Noor

2016 film | in production

When Noor’s mother takes her far from Britain to Kashmir, her ancestral home, Noor begins uncovering clues about what really happened to her missing father.

A story about hope, set in the worlds’ most secret war, and its effects on women and children through a disarming coming-of-age story between teenagers growing up in Kashmir.

The screenplay of Noor was one of eight projects selected to Sundance Institute / Mumbai Mantra Lab 2014. The script was also awarded a development grant by Asia Pacific Screen Academy

Noor

Production Diary: Week 1

It’s the first day on set. We’re prepping for our first shot at the break of dawn. Placed on a red plastic chair is an image of Ganesha, a bowl of sugar, incense and a coconut. The camera is rolling. A sanskrit chant is recited and the coconut is broken at the foot of the stool. Cut. The Hindu God Ganesha is the remover of all obstacles, we start everyday with a shot of the elephant God. After that, we start filming the script. While we chanted, a peal of bells chimed in a small Gurudwara nearby and in the distance, the first azaan of dawn serenaded the morning. God in every form was awake and being worshipped.

The crew of Noor is a medley of Indian, English and French nationals. We’re Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and atheists who have come together to produce a film close to the Indo-Pakistan border. Just a few hundred miles away, in Srinagar, religious and political tensions, curfews have brought life to a standstill.

We have embarked upon a vastly ambitious project on a ridiculously tight budget, a shooting schedule that does daily battle with nature as daylight drops by five pm and endless production problems as infrastructure to meet basic needs such as hot water, electricity, heating, catering and hotel staff have to be provided by us - we make movies not run hotels!

Our production department has to feed, house, transport and keep insulated a crew of over a hundred people over a month and a half while the director, cinematographer, production designer and their teams have to shoot in excess of a gruelling seven pages a day, everyday. Its going to take huge team effort, resilience and impossibly long hours if we are to have a fighting chance to come out of this with a completed film. Add to that Ashvin’s style of working which privileges the actors and their instincts - allowing them space means allowing them time. And, if he is to get the film that he wants, time is the most precious commodity on this set. Completing the film is one thing, making the film that fulfills the potential of its fabulous screenplay and the vision of its director is something else all together. Ashvin has really put himself out on a very thin rope this time and to add to it he is also producing and acting in the film.

How is this going to happen?

Our day starts at 4am with a quick breakfast and we’re on set by 4:30. The next hour is spent setting up and getting ready for the first rays of the sun and Ashvin’s call to action. We’re on a tight schedule and so far things are moving at breakneck pace. It’s been only a week of shoot and our actors wear their roles seamlessly. They trained at acting workshops with Delhi-based theatre actor Farhad Colabavala the week before we left for shoot, and they ricochet dialogue with the finesse of seasoned performers.

Realism is the director’s staple so the set design and costumes are a tableau of Kashmiri culture. The wool and tweed pherens and pashmina shawls the actors will be seen in have been designed by Ritu Kumar. The set, which is reminiscent of exhausted two-storey wood houses, ruins of abandoned homes (when the Kashmiri pandits fled the valley) and warped asbestos shanties are the creation of production designer Sylvain Nahmias.

We wish you could be here to experience all of it so we made you a little video introducing our lead actors…

Introducing Noor and Majid

Production Diary: Week 2

Last week, we introduced you to our lead actors and showed you glimpses of our shoot. It’s been almost two weeks of shoot now and we’ve shot some of our most elaborate scenes in the past ten days. A film is as good as its production, and we’ve tried our best to pay attention to detail so that our set and costumes are of superior quality. Production designer Sylvain Nahmias kept every piece of prop from the samovars (pitchers) to kangris (coal baskets to keep warm) true to reality.

One of the crew’s favourite scenes was a Kashmiri wedding and we recreated this from scratch. We organised an actual wazwan (a multi-course Kashmiri meal) and had the cooks prepare everything on set. Every actor and background artist felt they were attending a real wedding. Our lead actor, Zara (Noor), wore a silk salwar-kameez with gold embellishments for the first time and loved it. The bride (Maya Sarao as Parvena) was in vintage brocade with hand thread embroidery on the yoke (part of Ritu Kumar’s revivalist collection) and an old recreated tissue head covering. The groom (Ashvin Kumar as Arshid) was in a hand-woven raw wool coat with a shawl recreated from an 18th century Kashmiri motif with kanni weaving and a karakuli (fur cap). The tent the production team set up was a stunning canvas of white with intricate crewel embroidery covering every inch of it.

We spent months on research and homework on all things Kashmiri before the shoot began but just to make sure we nailed it (because we’re a bunch of paranoid perfectionists), we run a fact check with our Kashmiri crew and our on-set Kashmiri consultant before every shot. We have a local on every team and we’re proud to say that every Kashmiri on set feels that Noor is a true representation of their way of life.

