Kashmir is like a beautiful widow

Actor Sanjay Suri is an unusual man. In a world where masala entertainment is what rakes in the big bucks, he has opted to produce small films. In a country where people feel icky discussing homosexuality, he starred as a gay man who contracts HIV in ‘My Brother Nikhil’.

And in an India where silence is the usual response to issues of women’s reproductive freedom, political indifference to Kashmiri Pandits, child sexual abuse and alternate sexualities, he has just produced a film that compiles four short stories, one on each of these subjects.

‘I Am’ – co-produced and directed by Suri’s friend Onir – features a segment on a Kashmiri Pandit woman Megha (Juhi Chawla) returning to Srinagar for the first time since terrorism compelled her family to leave. In a conversation with Consulting Editor Anna M.M. Vetticad, Suri talks about losing his own father to terrorist bullets and how Megha’s story is inspired by his life:

How much of your interest in ‘I Am’ has to do with the fact that one of the short stories is close to your heart? 

I’ve known Onir now for more than 10 years. He keeps hearing stories about Kashmir from me, my family, so his introduction to this happened through all of us. But I didn’t realise he has absorbed so much. When he said, “I want to tell a story on the issue of displacement but set it 20 years later”, of course it had a lot to do with my experience of returning home to Srinagar after 18 years. I’ve not written the script but I was very involved, not only in scripting but also introducing them to little things that found their way into dialogues, like this place called Little Hut that used to be very popular when I was in Srinagar. I don’t know whether it exists now. But yes, my experiences have been captured in ‘I Am Megha’.

How old were you when you left Kashmir?
I was 19.

And when you went back?
After 18 years, so I was 37, 38. I left in 1990 and went back in 2008. My mother went back after 16 years in 2006.

Was your association with ‘I Am’ painful for you or cathartic?
It was cathartic. I’d been delaying going back home the first time. Somewhere I didn’t want to face it. But once I went back I’m glad I did because it was cathartic. When I reached there, at one level I felt I’d never left. But at another level when someone asks you, “Are you a tourist?” it kind of hits you. And you go back and knock at the door of your own home. Those things are … I don’t know, I can’t articulate these emotions properly … Like my mother has still not gone back to our own house because of the circumstances we left in, though she’s been to Kashmir many times.

For me, ‘I Am Megha’ is not just my story. It’s the story of every displaced person in the world. There’s a lot of anger, but this character goes back only to realise that someone who was left behind is also not really happy. It’s a loss for both, that’s what we wanted to convey.

Okay, this is not the story of Kashmiri Pandits alone but of all displaced people. Yet the story of Kashmiri Pandits is unique because you have been displaced within your own country. Is that a fair way of looking at it?
 I think so, because when Partition happened people were called refugees. If India feels that Kashmir is an integral part of India then why were we given the tag of migrant, refugee and sharanaarthi? We were not absorbed and welcomed into the mainstream. I went to the Jammu camps after 21 years just last week. When Partition happened, everyone was given plots in Delhi but none of that happened for us.

Why has the Hindi film industry steered clear of the concerns of Kashmiri Pandits?
I’m not sure why. I keep asking them that. It’s been forgotten too soon.

Could it be because when we look at the problems that all other minorities in India have faced, in our heads each of us can maybe think of a solution to the problem, whereas the problems of Kashmiri Pandits are mind-boggling? It seems like an unsolvable problem?
But film makers don’t provide solutions, they can just tell stories. Even ‘I Am Megha’ is not providing any solution. But what happens is that when you hear stories, maybe it leads to a dialogue or a discourse. You’re also kind of documenting a history as young as 20 years only that will be forgotten very soon. A generation, two generations have changed really. A boy who was born in 1990 is 21. Now is a good time to revisit all that happened. There’s not enough material available in books, literature, anywhere in the news about what really happened. There are not that many images that can inspire you to do stories.

Like you said, the industry picks up the stories of minorities anywhere else in the country and makes films. It’s been unfortunate that no one’s done that for Kashmiri Pandits. When I heard of ‘Mission Kashmir’, I was hopeful … (laughs). But it was something else completely.

 I can’t comment on individual fears. But when you are stating history, why should you be scared? You’re not fictionalising anything. These are registered figures. The government acknowledges that 300,000 Kashmiri Pandits had to leave Kashmir. Everyone acknowledges it. But is acknowledgement enough? I met a 92-year-old man who is a reservoir of knowledge about Kashmir. The stories he had are right from 1927. That generation will not be there for a long time. This material will all be lost. I tell youngsters, go and meet these people, document it. I would love to document the experiences of not just Kashmiri Hindus, but Kashmiri Muslims too. What was going on in their minds in 1989-90? Who has gained? Who has lost, really?

