Ashvin Kumar, the youngest Oscar-nominated filmmaker, is in Kerala to participate in the IFFK with his latest film ‘No Fathers in Kashmir’.

Ashvin Kumar (centre) with the teen actors of 'No Fathers in Kashmir'
Flix Film Sunday, December 08, 2019 - 18:53

Twenty years ago, on a December day, Ashvin Kumar, then young and curious, began a journey to the south of India to understand what his country looked like. He started from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital. He had a small video camera with him and he shot what interested him, across the states he travelled. He had no idea what he was doing then, Ashvin would claim 20 years later, when he is once again in Thiruvananthapuram, where that journey began.

Two decades have made him a filmmaker, making often critically acclaimed movies about Kashmir. One of them – a short film called Little Terrorist – has brought him the record of being the youngest Oscar-nominated filmmaker. The latest, No Fathers in Kashmir, is what he has brought to Thiruvananthapuram with him to be featured at the International Film Festival of Kerala.

He is quiet for a moment when he is asked why he keeps going back to Kashmir for his films. Aren’t you from Bengal, someone asks. He laughs. “My mother’s from Kashmir, my dad is from Chennai and he ended up in Calcutta. Now my parents live in Delhi and I am in Mumbai. You figure it out.”

He can’t pinpoint a reason that makes him revisit Kashmir. There are the obvious ones of course – ‘the injustice of what is happening, the tragedy, the deep culture… the beauty of the place’. 

“And you are never satisfied with the idea that the work you have been doing over there was enough. There is so much that’s not been told. The more the state represses the information coming out of Kashmir, the more there is space for people like us to go out there and tell the stories,” Ashvin says.

In No Fathers in Kashmir, he wanted to look at what happened to a family when the man is removed from the picture, what happened to the women and children. Two innocent teens — 16-year-old Noora, a British-Kashmiri, and 16-year-old Majid, a local village boy in Kashmir — develop a friendship and stumble upon certain discoveries about their fathers, and how they died.

Still from No Fathers in Kashmir

“I wanted to try and see if there is a compassionate way in which we can perceive the Kashmiri people. A question I have often faced is ‘does this really happen there’ or ‘My father is in the army, does it really happen?’ Especially from people in the south. They are in denial, ‘no it doesn’t,’ they say. So I wanted to engage the audience, to put them in the point of view of the people who are going through this,” says Ashvin.  

He has featured children in most of his works – Little Terrorist is about a 10-year-old boy from Pakistan, crossing the border to retrieve a cricket ball, based on a real-life incident. Inshallah, Football featured an 18-year-old aspiring footballer who could not travel abroad because his father was a militant.

“Who is a militant? Pretty much children between the ages of 14 and 25. Who are the stone pelters? Children of teenage years picking up small rocks and throwing. The whole villain is created in the guise of children. So the film has to be about children. One of the tragedies of Kashmir was to see how children are terribly brutalised. There were 13,000 children in jails. Some were pulled out of their beds in the middle of the night without any explanation. Families won’t even know where they are put,” says a disturbed Ashvin.

“If you have to make a villain out of an entire state, point fingers at children, put them in jails, call them stone pelters, call them militants and gun them down, you have to think who has the administrative power. You have the power, something is wrong with you, not them,” Ashvin adds.

It is great to work with children, he says, with their sense of innocence and curiosity — a similar state of mind he was in 20 years ago when he began that journey of his.

“A few months ago, I watched the footage I shot back then and it’s looking pretty good. I am planning to start another journey and film what I see again. I will be making a feature documentary, blending both the archival film and what I shoot now,” Ashvin says.

Ashvin also acts in his films, he is there in No Fathers in Kashmir. That’s what he originally was, an actor doing theatre. When he wanted to understand filmmaking, he went to a film school in London, but dropped out after a couple of semesters. 

“By then, I learnt the technical stuff and I don’t think anyone can teach you the storytelling stuff. There is no substitute for standing in a film set with 50 people looking at you, waiting for you to say what to do,” he says, like one who truly enjoys the process.

His first film, Road to Ladakh (‘then shot with this 'unknown' actor called Irrfan Khan’) was also a lesson for him, Ashvin says.

But these are old stories, he says and brushes them off. You can see he is tired. He has to be, after the fights he has to put up with the censor board for every one of his films. No Fathers in Kashmir too had initially gotten into trouble, but got a release in April, only to be ‘removed’ a week later, despite doing well. 

“Maybe I will plan a release in Kerala,” he says, dreamily. 

Also read: This Malayali filmmaker has made an anthology in 8 languages