The contrast between Kashmir’s beauty and its turmoil has inspired many storytellers. The latest entrant is Zee5 web series Kaafir, starring Dia Mirza and Mohit Raina.
The series follows Kainaz Akhtar (Mirza), a woman from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir who finds herself on the Indian side of the border and is promptly declared a militant. Despite asserting her innocence, Kainaz languishes behind bars for eight years, giving birth to a daughter along the way. Kainaz holds out hope of returning to her home in Pakistan, but makes little progress until lawyer-turned journalist Vedant Rathod (Raina) learns of her story and decides to don the black coat again to win justice for her. As the two fight to assert Kainaz’s innocence, secrets are revealed and loyalties are tested.
Directed by Sonam Nair (Gippy) and with a screenplay by Raazi (2018) co-writer Bhavani Iyer, Kaafir can be streamed on Zee5. The cast includes Dara Sandhu, Faezeh Jalali, Vikram Sahu, Natasha Rastogi and Dishita Jain as Sehar, Kainaz’s daughter.
The series is based on a true story and set in 2005, but its message of cross-border peace is aimed squarely at today. At a time when India-Pakistan ties are frosty and hyper-nationalism dominates Indian politics, Kaafir boldly attempts to tell the story of a Hindu taking up the cause of a Muslim from across the border. The series underlines how inter-state rivalries have hurt lives on both sides of the divide and challenges the anti-Pakistan sentiment that dominates dinner-table conversations and television news debates in recent years.
That strain of jingoism is voiced through several supporting characters, who have no love lost for Pakistan and are convinced that all its citizens are cut from the same cloth (“My principles don’t let me believe that Pakistanis are innocent,” says one character). The lines are drawn even in the prison, where Indian and Pakistani prisoners refuse to sit close to each other.
The cinematography by Pratik Shah evocatively captures Kashmir’s topography, and Kaafir is frequently effective and affecting. But its chief drawback is unwieldy story-telling. The first episode is entirely in the service of Vedant, establishing a larger-than-life persona for him as Jammu and Kashmir’s most fearless and famous journalist. In other places, lengthy scenes that add little value to the main story line take up too much screen time. Consequently, the roughly seven-hour-long series takes a while to find its groove, and becomes increasingly meandering towards the end.
Mohit Raina puts in an effective performance as Vedant, and Dia Mirza works hard to bring Kainaz to life, but the actress struggles during the more emotional scenes. In contrast with Vedant’s derring-do, Kainaz helplessly suffers through a series of injustices. Her character works best in the rare moments when her hidden strengths come into sight. The only other female character of note is her prison mate, Fatima (Faezeh Jalali). Their few scenes together show the power of sisterhood and lend the series some heartwarming moments.
The fautlines that exist in Kashmir go beyond the territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, but the series does not address these nuances. Some events in the series beggar belief, especially when it comes to the workings of the military establishment and the legal system.
Despite its flaws, Kaafir always looks pretty and is among the better offerings on Zee5. Above all, it deserves credit for using the creative freedom offered by the digital space to tell a timely story with a crucial message.