That’s the question Megha is asking in ‘I Am’, right? But that last conversation in which Megha asks her Muslim friend Rubina, “What is your problem? That the Indian government is being unfair to you? That the army does regular checks because your brother was a trained mujahideen?”, that’s a dialogue that no one has had the courage to put in a Hindi film so far.
It’s also a dialogue coming from a Megha’s point of view. It’s a valid question because of what happened to her, but somewhere she’s ignorant about history. Only when Rubina replies, “Would you have liked to change places with me? I’m still stagnating here,” that’s when you realise … The film is also about sensitising some minds. The resentment is valid, but anger and resentment will not find solutions, they will not build bridges.

Because people in India have become so sensitive about everything, some people may look at ‘I Am’ and say it’s pro-Kashmiri Pandit and anti-Muslim, and there are some who may say it’s pro-Muslim and anti-Kashmiri Hindu. Why is it so difficult for people to see things as being factual, as history, the truth, without perceiving those who tell the truth as taking sides?
When you make a film, people will take what they want to from it. What they take away will depend on their ability to understand the layers of a character, of a story. If we were worried about that we would have made a popcorn film, we would have made a comedy set in Kashmir (laughs) and tried to highlight some issues. There’s a difference between trying to sensitise and sensationalise. Our intent is to sensitise, not sensationalise. What they perceive it as is really their fortune or misfortune really.

But when I watched ‘I Am’, I got a little angry with Rubina for being upset that the army was doing regular checks on her house because I thought, “What gives you the right to be angry about that? Your brother was a trained terrorist!” Am I being unfair?
No you’re not. It’s again a very valid question. It’s like you send people to prison to punish and reform, right? If it only remains punishment, then what comes out? You give birth to more terrorists? I don’t know. I mean I’ve personally asked my friends this question, ki what’s your problem, how is it my friend and I were both born and brought up in Kashmir, but he became anti-India and I became pro-India? I fail to understand this, because in schools we were taught Indian history, we celebrated Independence Day, Republic Day, Gandhi Jayanti. How did my friend become anti-national and I become pro-national? I failed to understand that. So I asked my mother, what went wrong? Was it only about Independence or was it about religion?

What was your mother’s answer?
She said, at home we never taught you that. We taught you that we are Indian and very much a part of India. At school we all learnt the same things, so I guess the difference between me and my friend is what we were taught at home.

Then is it fair when Rubina in ‘I Am’ says, “My punishment is to be living in this paradise”? Who stopped her from moving out?
But not everyone can move out. In any space of conflict women do suffer a lot. You don’t know whether she got the opportunity or not. The people who stayed back in Kashmir have lost their future. Who wants to be living for six months under curfew? These are all the results of terrorism. In the 1980s, there was no problem. Everything seemed normal.

Is Kashmir a jannat (paradise) in your mind now?
It’s a beautiful widow. It’s a 16-year-old widow. Looks beautiful but it’s sad, very sad. When I went first it was like jannat but it’s lost its colour. You see one kind of face. There have been so many problems in the last 20 years. Mental health is a major issue. Kashmir looks very sad.

Megha Mattoo in ‘I Am’ has lived more outside Kashmir than within, but Rubina has always been there. How well did Manisha Koirala do her Kashmiri dialogues?
It’s a difficult language you know, so it was tough to get the accent right. Then you’re thrown into a situation where you are surrounded by people speaking so much of it and you’re completely overwhelmed, and then you’re shooting and you want everything to go right and somewhere it doesn’t give you too much time for preparation. We were there for just 5-6 days so maybe something got left out. And it did. But that’s ok. (laughs).

So Manisha’s accent?
See, when I did ‘Sikander’ I asked the director, “Do you want a full-on Kashmiri accent?” He said no, so I went with the director’s choice. But there are so many well-educated Kashmiris. When they speak Hindi or Urdu sometimes you can’t tell that they’re Kashmiris. Yes Manisha maybe could have corrected her accent a little more, but that’s all right. There was lots on her plate, honestly.

When you think of Kashmir, what is the lasting emotion for you?
Is it bitterness, anger or acceptance? I’m not bitter any more. I’d say I’m a little frustrated because I want to see a Kashmir that I grew up in. I hope there is hope. I don’t want to feel hopeless, but when I see every season, every summer it goes back to the same, then there is that hopelessness. I’m an eternally positive kind of person (laughs), I’m an optimist. I don’t want to start feeling that there’s no hope. If my mother says she wants to go back and live there, I don’t want to worry.

You said your mother has never visited your old house in Srinagar
Yes, because of the circumstances in which we left. My father was killed by terrorists on August 1, 1990. We didn’t want to leave. The mass migration happened in January 1990 and we lived through that. My father never wanted to move, none of us wanted to. But on 1st August, 1990, they shot my father. We left lock stock and barrel that day. Within two hours his body was flown to Delhi and cremated there.

Is it possible for a Kashmiri Hindu who has been through all that the community has been through in the past 20 years to be not suspicious of the larger Muslim community, whether it’s Kashmiri Muslims or Muslims elsewhere? Is it possible?
I think it is possible because we were living there and we never had these problems. It was one of the most peace-loving places. I don’t know whether that faith can be regained, but I hope it can be.