After the sumptuous period piece Before the Rains Indian film maker Santosh Sivan’s latest film Tahaan takes him into an altogether different direction, confronting the issues of Kashmir, terrorism and childhood adolescence with his familiar and intimidating capacity to film landscapes for their natural beauty. There are two films which seem to have left a significant impression on the artistic sensibilities of Santosh Sivan whilst shaping the material into what is a very sentimental narrative. The first film is Iranian film maker, Bahman Ghobadi’s study of Kurdish orphans in A Time for Drunken Horses (2000); humanist cinema that though comes under the auspice of Kurdish cinema but is nevertheless a product of the Iranian new wave. This is especially true when considering that Ghobadi trained as an assistant under Abbas Kiarostami in the 90s. A Time for Drunken Horses is set in the wintry and inhospitable terrain of a remote Kurdish village which geographically seems positioned somewhere in the hinterlands of Iran and Iraq. Ghobadi’s deliberate focus on the landscapes of the region becomes a source of conflict which can be traced to Sivan’s similar decision to represent the mountainous terrain as something sacred and spiritual.
The use of non professional actors, natural lighting and location shooting are characteristics common to the neo realist philosophy yet Sivan’s use of children as a means of exploring a range of themes is the closest he comes to imitating the distilled language of film makers like Ghobadi. However, the parallels between the resourceful young boy, Ayoub, from A Time for Drunken Horses and Tahaan is striking in how both share the burden of responsibility at such an early age and also suffer a crisis of adulthood. Unlike the realist concerns of Gobadi, Sivan stylised approach means that he offers liberation for Tahaan by ensuring he achieves his goal of retaining the donkey by the end of the film. Such fairytale motivated closure is notably absent from the uncompromising realist preoccupations of the Iranian new wave and neo realist film makers of the past. Thus, one could argue that Sivan’s film uses the symbol of the donkey to demonstrate the emotional importance of escapism as key to maintaining the resilience and survival of children in such a bitter reality of endless conflict. Admittedly, using animals in a film is said to be somewhat of a conceit as it is a short cut and cheat to making the audience emotional.
The second cinematic influence seems more obscure assuming that Sivan has seen Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. Bresson’s heavily allegorical 1966 film used the symbolic figure of a donkey to illustrate the cruel and unforgiving nature of today’s apathetic society. Aside from the biblical connotations, ‘Birbal’ the donkey in Sivan’s film is an affective way of humanising the drama which takes place in the geopolitical context of Kashmir. It also makes us warm to Tahaan’s character very quickly and saves Sivan the job of having to resort to any unnecessary back story. Similarly like Bresson’s film in which the donkey passes through the hands of a series of ineffectual owners, Sivan also uses the donkey to not only allow Tahaan to encounter a number of oddball characters, but to advance the narrative in a way that seems unforced and natural. In many films, it is children who always make the adults around them see the value of humanity by placing their faith and even trust in animals.
The continuing political uncertainty surrounding the disputed region of Kashmir has been represented endlessly in the cinema of India. Yet such is the political complexity of the issue of Kashmir that very few film makers have successfully demonstrated a degree of impartiality that does not simply denigrate all Kashmiri Muslims as cross border terrorists with an undying allegiance to Pakistan. It might even be right to say that the Kashmir conflict has helped to spawn its very own distinct genre, complete with recognisable visual conventions and a familiar formula for mainstream box office success. In the mid 90s, with the rise of nationalist ideology (as exemplified in the political gains made by the BJP) and the continuing persecution of Muslims in much of India, the Kargil stand-off between Pakistan and India brought the two nations close to the edge of yet another war. All of these factors played a real part in fuelling the jingoism of many of the right wing mainstream Kashmiri based films that started to steadily emerge at the beginning of the 90s, eventually culminating in big budget event films with spectacular marketing campaigns like Border (1997), The Hero: The Love Story of a Spy (2003) and Mission Kashmir (2000).
