If you can't explain something to a eight-year-old, chances are that you don't understand it yourself. So, when delving into the Kashmir story in his new film, director Aijaz Khan approaches it through the tropes of simplicity and innocence. When Hamid, on his way to school, enquires about the meaning of his name, his father, rowing a shikara over the Dal Lake, says, "Hamid kehte hain, Allah ki tareef karne waale ko (Hamid is the one who praises the Lord)." But the child is not convinced. "Par main toh kabhi unki tareef nahin karta, main toh unko jaanta bhi nahin (But I hardly praise Him, I don't even know Him)," says the eight-year-old.
The just-released Hamid, that premiered at last year's MAMI Film Festival, is a screen adaptation of Mohammed Amin Bhat's play Phone No. 786, and tells the story of a Kashmiri child whose father goes out one night to fetch batteries and doesn't return. Hamid has to come to terms with the reality of an absent father, and a mother, Ishrat (Rasika Dugal), who is frequenting police stations, identifying corpses and carrying documents in search of her missing husband.
"I was told about this story by a friend of mine, who had seen this particular play, and the idea stuck. In the play, the kid protagonist, dials 786, and it connects to a Kashmiri Pandit, and the kid thinks it is god. We then, of course, developed it further and tweaked the context," says Khan, 52. "I gave this single-point idea to my writer Ravinder Randhawa, who made sure that the location aspect of Kashmir, and the imagery it evokes, doesn't just become a talking point in the film, but is central to the narrative."
In the film, Hamid gets connected to a CRPF jawan, and builds an unlikely kinship of sorts with him oversubsequent phone calls. Hamid thinks he is speaking to god. "We had to tell the story from a child's point of view. We, adults, are too cynical and jaded," says Khan, adding, "But this is, for sure, not a children's film."
Across frames, we see slogans of "Go back India" and "Azaadi" plastered on walls, and instances of encounters with stone pelters. Dugal's character is an "aadhi bewa" (half-widow), and the feeling of death and loss looms over the narrative. Yet, the film is not depressing. "We didn't want to make it heavy or preachy," says Mumbai-born Khan, "We were not trying to make a point about the problems that our country is facing in Kashmir, or anywhere else for that matter. The message is of hope, and how we can come to terms with loss. Much of the story unfolds through the innocent conversations that Hamid has with the people around him."
The ad filmmaker, Khan, who has worked on ad campaigns for brands like Head & Shoulders, Godrej and PepsiCo, says he "always wanted to be a storyteller". Hamid is his third feature film after White Elephant (2009) and Baankey Ki Crazy Baraat (2015). Khan spent a large part of 2017 in the Valley, shooting in and around Srinagar.
On Dugal playing the role of Ishrat, Khan says, "She was initially apprehensive, almost worried about how she would portray a Kashmiri woman. She went and stayed in a Kashmiri household and got the mannerisms to a T. That's what you get when you work with such actors, your job as a director becomes all the more easy."Indie cinema, he says, has given him the freedom to share narratives he likes with the actors of his choice. Though most of my work is still very much in the indie space, the industry is changing, and lines of pision between 'mainstream' and 'arthouse' are getting blurred," he says.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘A Child's Story’