Ashvin Kumar’s latest film tackling the sensitive subject of ‘disappeared locals’ begins with at least three disclaimers/dedications. The film is dedicated to the ‘half widows’ and ‘half orphans’ (wife and kids of the disappeared men) and even before the first visual of the film, the audience is fed large chunks of text. Some would call it a disservice to a film’s visual medium. This approach also hints at the director’s intent to preach on an ‘important issue’. After Aijaz Khan’s Hamid (that released only a few weeks ago), Ashvin Kumar’s No Fathers In Kashmir is the second film to sincerely examine the conflict between Kashmiri youth and the Indian armed forces. Just like Hamid, Kumar’s film too, chooses to view Kashmir’s volatile milieu through a child’s eyes. In this case, a teenager called Noor (Zara Webb).
Noor is a spirited British teen with Kashmiri roots, who describes the meaning of ‘cool’ as ‘sexy’, leaving many a local boy, scandalised. Accompanying her mother (Natasha Mago) and to-be stepfather (Sushil Dahiya) to Kashmir, Noor is completely oblivious of her roots. It’s only after she meets Majid (a terrific Shivam Raina) does she learn the difference between a ‘terrorist’ and ‘militant’. Before meeting him, all she cares about is a ‘cool selfie with a terrorist’ so that she can brag about it on social media. Noor’s mother seeks her in-laws’ (Kulbhushan Kharbanda & Soni Razdan) permission to remarry after her husband went ‘missing’ more than a decade ago. It’s a cracker of a plot, but the director begins to lose his balance even before the story is set.
Kumar’s decision to showcase the entire series of events from Noor’s point-of-view seems forced in some scenes, where she finds herself snooping around like a Nancy Drew knockoff. If the intention was to establish ‘an outsider’ unaware of her surroundings chancing upon the horrors of her ‘homeland’, there were surely less contrived ways to do it. Eavesdropping on a neighbour’s private confrontation, easily discovering a hideout where a militant is being helped to recuperate, quietly following someone to a graveyard, Noor becomes this omnipresent force, moving around unchecked. In spite of living with a family still dealing with the paranoia of their disappeared son.
Webb’s performance isn’t so much the problem here, as much as how she’s utilised as the ‘observer’ in the storytelling process. Her lack of understanding of boundaries isn’t explored with further depth, unless it fits into the screenwriter’s convenience.
Compared to Shivam Raina’s playful exuberance, it is the elder actors who look awkward in their parts. A veteran like Kharbanda, Anshuman Jha (playing an Indian army Major), and Ashvin Kumar himself (playing a Kashmiri local – Arshid), constantly switching between English, Hindi and the odd dialogue in Kashmiri. The dialogues (English ones in particular) have a rehearsed self-importance attached to them, like in a scene where Arshid stares at Noor while digging a grave and says, “there’s always room for more martyrs”. Jha’s Major Pandey is entrusted with showcasing the ‘other point-of-view’ where he tells Noor about the complex nature of his job. “Give me an enemy I can see. So that I know who to protect and who to fight,” he tells her.
No Fathers In Kashmir isn’t an entirely lost cause though. It has some stark imagery, where ghosts of the past literally reveal themselves. Maya Sarao (playing Majid’s mother) and Soni Razdan take it upon themselves to salvage the film’s acting department. After playing a Kashmiri Mum to her real-life daughter Alia Bhatt in last year’s Raazi, Razdan makes her presence felt in this one too. Sarao, on the other hand, scorches through her scenes as a wife waiting for her husband, and later as a helpless mother. These performances would be put to better use if director Kumar could forsake his heavy-handed treatment for his ‘topical, issue-based film’. It doesn’t have the directness of Hamid. If Hamid was a dish cooked with integrity and love, No Fathers In Kashmir showcases an intricate recipe that never quite delivers on the flavour.
The film’s blatant demonisation of step-fathers, possibly a jibe at both India & Pakistan’s relationship with Kashmir, feels like a stretch. Somewhere in this film, the metaphor of walking in someone else’s shoes, is also brought to life through a pair of trainers left behind by Noor’s disappeared father. It’s all well-intentioned, but that alone doesn’t translate to riveting cinema. Noor’s coming of age? Frankly, not many people care because they aren’t quite invested in her naiveté & guilt. In the end, Ashvin Kumar’s ‘message’ feels like a gentle nudge, instead of a slap.