Prabhash Chandra’s debut venture I’m Not the River Jhelum (2022) portrays the daily trauma suffered by helpless Kashmir citizens before and after the contentious Section 370 legislation. The film’s simply designed shots of desolate streets, army vehicles, missing people posters and empty classrooms render a poetic immediacy into the mise-en-scène. I’m Not the River Jhelum earned Chandra the K.R. Mohanan Award for best directorial debut at the 2022 International Film Festival of Kerala. In this interview, the filmmaker discusses his creative journey and the philosophical/artistic choices that helped him shape the narrative.
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Dipankar Sarkar: Before making a transition to filmmaking, you had worked in the theatre. Why did you make this decision?
Prabhash Chandra: All of it mostly depends on the script and the nature of the elements you are engaging with. The way I have looked at Kashmir and the kind of expressions I was looking at was possible only in cinema. On stage, it was difficult to execute. The detailing was not possible in theatre and vice versa. Every medium has its aesthetic principles. That’s the beauty of the medium. Reach and scale are also very different in these two mediums. I think all of it depends on your content.
DS: You participated in the month-long course of Film Appreciation from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune (FTII). How did it help you broaden your horizon regarding cinema?
PC: Those were truly memorable days. Although I was there unofficially, some of my friends were kind enough to offer me a space. I learned a lot by watching films there. The kind of discipline and dedication that I saw was an experience. That’s where one gets to know why institutions like FTII are important and [why] they can shape their surroundings. I feel every individual should experience a course of this kind, irrespective of his or her profession. Nowadays, it is disheartening to see the situation of the institution.
DS: Your documentary Mera Ram Kho Gaya (2019) critically analyses the traditional religious practice of Ram Bhakti and challenges the orthodoxy associated with Hinduism. Whereas in I Am Not the River Jhelum, you showcase how the basic freedom of movement of citizens in Kashmir is restrained and their everyday existence is shrouded in violence due to policies of the government. What makes you attracted to such sociopolitically-driven topics for your films?
PC: It’ll be clichéd to say, but my personal is political. Communities/individuals have been targeted because of their caste, religion and freedom of expression or some other things. Oppression of any kind is undemocratic. One would like not to be oppressed in their life. When I say “one,” I mean community in a large sense. I’m one of them. At the same time, when I see the struggle of people around me and their everyday reality and resilience, I get inspired and motivated. Maybe this is one of the drives. I think any work of art should create a meaningful discourse. We are living in very difficult times. I see my film as a process of creating a space for dialogue.
[Bertolt] Brecht’s poem gives me courage and motivation: “Will there be singing / In the dark times? / Yes, there will be singing / About the dark times”
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DS: I’m Not the River Jhelum brings the Kashmir conflict out of the realm of political rhetoric between the Indian government and the lives of people residing in the troubled territories of the region. Have you personally experienced this?
PC: I have taught for some time in that place, especially school and college-going students. During the course of my stay, I saw and listened to different experiences happening around me. I remember I was at Lal Chowk waiting for one of my friends and the army personnel badly humiliated me. He started talking very rudely. I still think… what made him behave that way? And this has been an everyday reality for the people of Kashmir. Life there has been filled with uncertainty and violence. A heavily militarized place on earth where torture, executions and vile living conditions are normal. For me, it was not just Kashmir; at the same time, you see the same situation in your neighboring countries: Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine. The worst sufferers in this situation are children and women, in the sense that the basic human rights of freedom and education are denied to them. All of this makes me uncomfortable.
DS: I’m Not the River Jhelum opens with the vast and serene expanse of the river Jhelum and then dissolves to a close-up shot of the principal character (Amba-Suhasini Jhala as Afeefa). Is it a kind of symbolic gesture about the similarities of both of them?
PC: She looks calm from the outside, but her inner world is traumatic. She has seen a lot over a period: loss of life, the brutality of forces at play, and all of that [has] made her numb. There is turbulence in her eyes that has seen inhuman things in the so-called human world. Likewise, [the] river Jhelum has seen and accepted a lot in its folds over a period. It has many stories underneath it. This is one of them.
DS: Within the first few minutes of I’m Not the River Jhelum, a young Afeefa (Hiba Qamar) is gifted Carl Sagan’sCosmos by her uncle, Bilal (Lokesh Jain). He asks if she is aware of the existence of the earth in the universe. What was the reason behind beginning the film with such a philosophical enquiry?
PC: Afeefa and her uncle have an interesting relationship where she is interested in listening to scientific stories and the mysteries around them. Bilal has a scientific and philosophical view of the world. He is a poet with a scientific temperament. He talks about the gravity of human love and compassion. He wants her to be human in these inhuman conditions. I fused these stories with the most fundamental questions of the central mystery of human life and its existence. We are just a tiny speck in this universe. Then why do humans fight? What kind of world do we want when we haven’t been able to understand the world itself? And we are far, far away from knowing it. I think that philosophical enquiry is also very personal.
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DS: Why did you make the creative choice of interspacing the narrative with poems from various poets?
PC: These poems helped me penetrate the deeper meaning of the complex world of Kashmir. I don’t want to fix the coordinates and just see a scene in a direct way. A poetic image has its own elements, and each element has its own characteristics. It has a time of its own. We have weaved it in a way that it could be experienced by a spectator who allows him or herself to see what is there and as well as beyond that. I feel poetic elements have the intrinsic characteristic to widen the possibility of looking at an image. It touches your inner world and brings you into a multiverse of its own.
