A story about hope, set in the worlds’ most secret war, and its effects on women and children.
British teenager Noor and Kashmiri local, Majid have each has lost their fathers in sinister fashion. The epic tragedy of a paradise whose once noble people have come to accept terror and its chilling response as a way-of-life, is seen through the playful eyes of love-struck teenagers who, in a poignant search for the fathers they have never known, unwittingly reveal the murderous ways of state and men in this coming-of-age drama of hope, betrayal and forgiveness in the spectacular Himalayan valley of Kashmir.
Production Diary: Week 2
Last week, we introduced you to our lead actors and showed you glimpses of our shoot. It’s been almost two weeks of shoot now and we’ve shot some of our most elaborate scenes in the past ten days. A film is as good as its production, and we’ve tried our best to pay attention to detail so that our set and costumes are of superior quality. Production designer Sylvain Nahmias kept every piece of prop from the samovars (pitchers) to kangris (coal baskets to keep warm) true to reality.
One of the crew’s favourite scenes was a Kashmiri wedding and we recreated this from scratch. We organised an actual wazwan (a multi-course Kashmiri meal) and had the cooks prepare everything on set. Every actor and background artist felt they were attending a real wedding. Our lead actor, Zara (Noor), wore a silk salwar-kameez with gold embellishments for the first time and loved it. The bride (Maya Sarao as Parvena) was in vintage brocade with hand thread embroidery on the yoke (part of Ritu Kumar’s revivalist collection) and an old recreated tissue head covering. The groom (Ashvin Kumar as Arshid) was in a hand-woven raw wool coat with a shawl recreated from an 18th century Kashmiri motif with kanni weaving and a karakuli (fur cap). The tent the production team set up was a stunning canvas of white with intricate crewel embroidery covering every inch of it.
We spent months on research and homework on all things Kashmiri before the shoot began but just to make sure we nailed it (because we’re a bunch of paranoid perfectionists), we run a fact check with our Kashmiri crew and our on-set Kashmiri consultant before every shot. We have a local on every team and we’re proud to say that every Kashmiri on set feels that Noor is a true representation of their way of life.
Here’s a sneak peek of what went on behind the scenes at the wedding set, and introducing our Kashmiri crew…
Our cast looking their best in Ritu Kumar finery. From Left: Natasha Mago (Zainab), Zara Webb (Noor), Soni Razdan (Halima), Maya Sarao (Parvena), Ashvin Kumar (Arshid), Shivam Raina (Majid) and Kulbhushan Kharbanda (Abdul Rashid)
Grave human rights violations have taken place in Kashmir under the watch of India, the world’s largest democracy. Approximately 10,000 men have disappeared in this conflict which has claimed at least 100,000 lives – three times more than Israel and Palestine. Yet Kashmir remains one of the most under-reported conflicts in the world, almost obliterated by Western media. This film is my attempt to address that imbalance.
I recall the sense of shame and disbelief that I felt as an Indian when I first embarked on my Kashmir documentaries, the Inshallah series, in 2009. Everything that I was witnessing and recording contradicted what I had consumed in the past about India’s relationship with Kashmir.
Despite twenty years of a gruelling and bloody conflict, and despite being, for all practical purposes ‘the enemy’ (an Indian), the ordinary Kashmiri not only welcomed me but gave me unprecedented access to their most private, secret thoughts and feelings – as evidenced in the preceding documentary features.
I came away humbled and somewhat perplexed by that sense of shared humanity that seems to bind people, transcending divisive religious and national affiliations. They have a word for this in Kashmir – its called ‘Kashmiriyat’. Very hard to translate into English but loosely, lets call it ‘brotherhood’. For me Kashmiriyat encapsualtes optimism, hope, light-heartedness. A sense of culture, sophistication, understanding, forgiveness.
It is this sense of Kashmiriyat that I want to recall in Noor.
Conflict, I realised, is its most brutal in the kitchen – when the family is gathered for a meal or a cup of tea. And that it is the women and children who are gathered around that hearth, upon whom the crushing weight of absence and loss falls most heavily.
So it is through a depiction of the mundane, the humdrum lives that this story of two teenagers from a disparate worlds and their experience of love, pays an homage to the indomitable spirit of these women and children of Kashmir.
They are the traumatised survivors who endure a merciless occupation, a colonisation of hearts and minds that is now become institutionalised by ritualised humiliations in a conflict that doesn’t seem to have any end or respite.
