of the country is ironic and problematic.

I think my interest lies in the fact that people in border areas or areas of conflict are essentially the same as people in other place. I have tried to unravel the traumas of Partition in my work. There is also an undercurrent of humanity in these narratives. What is happening there is not just causing grievous harm to the locals but is also affecting our country. People with little to no knowledge are having this warped picture of an entire place. My goal was to put a perspective on this whole thing and make it less divisive.

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Little Terrorist (2004).