In the movie ‘I Am Not the River Jhelum’, a file from Kashmir

In I am not the Jhelum River, the days are like nights and the nights are like nightmares. Writer-director Prabhash Chandra imagines the Kashmir Valley as a place shrouded in gray and drenched in endless uncertainty.

Shot in streets empty except for the presence of soldiers and inside dimly lit houses in which the characters dream of astronomy and peace, the film gives a powerful and haunting sense of what it means to live in the one of the most militarized areas in the world. planet.

The array of techniques – non-linear narrative, stylized acting, performance pieces, poetry readings – morph into an unsettling experience in which normality is theoretical and the activities regular, from going to the school to go out for an errand, are full of anxiety.

The film was conceptualized before 2019, the year the Center removed the special status guaranteed to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Constitution, as well as special protections for permanent residents of the region in under Section 35A. Still, I am not the Jhelum River could well be seen as a representation of what it means to be in a post-370 world, in which basic freedom of movement is restricted and violence lies just beyond the door.

“I would have made the movie even if Section 370 was still in place,” Chandra said.

I Am Not Jhelum River (2022). Courtesy of Alpana Theatre.

After premiering at the Kerala International Film Festival in March (where it shared the FFSI KR Mohanan Award for Best Indian Debut Director), I am not the Jhelum River will be screened at the Kolkata International Film Festival (April 25-May 1). For Chandra, the Kerala prize, which included a cash prize of Rs 50,000, was a huge boost for the low-budget production.

“I produced the film by doing acting workshops,” said Chandra, whose feature debut Mera Ram Kho Gaya came out in 2019. “We would wait for the money to come in and only shoot then.”

Based on Chandra I am not the Jhelum River on the time he spent between 2013 and 2018 in Pulwama, leading drama workshops and physics classes. Although trained as a nuclear physicist, the 31-year-old Delhi resident devoted himself to writing and directing plays for the Alpana theater group.

Chandra’s years in Pulwama were a revelation, he recalls. “There was silence all around, and when you walked out you saw very few people, maybe just one dog,” he said. “There was a feeling of emptiness. People had become numb. I’ve seen it in children too.

I Am Not Jhelum River (2022). Courtesy of Alpana Theatre.

A few incidents stand out in his memory, both as a reminder of his status as an outsider as well as the resilience of the Kashmiri people to their unimaginable conditions.

There was a time when, over a nice meal of biryani, Chandra’s eyes watered and he began to cough. “People casually told me that rock throwing was happening a few blocks away and tear gas was being used,” he said. “When I went to bed that night I thought I was trapped, I won’t survive this. But what was scary and traumatic for me was normal for them.

There was another time when protesters blocked the road to the airport but let Chandra through because he had a flight to catch. Our fight is not with you but with someone else, the protesters told him.

Among 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 her experiences into a storyline. Chandra directed the film primarily in Hindi due to his lack of proficiency in Kashmir. It used both local actors and performers from Delhi and Mumbai.

I Am Not Jhelum River (2022). Courtesy of Alpana Theatre.

Seventy percent of the shoot was done by cinematographers Anuj Chopra and Pratik D Bhalawala in January 2020. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic derailed the already cash-strapped production, forcing Chandra to operate the camera himself for certain scenes.

Among the bold departures from conventional storytelling is the inclusion of a performance piece inspired by the play Enter at your own riskdirected by Sukriti Khurana and Rashi Mishra (both Mishra and Khurana worked in I am not the Jhelum River in various capacities). The sequence draws a comparison between the stories of Saadat Hasan Manto on the violence suffered by women during the partition in 1947 and the excesses of the army in Kashmir.

“My background is in theater, and I also wanted to draw parallels between Manto’s writing and what happens in places where there’s an insurgency,” Chandra said.

Chandra’s collaborators included Paresh Kamdar, the veteran director and editor. Kamdar gave the film a rhythm that was both nervous and gentle, melancholic and provocative.

The opening sequence is a nod to Mani Kaul Before my eyes. Made in 1989, the year the Kashmir independence movement burst into the open, Before my eyes is a document of the natural wealth of the valley. The film ends with an ominous visual – the shadow of a helicopter winds through the mountains.

In I am not the Jhelum Riverthe harsh sound of an airplane interrupts the view of the titular body of water, serene in its beauty.

I Am Not Jhelum River (2022). Courtesy of Alpana Theatre.

The voice reading poems on Kashmir as well as translations of classic works belongs to artist Inder Salim. The thoughts of long-dead writers and poets – including Jagan Nath Azad and Rabindranath Tagore – echo in the tragic present. The dead are selfish, they make us cry and don’t care, observes a voiceover.

The title of the film is taken from Salim’s poem I am not the river Veth (Jhelum)which can be interpreted in many ways, Chandra said.

The Jhelum, like the main character Afeefa (played by Amba Suhasini K Jhala), has “seen so much”, observed Chandra. But unlike the river, Afeefa refuses to accept her fate, as do other characters.

“Characters aren’t submissive, they resist through theater, film, and poetry,” Chandra said. “No matter what happens in Kashmir, the land will always resist.”

Prabash Chandra.

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