Theirs is a heartbreaking vigil with no end. And yet, remarkably, it is they who keep the struggle for dignity alive, long after the world has forgotten their predicament.
Director Ashvin Kumar with actors Zara Webb (Noor) and Shivam Raina (Majid)
Noor is the hardest script I’ve attempted. It involves telling a story of innocence against the backdrop of war, of compassion in narratives filled with hate and in despair, the fragile determination of love.
Shivam Raina (Majid) and Zara Webb (Noor)
Khulbhusan Kharbanda as Abdul Rashid
Soni Razdan as Halima
Maya Sarao plays Parveena
Anshuman Jha plays the role of an army major.
The crew at work on sets of Noor
Kashmir is one of worlds forgotten yet pivotal conflicts. It is a disputed territory between the nuclear-nations China, India and Pakistan, the hot-bed of global-terror and potential flash-point following the American withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2014. In it, a civilian population lives in the shadow of half-a-million troops in a small area, not much larger than greater New Delhi.
The conflict in Kashmir has claimed more than a hundred thousand lives of which ten thousand are ‘disappeared’ people. The human loss whether it is armed forces being killed, or civilians dying in the crossfire is deeply troubling, particularly in a modern democracy.
The wives of disappeared men face economic hardships, uncertainty about their children’s future and are socially ostracised. Caught in a pincer of militants and soldiers, without status, rights or claims, their lives are reduced to an endless vigil.
Wives of disappeared men are euphemistically known as half-widows. Their husbands are missing but not declared dead. The absence of a bread earner leaves the family economically vulnerable. Apart from this the wives aren’t allowed to transfer husband’s property or have bank accounts. In certain cases the relationship of the in-laws with the wife also sour. In a society where married women don’t live in their parents’ home, half-widows find themselves without support and along with their children are a constant reminder of the family’s loss and additional mouths to feed. The matter of inheritance as determined by the Muslim Law leaves their children without economic support. Some of these women have given their children to orphanages or have turned to menial work, begging and prostitution. Others, to secure their future and children, have married their brothers-in-law.
APDP estimates at least one thousand five hundred half widows in the Kashmir valley.
Noor is a feature narrative about the women and children caught in the limbo created by disappearances.
International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice has been demanding exhumation of mass-graves since the the earthquake in 2005 first confirmed their existence. Though the group sought intervention of National Human Rights Commission and State Human Rights Commission in 2009, little has been done to find the identity of the bodies in the graves and the perpetrators of crime.
The Indian state, for the first time, admitted the existence of thirty-eight unmarked graves with two thousand one hundred and fifty six unidentified bodies in a mass-graves on the 21 August 2011. However, in 2012 the government of Kashmir refused to perform DNA testing on the bodies found in the mass grave due to lack of resources. The interviews in the film were shot in 2009.
Noor is a narrative feature about the women and children caught in the limbo created by disappearances.
disappeared | video clip
Nearly ten-thousand people have disappeared in Kashmir. This clip, from Inshallah, Kashmir, shows the fallout on the women and children of the men who have disappeared. Some heartrending accounts of fraught lives, compounded by state apathy.
Parveena Ahangar’s life changed when her sixteen year-old son was allegedly picked up by the Indian army on the suspicion of being a militant. From someone who seldom ventured out of her house, Parveena went around the country, from jail to jail, looking for her son. The authorities could tell her nothing. She formed the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), to unite families of the disappeared looking for their kin. Without formal education, from an orthodox Muslilm family, Parveena mobilised women in Kashmir who are still waiting for the loved ones to return. She was nominated for Nobel Peace Price in 2005.
Parveena’s is a story that echoes across eight to ten-thousand families scattered all over Kashmir. Many whose loved ones disappeared, in the early years of militancy – two decades and counting.
Ashvin’s next film Noor is a fictional story about the women and children caught in the limbo created by disappearances.
We approached the Kickstarter platform for funding as we want to make a film without having to compromise our vision. We are ecstatic that so many people came together to raise £74,000 towards making this film. It shows there is a real desire out there to see this incredible script on the big screen.
Kashmir has remained in the peripheries of western consciousness and in media darkness for far too long. Noor is our attempt to change that narrative. The people who’ve supported it at this nascent stage are an endorsement of this effort; they are also our audience and our ambassadors.
To support the crowdfunding campaign, I travelled across the UK to visit Kashmiri communities in London, Glasgow, Manchester, Rochdale, Bradford and Birmingham and held free screenings of my films, Inshallah, Kashmir and Inshallah, Football.