Many of these films present a stark and politically motivated black and white morality in which Kashmiri militants and insurgents (mostly Muslims) are demonised as simply monstrous terrorists, hell bent on seeing that Kashmir remains in the hands of Muslims and propagating the belief that India has no right to exist. Sivan is not the first Indian film maker to show the Kashmir issue through the perspective of a Muslim family but any film which chooses to implement a balanced approach to what is still a contentious subject is sure to be viewed with some suspicion. The affects of the Kashmiri conflict are most readily felt in the plot line of Tahaan’s father. Declared missing, many know that this is something the Indian military chooses to endorse in fear of being accused of illegally detaining suspected Kashmiri militants. Though this seems like a convenient way of focusing the narrative on the young boy, it works in reminding us of the terrorism both sides inflict upon one another. Tahaan’s father acts as an invisible symbol of the continuing repression and persecution faced by Muslim families in an Indian controlled Kashmir.
The BJP administration used the victory of Kargil as a means of bolstering political support and gaining widespread popularity with the Indian electorate. Bollywood’s response came immediately in the form of a series of flag waving propaganda films, celebrating the sacrifices of the Indian military and its brave soldiers. This was most clearly evident in the big budget multi starrer, LOC: Kargil, a film that ran for four hours long and had the endorsement of the Bollywood film industry with many of the biggest film stars lending their names to the production. However, the tumultuous events of September 11 and the thawing of diplomatic relations between the two nations meant that few films were made about Kashmir as the focus shifted towards addressing the emergence of the new threat posed by domestic, home grown terrorism. This has led to the production of a number of highly intelligent and well directed studies of urban based terrorism including films like Aamir (2007), A Wednesday (2008) and Black Friday (2006). With the recent Mumbai attacks, Kashmir has appeared on the political agenda as almost a dead issue. Thus it may seem odd that Sivan has tackled the Kashmir issue at a time when it has lost its wider political relevance and maybe this explains why the film chooses to use the figure of the defenceless young boy in order to avoid being pigeon holed as yet another film about Kashmir.
The presence of children in the films of Santosh Sivan is a motif which he keeps returning to with great interest. This can be traced as far back as his early feature films which have been categorised as children’s fairy tales. Even in his more mature films like The Terrorist, Asoka and Before the Rains, the figure of the child is crucial in acting as an obvious symbol of innocence but also as a contrast between the casual brutality of the adult world and the rationality of the one occupied by children. Consider how in Asoka, it is the needless death of Arya, the young prince, who ultimately helps to reform Asoka, transforming him into a pacifist and Buddhist. Children continue to act as the perfect vehicle for allegorically exploring a range of issues in a particular society without resorting to obvious polemical film making. It might even be true to say that the greatest film makers are the ones who can manipulate and coerce performances from child actors. Tahaan continues Sivan’s preoccupation with the child motif, positioning Tahaan’s character at the heart of the action and normalising the reality of poverty.
One of the more direct political comments is offered through the relationship between Tahaan and a Kashmiri militant, underlining how children in such extreme political contexts are susceptible to exploitation for sinister purposes. Similarly, like Mali in The Terrorist, Tahaan has a choice between life and death but Sivan’s sensationalist decision to incorporate extremism into the narrative strays too far and becomes wholly unbelievable. Sivan never really makes it clear what exactly Tahaan is instructed to do with the grenade he has been asked to carry in exchange for his donkey, Birbal. Nevertheless, the exploitation of the child by the militant for political purposes is a realistic manifestation of the self destructive way in which the future of an entire generation has been compromised purely to further an impossible political cause. Though Sivan isolates Tahaan yet further by suggesting that the Indian military are in truth responsible for the illegal detention of his missing father, the final moments of the film seems to blame both the militants and the army for failing the people of Kashmir.
Sivan has only made a handful of films to date and the difficulty with pinning down a particular genre with which he is associated marks him as a film maker of great versatility who is not afraid of working on the margins if it means giving him the chance to work out personal authorial expression. I didn’t feel Tahaan was as strong as his previous work and this was largely because of the uneven narrative structure which meanders a great deal in the last third of the film, turning into somewhat of a coming of age road movie. In despite of these criticisms, Sivan’s cinematography is sublimely inspirational yet again.