The incandescent documentary Song of Lahore narrates a hopeful story about culture and the arts in Pakistan which has witnessed since the 1970s a steady decline and erosion of both. Directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken frame the recent emergence of Sachal Studios, set up to try and bring together some of Pakistan and Lahore’s best classical musicians, in a much wider historical framework stretching back to the Indian Mughal era and their patronage of music. The turning point in terms of debasing the cultural significance of music as an ancient tradition passed on through generations is located in the totalitarian reign of General Zia who by imposing Sharia law re-situated music as something worthless and sinful. Such puritanical sentiments are still deeply entrenched in the psyche of Pakistan, made altogether worse now by the presence of the Taliban, the most philistine of ideologues. Song of Lahore follows the success of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, beginning with their inspired rendition of Brubeck’s Take Five, and ending in a collaborative performance at New York’s Lincoln Centre with Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz Orchestra. It is an impassioned plea positing music as cultural exchange, comradeship and reinstating the edifying significance and place that classical music deserves in a nation suffering from cultural, historical amnesia.
Director Sasidharan’s experimental, anthropological dispositif takes a group of friends, lets them drink, throws them into the jungle, and then steps back with his camera, adopting tableau to frame their cruel, animalistic and casteist behaviour. The effect is unnerving to say the least, made altogether confrontational with the presence of a lower caste woman who prepares a meal for the men and whom becomes a source of ridicule, and later physical abuse. Days and Nights in the Forest, one of Ray’s least appreciated films, is an inspiration for this similarly fortuitous and discordant tale of friendship that culminates in an acutely disturbing consummation. The first half of the film unfolds in a series of master shots and since none of the characters are given a formal introduction in the way of close ups creates a detachment placing upon the spectator the burden of observational study. Sasidharan takes no interest in sustaining plot, preferring to turn his camera on the characters, studying their actions, reactions and interactions as if it was an ethnographic project. What Sasidharan seizes upon is that intricate psychological testing amongst the friends masks a deeper distrust, contempt and antagonism, which rise to the surface in an uncomfortable and ultimately savage way. The ancient game the men agree to play in a drunken haze enacts a hidden social ritual, one that manifests an unconscious, primal longing for power, control and death.
Harud is singular in many ways when it comes to the representations of Kashmir in the sphere of Indian cinema. It does the impossible. It tells the story of Kashmir by simply telling the story of a family. Harud communicates elemental ideas about human relations thereby transcending the way political biases have in the past, and continue to do so, ruined flawed attempts to give a voice to the people of Kashmir. Many of the films about Kashmir that have been made in the mainstream view the region and its people as simply a conflict which means the very people who define Kashmir are rendered invisible in narratives that seem far too preoccupied with digressing into the differing political positions of the various Indian and Pakistan governments. By framing Kashmir as a political conflict between India and Pakistan is important for contextualisation. However, the cinematic historiography of Kashmir has not only simplified the complexity of the dispute over territory but has failed to give a platform to the people of Kashmir who are desperate for the world to hear their urgent need for self determination and ultimately independence from both India and Pakistan.
Actor turned director Aamir Bashir does right to play this close to the ground, focusing on the level of everyday human experience of a family trying to come to terms with the loss of a son who has simply disappeared, joining the thousands of missing people who have ended up in the hands of the Indian and Pakistani military for supposed terrorist activity. Of course, resistance and dissent by the Kashmiri youth is deemed terrorism when in truth it could just as well be labelled as an on going struggle for freedom. Much of the story of Harud centres on Rafiq, the younger brother of Yusuf who has gone missing. Yusuf is a cipher in many ways; ambiguously drawn and Bashir refuses to really get drawn into the political ideologies that motivate most of the characters we meet. This is a bold move as he wants to depict Kashmir as a human place that is hauntingly exemplified through the disillusioned emotional state of Rafiq which is constantly teetering on the brink of self destruction. What Bashir shows us is that the youth in Kashmir have very few options and in the case of Rafiq he is trapped by his obligations to his parents and the injustice he feels about his brother.
Bashir’s film is unremittingly bleak, contrasting starkly with the photography visualising Kashmir as a unmistakably beautiful land. In a way, the tragic conclusion is inevitable. Such an intensely militarised country can only lead to one thing, suggesting the fragility of life is predicated on political lines; the people of Kashmir and its families are the victims of a much broader geopolitical game that has no end in sight. I have been busy praising Haider this year as one of Indian cinema’s best films. Yet it is clear to see Harud’s influence on shaping some of the ideas Bhardwaj deploys in Haider. Although they are two very different films, they are arguing for the people rather than the politics, giving us a new and defining perspective on such a contentious dispute/conflict.
So many voices go unheard in the media. The oppressed, the minorities, those fighting for their very existence are blotted out of history, expunged since they do not fit the dominant narrative being mythologised, one in which Gandhi’s Satyagraha is continually promoted as the egalitarian solution to most of the divisions that still exist in India. Director Jayan Cherian, an experimental documentary filmmaker based in NY, has to be commended for giving a voice to an indigenous Adivasi Dalit settlement in Meppara in Kerala (Cherian’s birth place) who are attempting to hold on to ancestral land, which is being forcibly taken away from them by a government only interested in serving the interests of larger mining companies. Displacement of indigenous tribes from their lands is a narrative that has been unfolding for a long time but arguably very films have dealt with such an issue given its intensely political context. By embracing Buddhism the Dalit tribe align themselves politically with the thinking of B. R. Ambedkar, a key figure in Indian politics who campaigned for an end to caste oppression. Cherian is very critical of neo-Gandhi ideology, arguing the government use such a corrosive philosophy as a means of appeasement. In reality, for any change to come about, then non-violence is meaningless especially when the nation state regularly deploys violent repression as a means of containing dissent.
In one particularly controversial moment, a group of Dalits protesting the provocative march by a government minister through their sacred land as a sign of peace ends with them burning an effigy of Gandhi. Yet Cherian juxtaposes this to the parallel destruction of a photo of Ambedkar. Perhaps the point here is that neither of these two men has an influence left on shaping the perceptions of a struggle that has become more than just caste, now incorporating capitalism, the environment and gender politics. Papilio Buddha was initially denied a certification in India and continues to attract the scorn of the political and religious elite for its unapologetic portrayal of Dalit life. It is a remarkable film since Cherian refuses to limit his observations solely to the Marxist struggle of the Dalits, dealing also with homosexuality and especially gang rape (harrowingly depicted) with a discerning, unflinching gaze. Cherian deals with very troubling realities, much of which is suppressed in the media, summed up with a terrifying clarity in the staggering series of final shots framing a continuous stream of Dalits carrying their belongings with them, forced to leave their homeland, pushed into exile and turned into refugees in their own country.
It’s difficult to place this film; counter cinema, experimental, political and above all a searing filmic protest.