Broken Memory, Shining Dust, which was screened at a SAI event in December, is a documentary directed by Nilosree Biswas that depicts the extraordinary journey of Kashmiri women experiencing loss, separation, pain, anger, helplessness, faith, grit and determination amidst societal tragedies and circumstances.
Woven around the life of Parveena Ahanger, a Kashmiri mother and other women, the film is about “women in wait” for their loved ones, who went missing in the conflict ridden valley of Kashmir, India, in last two decades, and interweaves their memories of struggle and devotion into a resistance movement.
SAI recently spoke to Biswas from her base in Mumbai about the “women in wait,” as well as Kashmir’s unique culture, the effects of political conflict on women, and a filmmaker’s role in depicting a conflict area.
SAI: To start, can you give some context – what is going on in Kashmir, and why were you drawn to tell this story?
Nilosree Biswas: I had been making documentaries for a very long period of time, and in 2007 I was in a village in the northern part of Kashmir, which consisted of only widows who had lost their husbands to conflict, or had been picked up by the militants. In the process, I came across research about forced disappearances, which is something that has happened in Southeast Asia, and in our part of the world in India and Pakistan, and has had a big impact on society.
In the process, I also found out about Paraveena Ahanger, and over the next 4 years I repeatedly went back and forth to Kashmir and went to villages to meet many of these women, hundreds, who have lost either their husband or sons. This whole sense of trying to understand ‘wait’ from the women’s point of view was part of the process. More than the political aspect, it is understanding how women cope with the phenomenon of disappearances that appealed to me as a filmmaker
SAI: Can you talk more about Paraveena Ahanger – I found her to have so much strength and courage for the work that she is doing. Where does that come from for the women, after struggling for so long without their family members?
NB: When I first met her, I was completely astonished by the courage of this mother, and her journey of searching for her son Javed in all the detention camps and prisons and army outposts. It’s a huge journey. I think women like Paraveena have a sense of resilience in them.
On top of that, the Kashmiri society and geography is very closed off – it is surrounded by high mountain ranges; it is a Himalayan territory. I personally think that there is a connection between the geographical factors that impact people. The harsh winters, the hardships of life generally in the villages of Kashmir are what can make a person resolute.
Another most important thing that I realized after a number of visits is how the culture of this particular society in Kashmir has a huge Sufi influence and faith system, which is not so much practiced in Islam throughout the world – it is slightly deviant. Yet, it is a strong and peaceful belief system that the local society has followed for years. In the film, you see her [Paraveena] praying, and there are shots of her going to shrines, which she does on a regular basis.
I think there is a huge amount of spiritual and active faith system working within these women, because otherwise, if we take it on a regular day-to-day basis, we will never be able to cope with the fact that our young sons and husbands and brothers have been taken. Coping with this needs something extra, and I think the women of Kashmir are very faith-bound. The Sufism, which is practiced in Kashmir, gives them a huge amount of strength.
SAI: Were the women receptive to you telling their story? Do they want the world to know what has happened?
NB: There are two sections of women [in Kashmir]. One section is made of women like Paraveena, who had gone ahead and made it their mission in life to find out what happened to their sons, brothers, and husbands. Another section includes women who are getting drawn to the movement which Paraveena had started, so they are slowly becoming aware of the justice system, which they think can give them a solution or conclusion. If there is a third category, it is the women who do not have access to the justice system, or who are far away from the resources which would enable them a kind of justice.
It is a universal story, because when I see Paraveena, and I see her resilience, I easily equate the struggle with South American mothers, for example, or Indonesian mothers, or African mothers, or anyone in a conflict-ridden society.
SAI: One thing that is striking about the film is your use of poetry throughout the narrative.
NB: I used that technique because, as a filmmaker, whenever I had seen a film based on a conflict-ridden society, there was always a certain stereotyping in terms of the directorial narrative. For example, if there is a film about Congo, or Palestine, or Peru, there would be a certain kind of narrative. I wanted to avoid that. And because my perspective was entirely from a woman’s point of view, I wanted to use poetry that would bind the entire narrative.
SAI: As a filmmaker, what kind of role do you see film and documentaries, and more generally, art, playing in activism and social change?
NB: I have just completed a photographic book on Kashmir. What we have done as a team is we have tried to have an image of Kashmir which is beyond the conflict. There is life beyond the army outposts in any conflict-ridden area, be it Afghanistan, Iraq, or Palestine.
I have tried to capture that life in this photographic book. For example, how a small child going to school, or a woman who is out on the road to make a living, are going about their daily life. I have tried to capture the life of common people whose destiny is not associated with the larger conflict of the place. So this is what a filmmaker or photographer can do. Instead of continuously projecting the bloodshed or the gory war, or issues of crisis, one can also project life that is ongoing – a narrative of the daily life.
The culture of Kashmir is very distinct. There, every day, a small boy or girl goes out early in the morning and gets handmade bread and enjoys it with an early cup of tea. And while going to the baker from one’s home, one will cross five army outposts. Kashmir has one of the highest army to civilian ratios in a peace period of time, only ranking behind Afghanistan. Wherever they [the civilians] are, they can not avoid these army postings.
As a filmmaker, photographer, or artist, all of us have the responsibility to project these elements of life in conflict. There can be visuals of a conflict area that go beyond the bombing sites and scenes of destruction. Eventually, this can help inform public opinion that may draw the attention of policy makers, and result in a better understanding of the situation. In a country like India or China, it is very complex.
SAI: You said you made this film from a woman’s perspective – what are your thoughts on how men and women experience these types of conflicts differently?
NB: There is a difference in approach between men and women in Kashmir. For example, for Paraveena, she was the one who took up this battle [of justice for the disappeared]. Still today, she is the one who has continued. She has four children, and her youngest daughter has taken it upon herself to fulfill the mission. However, Javed’s [Paraveena’s son] father, who was equally sad and depressed about the situation, had moved on with life.
I think the attitude with which men generally have is that after a point, they would let it go. The sustaining of many advocacy groups [like Paraveena’s] is largely because they have a woman leader. This helped me understand, from a gender point of view, how the conflict impacted the women more.
While researching the conflict, I found that many movies, films, and documentaries prepared on the Kashmir conflict in India, are, either coincidentally or rationally, led by women. In many cases, women have taken an active role in disseminating the whole situation to the rest of the media.
SAI: What does the future hold for Kashmir, and these women?
NB: I think the future of Kashmir is a very complex scenario. In a way, the Kashmiri people are extremely resilient, that for the last decades they have battled the conflict and they have moved on in life. That is the future of Kashmir. Life has to go on in Kashmir – it shouldn’t be crippled under the pressure of the state. The filmmakers, the artist, the poets, and everyone involved in media, should have active participation in continuing the dialogue of Kashmir with state representatives and stakeholders in whatever form they can. The state should not forget about the crisis of Kashmir, and that it is integral to India.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.