I’ve always found it slightly odd that some films are billed, by either the press or studio, as coming of age stories. A coming of age story would imply organic growth and development of character. It’s not so much that these films don’t do this. It’s that most of these films do it in the most violent way possible. This isn’t a negative. I’m not calling that out, only the use of the term. A far better and more honest name would be “Death of Innocence”, despite its melodramatic ring. Suddenly, everything that a normal kid or teenager has is brutally ripped away from them, usually by circumstance or legacy or both. Such is the case in Ashvin Kumar’s No Fathers in Kashmir (2019).
A dramatisation of stories from the ongoing, and often ignored, conflict in Kashmir, No Fathers is the story of Noor (Zara Webb), a Kashmir born/British raised teenager returning to her native village. Accompanied by her mother Zainab (Natasha Mago), Noor is there to visit her Sufi grandparents. In contrast, her mother has a more pressing reason. Wishing to remarry, Zainab need’s Noor’s grandparents to declare her husband Basheer legally dead. Part of Kashmir’s Disappeared, he is one of the thousands of men who have been taken away by security forces on suspicion of being militants, never to return home.
Obsessed with social media and selfies, Noor forms a friendship with local teen Majid (Shivam Raina), son of one of Basheer’s friends who has also Disappeared. As their friendship grows, Noor begins to ask questions about her father’s disappearance. Finding a trail, it leads them to the government troops and her father’s old friend Arshid (Ashvin Kumar), an ultraconservative preacher. As Noor and Majid explore the region, a startling discovery brings their world crashing down and the g security forces to their door.
The best way to describe No Fathers is that it’s a docudrama. Noor and Majid are the audience surrogates, there to explain the conditions in Kashmir. That’s not to suggest that they’re annoying or even useless characters. Webb and Raina have great onscreen chemistry, and given the subject matter, they can play believable teenage characters. We learn the realities of life in Kashmir better through them and their framing story.
Kumar’s use of a framing story on what has been called the forgotten conflict provides a brilliant vehicle to educate people about an ongoing war. We see the aftermath of events in a social and regional context, men are taken away on flimsy pretenses, with no knowledge of their whereabouts. Women declared half-wife and half-widow, trapped in a limbo-like existence that limits their lives. Children left without fathers and parents unable to bury their sons. Seeing it from the point of view of children provides a degree of pathos that a documentary might lack. The use of meta-photography strengthens this idea of an ignored conflict. Noor’s story and experience are shown through her photographs, not the film cameras, such as during one particularly savage scene, when we see the action via the display screen of Noor’s phone.
Kumar paints Kashmir as a region of not just military conflict but social as well. A liminal space alien to both the West and India. The conflict between the Noor’s grandparents’ Sufism and Arshrid’s Saudi Wahhabism, Kashmir nationalism, and traditions forms the background to the conflict.
However, No Fathers is not without its issues. The second part is far too short after the build-up of the first. What has been growing in the background gets rushed out as they try to tie up the loose ends of the story. Several characters serve as little more than set dressing, there to give a plot point and then move on.
But these are small gripes, and No Fathers is a strong film. An important one even. Growing up during a time when my corner of the world transitioned from conflict to post-conflict zone, there are parts of No Fathers that I found shockingly familiar. The way that life, despite everything, still continues despite the most brutal of circumstances.
Dir: Ashvin Kumar
Scr: Ashvin Kumar
Cast: Zara Webb, Shivam Raina, Natasha Mago, Ashvin Kumar
Prd: Ashvin Kumar
DOP: Jean-Marc Selva
Music: Loïc Dury, Christophe Minck
Runtime: 108 minutes
No Fathers in Kashmir is in cinemas now.