The Movie Waffler Interview - NO FATHERS IN KASHMIR Writer/Director Ashvin Kumar | The Movie Waffler

Interview - NO FATHERS IN KASHMIR Writer/Director Ashvin Kumar

ashvin kumar interview
Filmmaker Ashvin Kumar discusses his Kashmir set drama.

Interview by Benjamin Poole

No Fathers in Kashmir, writer/director Ashvin Kumar’s third film on Kashmir, is a coming-of-age story about innocence and the exuberance of being young and hopeful. Based on hundreds of true stories, this tender storm of first-love and heart-break tells a deeper story of truth, humanity and compassion, of a tragic land and its much misunderstood, beautiful people.

ashvin kumar interview

Hello Ashvin! Congratulations on your latest feature film, No Fathers in Kashmir. I note with interest that you have a very diverse résumé, including excursions into genre filmmaking and Oscar nominated shorts. I wonder if you could begin by talking a little bit about No Fathers in Kashmir. It feels like a very personal project. What were the motivations and ideas that inspired it?

Childhood was my main inspiration and those very delicate, precarious moments between being a child and taking the first tentative steps into young adulthood. This becomes heightened in an area torn apart by war, where the innocence of childhood is thrust against these brutal realities. Young adulthood gave me a wonderful template on which to allow an explanation of war without prejudice. I had the idea of exploring this conflict from that time in all our lives when we have all fallen in love for the first time.

For me, the first time I held a girl’s hand was in Kashmir around that same age and those memories of childhood holidays in Kashmir have stayed with me for the rest of my life. In 1989, all that was taken away when the militancy started to take over and we stopped visiting Kashmir as a family. I felt a sense of exile and I didn’t go back for another 20 years but when I did I was confronted by a terrible reality which nothing I had read prepared me for.

When I found out about the disappearances, mass graves, torture and human rights abuse, it set me off on a search to look for the truth, which inspired two documentary films – Inshallah Kashmir and Inshallah Football. However, while these clearly made a counter-narrative to what was being put out in the media, and I got due recognition for doing this, what they didn’t do was reach out and get under the skin of the audience. I felt a dramatic feature could represent the ordinary Kashmiri, to get across their pain. I felt a huge responsibility towards Kashmiris, who have been badly misrepresented in the past, and wanted No Fathers in Kashmir to talk to the heart and create a sense of compassion and understanding.

no fathers in kashmir

Within the film, the censorious nature of certain aspects of Kashmir are an important plot point. Did you come up against any difficulties when filming No Fathers in Kashmir? The way in which the situation is presented is often quite raw; was there threat of interference from any of the Kashmir authorities?

We did encounter some problems in our initial shooting as the valley where we had planned to film became subject to lockdown and curfews, so we had to delay our starting date. This meant we lost most of our crew, who all had to go on to different jobs, as well as some of the cast, but eventually I decided to put the film into production so we had to take crew from whoever was available and some of the cast weren’t our first choice. We had to go back into casting the week before shooting began.

Perhaps the biggest blow was we couldn’t shoot in the actual Kashmiri valley, so whilst we were still in the State it was mostly in a lookalike setting, albeit a very good one. In hindsight I think this was all a blessing in disguise because if we had filmed in the Valley we would have been under great scrutiny and have to explain what we were doing to the armed forces as well as the police and district administrator. The shoot fortunately went without a hitch, although having said that, we were always aware that there was a risk that somebody in authority would take notice and call us in for interrogation.  

Our biggest problem came once the film was made as we spent nine months battling in court against the Indian film censors, where we fought hard for the right to be able to screen the film to its rightful audience in India. We eventually won that battle and it was finally released in April last year but was then unceremoniously taken off the screens after just four or five days, even though it was attracting decent audiences. What’s more, we had our TV, satellite and VOD deals already confirmed but they were mysteriously cancelled. It became clear that due process wasn’t being followed and everything possible was being done to frustrate, delay and smother our efforts of trying to get the film out to the public.

The film begins with a slide thanking the various crowd-funders of No Fathers in Kashmir. As someone who has been involved in the film business for some time, I wonder if you could talk a little about this method of funding for your film, and the financial challenges with making such an epic-looking independent film?

The reason why I had to crowd-fund was because nobody in India would touch the film with a bargepole. We raised money on Kickstarter and then attracted some Kashmiri backers from the UK, after which we did a patchwork of funding, including grants and a few script awards I had won. We managed to enter Kashmir with an extremely tight, shoestring budget, and thank you for acknowledging the epic scale and nature of this project in its scope and conceit and the financial difficulties we had in getting it off the ground.

no fathers in kashmir

They say never to work with children or animals, but whoever ‘they’ are, they’ve never seen No Fathers in Kashmir and the performances from Majid-Shivam Raina and Zara La Peta Webb. Could you talk about the process of working with these young actors and how you managed to locate such fantastic unknowns?

I know that’s the general opinion about working with children but I don’t agree with them. The way I like to work with young adults or children is to fire their imaginations. I have a deep belief in giving actors a certain amount of freedom in how they work. I never dictate to kids or, in fact, whoever I’m directing as I find that deeply limiting. Good actors are inherently creative and imaginative people and I think when you cast a role you have to look for people who have this skill through workshops and improvisation. The way I get the best out of kids is to do some form of meditation – getting them to close their eyes and visualise. I bring them to the set and make them aware that they’re standing in a special ‘hallowed’ ground prepared for them to do their work. Acting at the end of the day is about reacting.

With regard to casting the two young leads, in the UK we started with over 500 auditions, which we then narrowed down to 20. Zara always stood out and we had to cast her. In India we did almost as many auditions but specifically wanted to find somebody from as close to Kashmir as we could. In Jammu we found Shivam, this kid who not only looks absolutely fabulous but was such a wonderfully spontaneous, deep, instinctive actor. Something felt right about the two of them and I don’t think we could have asked for better.

Well, I certainly enjoyed No Fathers in Kashmir, and I said as much in my review. But over to you now: why should Movie Waffler readers take a chance on No Fathers in Kashmir?

I hope I have made a film that is accessible to everyone whether or not aware of the situation in Kashmir. I want the audience to be engaged with the characters and moved by the storyline, but above all to be entertained.

No Fathers in Kashmir is in UK cinemas January 24th.