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I’m Not the River Jhelum: A tale of two Kashmirs

I’m Not the River Jhelum uses non-linear storytelling, theatre, documentary footage and poetry as ways to understand Kashmir

A still from 'I’m Not the River Jhelum'

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Beauty and violence are no strangers. Prabhash Chandra’s unabashedly political and lyrically haunting film I'm Not the River Jhelum (Be Ches Ne Veth) explores their intricate relationship through its protagonist Afeefa in heavily militarized Kashmir. Though the film was made before the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, its powerful representation of terror, trauma, and state-making makes it even more relevant after the state lost its autonomy. It eschews narrative structure and upholds the idea that conflict-ridden Kashmir is a palimpsest that cannot be reduced to a monolithic identity. It must be explored through different forms of representation. To this end, Chandra uses non-linear storylines, theatre pieces, documentary footage and poetry as narrative mediums.

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The film premiered at the International Film Festival of Kerala in March 2022 where he won the Best Debut Director award. Among other festivals, the film has been shortlisted for the Asian Competition section at the Dhaka International Film Festival in January 2023. Chandra has also planned multiple screenings in different cities across India to be organized by local film societies and cultural spaces like Conflictorium and Scrapyard in Ahmedabad, Harkat Studios in Mumbai, and film schools like Whistling Woods International and Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute. The film appears at a time when dissenting opinions meet inglorious ends; Kerala-based filmmaker Sandeep Ravindranath’s short film on human rights violations in Kashmir was taken down by YouTube. “The idea of censorship is very difficult to deal with. At the same time, I feel this is our fight to be able to express ourselves in a constitutional way,” says Chandra in a WhatsApp exchange.

The film takes its name from an eponymous poem by conceptual artist Inder Salim, who also plays a cameo role in the film. The story follows young Afeefa, her family and friends through the unrelenting precarity of their lives in Kashmir and the fear that lurks just outside the door. The simple act of going to get medicines in the night becomes a quest full of danger. A visit to a friend ends in a tragic loss. Small acts of care become more poignant in their vulnerability: the wrapping of a scarf around a parent who steps into the night of a Kashmiri curfew, uncertain of his return. From abandoned classrooms to missing parents and children, Chandra presents Kashmir in a lingering state of emergency, one that is tragic in its beauty.

The cinematography, by Anuj Chopra and Pratiik D. Bhalawala, is reminiscent of a violence and sadness as common as breathing. People go missing, first seen then unseen, returning as phantasms and truth-tellers. The spectrality in the cinematography evokes absence. The film explores the steady incursion of the Indian state into every aspect of Kashmiri life through its clever use of sound and silence. The cocking of a gun. All footsteps like soldiers’ marching boots. The ominous whine of low-flying aircraft, creating a lingering unease. The air is punctured by cries of pain as the camera pans deserted streets and abandoned storefronts.

This tension is reflected in the film’s shooting that took place in Pulwama district of Kashmir. “There was surveillance everywhere, so shooting outdoors was a major challenge. My friends there helped me explore the place and… calculate the risk involved in shooting at any particular location,” says Chandra. He uses documentary footage not just to show the reality of Kashmir but also juxtaposes a different political moment in Delhi: the CAA-NRC and Shaheen Bagh protests. One feels a deep lament for Kashmir and for the larger question of Muslim marginalization in the country: where can one feel safe?

In many ways, the film encourages the viewer’s participation in unravelling the story. Chandra uses poetry performances as a narrative device, which offers both an immersion and reprieve from the starkness of everyday life in Kashmir. After a jarring explosion, a poem by Rabindranath Tagore guides the viewer through the debris. It is a poignant political moment, a glimpse of a lost universe that was enriched through books, poetry, astronomy. The director offers these as pit stops for the viewer to engage with the complexity of the Kashmir experience and as a space to examine their own beliefs on violence and state-making.

He also references famous Urdu writers and poets like Manto, Iqbal and Agha Shahid Ali. In a bold feminist statement, two theatrical pieces offer an interlude in the film’s narrative. The trope of Manto’s shalwar, from his famous Partition stories, is used powerfully in these interludes. In another chilling interlude using a performance piece from the play Enter at Your Own Risk directed by Sukriti Khurana and Rashi Mishra (also art director and co-producer in the film), we see how the female body becomes a site for staking claims by the masculinist, predatory state. The suspension of disbelief displaces any narrative complacency, soliciting our horror as we squirm in our seats, watching the actors enact a trauma coiled tightly inside their bodies.

In all this, the river Jhelum is a silent witness. It speaks of a Kashmir that is broken, raging, like Afeefa. But unlike the river’s temporal flow, a woman’s life cannot be tied to her fate. In a powerful montage, Afeefa fades from view as the river flows on. There is no closure. Amba Suhasini, who essays the role of Afeefa, points to the need to challenge stereotypes that accompany the idea of Kashmir. “We do not hear enough stories about the life of the common woman in Kashmir. About how time stands stock still as she waits, of her hopes or dreams or her utter desperation.”

While the emotional range of some characters sometimes falls short, Suhasini’s restrained, powerful acting is in unison with the film’s message. This is reflected in the poignant, precarious bond she shares with her father. Another memorable character in the film is the madman. I felt that some graphic scenes of his suffering were avoidable, given how much the film relies on an implicit understanding of trauma. But much like Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, the madman’s truth-telling becomes an obstinate challenge to state power and shows the brute logic of military life. Kashmir is a space of apparitions: a parade of those ‘encountered’, tortured, raped, mutilated, humiliated, brutalized.

In the film, the women emerge strongest. The dialogue is minimized as if in acknowledgment that unspoken words carry the greatest weight: the coldness of knowledge, the unquantifiable sorrow in a gaze. Ghosts are ever present but just out of reach, the ghosts of living trauma. Kashmir is a state of disappeared people. The strength of the film is its non-linear storyline, its punctums, its haunting beauty. A true tragedy will be if this revolution will not be televised.

Piya Srinivasan is a researcher, writer and reviewer based in Kolkata.

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