DS: Mid-way into I’m Not the River Jhelum, there is a performance piece that works as the Brechtian strategy of breaking the imaginary fourth wall. What was the motive behind taking such an unusual step to break the traditional mode of storytelling?
PC: For me, I was looking for an expression where I can bring in the narratives of women and girls who have been gang-raped and murdered. Also, critiquing the madness of aggressive nationalism, which plays out [via] women’s bodies. I wanted to capture these traumatic experiences, the inner world where the blatant use of power [justifies] some of its political positions. We have looked at how this kind of nationalism breeds fascist ideology and how it regulates women’s bodies to assert power, making it a site of nationalist politics, violence and conflict. These scenes also show the embodiment of a barbarian, a cruel and dangerous state mindset, whether it is the mothers of Manipur or two women, Neelofar Jan (22) and Asiya Jan (17), who were gang-raped and murdered in the shopian district. The construct of the scene gave me the freedom to experiment and achieve the expression I was looking for.
DS: You also included a lunatic character whose present mental state is the result of atrocities inflicted upon him by the Indian Army. What is the function of this character within the story of I’m Not the River Jhelum?
PC: The weaving of this character has its own aesthetic and holds the flow of expression of the film. Bashir (Anand Kumar) and people like him are the result of the perpetual violence and trauma that the state brings to the life of the people of Kashmir. The atmosphere of the serene valley has just become like the inner world of Bashir: a frightening and horrendous tale of trauma and torture.
DS: At the climax of I’m Not the River Jhelum, Afeefa goes to stay with her uncle and aunty in Delhi, due to the ongoing tension in Kashmir. She witnesses a number of protests in Delhi, too, just like in her hometown. Is it a kind of comment on the current political situation of our country?
PC: I wanted to bring in the ongoing atmosphere of “hate and discrimination” through the principal character, Afeefa. She came to Delhi for a better life and education, and what she sees is another kind of torture for her. We can clearly see the purpose of bringing in the problematic CAA and NRC, and how it has further propagated group-based violence across the country. It is just a tool to exclude the Muslims of this country and create a world of their own rules and regulations.
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DS: Why did you prefer to narrate I’m Not the River Jhelum in a non-linear pattern?
PC: I didn’t want to build a plot structure based on given characters; rather, I was interested in capturing different time periods. I see the progression of time not in a linear way. I have always looked at the time as a state. And in that state, I’m looking for a Kashmir that I have observed. Setting the story in a linear pattern would have weakened its essence. Capturing the time in a non-linear way within the scene gave the kind of expression that I was looking for. I think it has a lot to do with my pattern. It’s also very non-linear in nature.
DS: The images in I’m Not the River Jhelum flow effortlessly between the scattered memories of its protagonist Afeefa and the palpable sense of loss due to events of violence and brutality by the forces in power. Discuss the visual design of the film.
PC: Sukriti Khurana [the production designer]and I worked on the mise-en-scène. We discussed the possibility of shooting the scenes with the available resources. One thing that was clear from the beginning is that we were looking at the inner state and the psychology of the characters, and the space. How the time within that space is captured — that’s poetic in nature. Through these connections, the feeling and tensions within a scene are heightened — each shot was planned that way. We found that detailing is much deeper and metaphorically close to our objective. We planned the scenes of protest in a measured way to be able to be in sync with the poetic elements. We fused the elements of theatre into the cinematic space in a way that does justice to the poetic expression.
DS: The sound design in I’m Not the River Jhelum builds an atmosphere of tension and creates an auditory texture by enhancing a key sound over others to place the viewer in the mindset of the character. How were the soundscapes of the film constructed?
PC: I recorded and listened to the sounds around the valley. There is a character of sound present there, and we wanted to capture that in each frame. We recorded the sound present in a scene as per our script. The first round of discussion happened with Paresh [the editor] during the editing of the film; we wanted to touch the inner state of characters and Kashmir at large. We chose some basic elements of nature and some character sounds of captured space. Then we conveyed the same to the sound designer, Manoj Sikka. Mostly the discussion has been around how to create “silence of suffocation and trauma.” At the same time, we were very conscious of whatever sound elements we chose, they should not be stereotyped. The design he created brought out the mood that we wanted for our film.
DS: Lastly, what are your plans regarding the release and distribution of I’m Not the River Jhelum?
PC: I want to release my film and show it on big screens across theatres in India and abroad. But again, I have no control over that because of the mainstream structure. The idea of censorship under the present regime is really very difficult to deal with. In our country, film distribution is in the hands of a few people. We are in a miserable state if we look at the independent filmmaking scenario. We are struggling at different levels. Difficulty doesn’t lie just at the level of making a film; finding venues for screenings and reaching out to the audience is another challenge. I screened my film at the International Film Festival of Kerala, and Kolkata, this year. MAMI this year got cancelled due to “lack of funds.” The festival circuit is also in a dark place at the moment. And some festivals are very adamant about a “world premiere.” I applied to them after screening in Kerala. I don’t know what’s so special about the world premiere. I feel they should just invite and screen.
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.
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