Aijaz Khan’s film looks at the fallout of a 'disappearance' in Kashmir
Rasika Dugal, Talha Arshad Reshi and Vikas Kumar deliver fine performances
The calm of floating leaves covering placid lakes belies the tension in the mountainous region of Kashmir, where a simple boat-maker’s rhymes are misread as coded messages of treason. Director Aijaz Khan’s drama opens late one night when questioning at a check post sets up the mood for the tragedy that lies ahead.
That night, Rehmat Ali (Sumit Kaul) steps out of his home on an errand, to appease his son. A year later, his wife Ishrat (Rasika Dugal) and his eight-year-old son, Hamid (Talha Arshad Reshi), are dealing with the fallout of his disappearance.
One single photograph, his father’s toolbox and the boy’s memories of happier times are the only hints of Rahmat’s presence. Other than that he is relegated to a pink file that Ishrat, like many other families, carries to the local police station awaiting information on her missing husband. She is caught in an uneasy reality – fighting the need to accept the painful truth and holding on to a sliver of hope even as she is unable to find closure.
In the absence of a strong male role model, and living with a mother who is overwrought with grief, Hamid takes his cues wherever they come from. The recurrence of the number 786, described as Allah’s number, offers a ray of hope. When he finds a mobile phone he dials 786 and tries to connect to god, because someone has told Hamid that his father has gone to Allah.
The number Hamid dials connect to a voice. At the other end of the phone is Central Reserve Police Force jawan Abhay (Vikas Kumar). Abhay is a hot-headed and homesick solider battling his own demons. He humours Hamid, whose conversations and pleas bring a touch of innocence into Abhay’s dark, violent and lonely life.
Hamid is resourceful enough to cull together funds to top-up the mobile connection and implores "Allah" to send his father back. He tells the voice how his mother doesn’t even look at him anymore. It’s heartbreaking to hear the cherubic child matter-of-factly speak of his hurt and confusion.
The child’s naiveté works in tandem with the poetic storytelling. Through these conversations between Hamid and God, who is in fact just another fallible man, we see the very doubts and desperation we place on divinity. If Allah doesn’t have the answers, then who does?
At another level the film explores questions about the Kashmir situation, the tenuous relationship between the army and the citizens, and the indiscriminate disappearance of so many men. However, the track about a local fundamentalist’s unsubtle recruitment tactics and brainwashing of the town’s young boys does not mesh in as seamlessly.
The three central actors profoundly occupy the anguish, the silences and the tension. Talha Arshad Reshi is confident and precocious and his performance is all the more touching because it is un-theatrical. Kumar is impressive as he finely balances pathos with fierceness. In a deeply internalised role, Dugal delivers an arresting and haunting performance as the heartbroken and helpless mother who is dying a little everyday.
Screenwriter Ravinder Randhawa has adapted Amin Bhat’s play Phone No. 786 and Khan has crafted it into a compassionate tale that sensitively touches on a number of issues. Chief among them is the idea that in conflict-afflicted areas, childhood is a luxury only a few can afford.