Trials of a Kashmiri documentary: Inshallah Football

A documentary about a Kashmiri footballer has made Indian censors uneasy. In the present climate, they are simply toeing the jingoists’ line.

A still from Inshallah Football.
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There is a scene in Inshallah, Football, a documentary film by Ashvin Kumar, in which a student in Kashmir is interviewed about his aspirations. "What will you become," asks the interviewer. "What will I become? If the situation remains like this, I'll become a militant," the youth replies. It is a moment of chilling admission, voicing a sentiment that some Indian filmmakers are keen to expose to a wider audience.

However, as Kumar recently discovered, adding to the debate surrounding the thorny issue of Kashmir can create serious problems, even if the voice that emerges is that of a young boy obsessed with football, but trapped by the unfortunate circumstances of his life.

Inshallah, Football has been awarded an "Adult" certificate by India's Censor Board of Film Certification (CBFC) after initially being banned. The award effectively kills the documentary's chances of securing a TV deal in its home market.

"Documentaries rarely get a theatrical release in India. The multiplex market is pretty much limited to commercial cinema and is tightly controlled. So documentaries really need [exposure on] television to reach a larger audience," he says.

The disputed territory of Kashmir is claimed by both India and Pakistan. Three wars have been fought over the region and its history has largely been defined by violence.

Since 2008, however, there have been large-scale protests over incidents such as a land allocation deal involving a local Hindu trust, alleged police cover-ups of the rape and murder of young women, and allegations of human rights violations by security forces. A series of marches have drawn crowds onto the streets.

Last summer, following the killing of a Kashmiri teenager, there were clamours from all quarters - political parties and separatist leaders - to revoke the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act that has been in place in Kashmir since 1990.

The act grants additional powers to soldiers in "disturbed areas", who may act under the guarantee of legal immunity. Despite a curfew, demonstrators began a series of protests: these were largely peaceful, though marked by sporadic outbreaks of stone-pelting.

"Kashmir is a complex issue," says Aamir Bashir, an Indian filmmaker who left his native state in 1989, when the armed insurgency set in following disputes over state elections.

Bashir's feature film Harud ('Autumn') tells the story of Rafiq, a young boy growing up in Kashmir, and the grief his family endure as they come to terms with the disappearance of his elder brother. He has yet to submit Harud to the CBFC, although the film has already been picked up for broadcast in the UK by Channel Four.

"So far, many of the films made on Kashmir have been formulaic and of the Bollywood kind. Those films could have been made [almost] anywhere else. It is too simplistic to see Kashmir as a story of good versus evil," says Bashir.

The Man Booker-winning writer and activist Arundhati Roy spoke out passionately about the inalienable rights of the Kashmiris and was subsequently threatened with sedition charges. Since then, India has been divided into two groups: the jingoes and the traitors, a scheme that sounds eerily similar to "with us or against us".

"If a [particular] perspective doesn't toe the line then it's branded as unpatriotic," says Kumar.

Bashir says that "the new generation [in Kashmir] has seen nothing but violence, and they're very clever in their approach of expressing dissent. The young boys have replaced the guns of the previous generation with stones."

It is precisely this shift in the expression of dissent that is documented in Inshallah, Football. The film follows Basharat, a young footballer and son of a former militant of the Hizbul Mujahideen, who is selected to attend a sports training camp in Brazil.

On the way, he faces challenges when he tries to do anything from obtaining an Indian passport to actually getting to practice sessions at home. His adversaries range from security forces to bureaucrats. Yet if Basharat's father chose a path of violence followed by imprisonment, he prefers to engage the media and fight in courts.

"What's disturbing is this inability to allow a diverse opinion, a differing viewpoint," says Kumar. "It seems as if they are not welcome."

He is particularly rankled by the fate of Inshallah, Football, as it had not originally been his intention to apply to the CBFC for a certification. "They offered to send a representative to a private non-ticketed screening I was hosting at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi.

"I already had a No-Objection Certificate from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting [the parent body of the Censor Board], so I wasn't crossing any boundaries. The Censor Board on the other hand was acting well beyond their remit," he says. After the screening, the representative congratulated Kumar and suggested he apply for a certification.

"I went ahead. The next thing I know, the film was banned after two panels had sat and judged it.

"Typically, only one commission studies a film before issuing a verdict. Subsequent panels must invite the filmmaker, who will have an opportunity to present his or her case, but I was not invited," he says.

When he was informed of the ban, Kumar, who picked up an Oscar nomination for his 2005 short film The Little Terrorist, did not sit quiet. He reacted in the Indian media.

The CBFC has clumsily retracted the ban (by denying its existence in the first place), and after a third review of the film, at which Kumar was not present, gave it an "Adult" certificate on the grounds of "characters talking about graphic details of physical and mental torture they had to undergo." The objectionable content is a scene in which Basharat's father recounts his torture by the Indian security forces.

"It's a tragedy for a film that I had hoped to show to the Indian youth so they could understand the aspirations and hopes of their counterparts in Kashmir," says Kumar. "Peace and acceptance can only be arrived at after understanding - and that understanding is best when it happens young."

Vinita Bharadwaj is a writer based in Dubai.