If you enjoy the magical films of Iranian film-makers, you are likely to compare Santosh Sivan’s eight-year-old Tahaan to another eight-year-old—Mohammad in Majid Majidi’s 1999 The Color of Paradise.
The wild-eyed, cheeky ferocity of Tahaan, played by Mumbai-born Purav Bhandare, who was selected from among 136 children in an audition last year, and his dogged effort to retrieve his best friend, an adorable donkey named Birbal (also selected after a long trek through many villages), can pale when you recall the bittersweet beauty of the scene where the blind Mohammad puts his palms in a stream and reads the pebbles in Braille as his father sits behind him on a rock, wondering how to get rid of his son.
So what if it niggles that Bhandare sounds more Mumbaikar than Kashmiri; Tahaan confirms what we’ve always known about Sivan—he’s great with children. In fact, his next film is the story of a child set in a fantasy world.
Beastly tale: Sivan’s latest film also stars Anupam Kher and Sarika.
But the real star of this film is not Tahaan, it’s Kashmir. Sivan has finally done what no other film-maker has managed to do in the last two decades; he has gone out and reclaimed Kashmir for the Indian moviegoer. In fact, this is the first film to be shot entirely in Kashmir since the conflict began two decades ago.
Sivan’s Kashmir doesn’t have the mist and chinar feel of Yash Chopra’s favourite romantic location from the before conflict era. You’re unlikely to burst into song if you find yourself locked in a deserted house here and the keys go missing. And it’s near impossible to visualize a plump, pink Shammi Kapoor hollering on these ski slopes.
This Kashmir is all grown-up and battle-weary. It’s a place where little boys play terrorist games and believe they are grown men; where tired women hold up photographs of their missing spouses against army fences; where the 3 Rajasthan Rifles battalion soldiers aren’t erased out of (or caricatured in) the screenplay.
Sivan’s Kashmir is a bleak beauty. Winter light on bare trees creates mysterious landscapes with great depth of field. The unit shot in 12 villages, using authentic soldiers and sufi musicians (buy the soundtrack), but it’s unlikely you’ll recognize even old filmi favourites such as, say, the Dal Lake in the sequence where Tahaan is taken by boat across a bare, haunted water body to meet the head of a militant group. “The maximum feedback I’ve got from people is ‘are you sure this is Kashmir?’” says producer Mubina Rattonsey.
It almost wasn’t but Rattonsey finally managed to convince the Mumbai-based unit of more than 70 people that they should shoot in Kashmir, and not Manali. The film was finally shot over six weeks in a -15 degrees Celsius winter last year. Everybody survived the experience of shooting in war-torn Kashmir though it was a wilder ride than it would have been elsewhere. Flights were often delayed due to low visibility; one crew member was questioned by the army despite the fact that he was carrying an identity card; post-sunset parties were usually held at the special task force camp; and there was sunlight only for a couple of hours in the morning.
So, is that picture-perfect Kashmir we gaped at in 90 or so films of the 1960s, 1970s and half of the 1980s gone forever? Many of us have only those early cinematic memories of India’s favourite paradise. By the time we were old enough to go out and explore our country, Kashmir was firmly out of bounds.
Film-makers have been slowly drawn back to the region—a Sudhir Mishra and Reliance BIG Entertainment film shot in Kashmir will likely be the next release and UTV says Kashmir is still a contender for the children’s film it plans to shoot with Majidi.
But then, Kashmir is unpredictable.
Even as this story was being written, the situation in Kashmir changed. The director of tourism, Farooq Ahmed Shah, who told this writer at least “8-10 films” were in the pipeline, and that he would have a list ready in a day, then understandably wouldn’t answer any calls after violence broke out yet again.
Whether or not Sivan’s film brings a new rush of film-makers to the region, viewers like me will certainly thank him for bringing Kashmir back to the big screen.
Tahaan released in theatres on Friday.