Here’s a sneak peek of what went on behind the scenes at the wedding set, and introducing our Kashmiri crew…

Our cast looking their best in Ritu Kumar finery. From Left: Natasha Mago (Zainab), Zara Webb (Noor), Soni Razdan (Halima), Maya Sarao (Parvena), Ashvin Kumar (Arshid), Shivam Raina (Majid) and Kulbhushan Kharbanda (Abdul Rashid)

Introducing our Kashmiri crew

Director’s Note

Grave human rights violations have taken place in Kashmir under the watch of India, the world’s largest democracy. Approximately 10,000 men have disappeared in this conflict which has claimed at least 100,000 lives – three times more than Israel and Palestine. Yet Kashmir remains one of the most under-reported conflicts in the world, almost obliterated by Western media. This film is my attempt to address that imbalance.

I recall the sense of shame and disbelief that I felt as an Indian when I first embarked on my Kashmir documentaries, the Inshallah series, in 2009. Everything that I was witnessing and recording contradicted what I had consumed in the past about India’s relationship with Kashmir.

Despite twenty years of a gruelling and bloody conflict, and despite being, for all practical purposes ‘the enemy’ (an Indian), the ordinary Kashmiri not only welcomed me but gave me unprecedented access to their most private, secret thoughts and feelings – as evidenced in the preceding documentary features.

I came away humbled and somewhat perplexed by that sense of shared humanity that seems to bind people, transcending divisive religious and national affiliations. They have a word for this in Kashmir – its called ‘Kashmiriyat’. Very hard to translate into English but loosely, lets call it ‘brotherhood’. For me Kashmiriyat encapsualtes optimism, hope, light-heartedness. A sense of culture, sophistication, understanding, forgiveness.

It is this sense of Kashmiriyat that I want to recall in Noor.

Conflict, I realised, is its most brutal in the kitchen – when the family is gathered for a meal or a cup of tea. And that it is the women and children who are gathered around that hearth, upon whom the crushing weight of absence and loss falls most heavily.

So it is through a depiction of the mundane, the humdrum lives that this story of two teenagers from a disparate worlds and their experience of love, pays an homage to the indomitable spirit of these women and children of Kashmir.

They are the traumatised survivors who endure a merciless occupation, a colonisation of hearts and minds that is now become institutionalised by ritualised humiliations in a conflict that doesn’t seem to have any end or respite.

Theirs is a heartbreaking vigil with no end. And yet, remarkably, it is they who keep the struggle for dignity alive, long after the world has forgotten their predicament.

Director Ashvin Kumar with actors Zara Webb (Noor) and Shivam Raina (Majid)

Anshuman Jha plays the role of an army major.

Kashmir situation

Kashmir is one of worlds forgotten yet pivotal conflicts. It is a disputed territory between the nuclear-nations China, India and Pakistan, the hot-bed of global-terror and potential flash-point following the American withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2014. In it, a civilian population lives in the shadow of half-a-million troops in a small area, not much larger than greater New Delhi.

The conflict in Kashmir has claimed more than a hundred thousand lives of which ten thousand are ‘disappeared’ people. The human loss whether it is armed forces being killed, or civilians dying in the crossfire is deeply troubling, particularly in a modern democracy.

The blow is hardest for the survivors, particularly women and children.

In that sense, Noor is a story about three generations of women, a fifteen year old girl, her mother and her grandmother.

half widow | video clip

The wives of disappeared men face economic hardships, uncertainty about their children’s future and are socially ostracised. Caught in a pincer of militants and soldiers, without status, rights or claims, their lives are reduced to an endless vigil.

(half) widows

Wives of disappeared men are euphemistically known as half-widows. Their husbands are missing but not declared dead. The absence of a bread earner leaves the family economically vulnerable. Apart from this the wives aren’t allowed to transfer husband’s property or have bank accounts. In certain cases the relationship of the in-laws with the wife also sour. In a society where married women don’t live in their parents’ home, half-widows find themselves without support and along with their children are a constant reminder of the family’s loss and additional mouths to feed. The matter of inheritance as determined by the Muslim Law leaves their children without economic support. Some of these women have given their children to orphanages or have turned to menial work, begging and prostitution. Others, to secure their future and children, have married their brothers-in-law.

APDP estimates at least one thousand five hundred half widows in the Kashmir valley.

Noor is a feature narrative about the women and children caught in the limbo created by disappearances.

mass graves

International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice has been demanding exhumation of mass-graves since the the earthquake in 2005 first confirmed their existence. Though the group sought intervention of National Human Rights Commission and State Human Rights Commission in 2009, little has been done to find the identity of the bodies in the graves and the perpetrators of crime.

The Indian state, for the first time, admitted the existence of thirty-eight unmarked graves with two thousand one hundred and fifty six unidentified bodies in a mass-graves on the 21 August 2011. However, in 2012 the government of Kashmir refused to perform DNA testing on the bodies found in the mass grave due to lack of resources. The interviews in the film were shot in 2009.

Noor is a narrative feature about the women and children caught in the limbo created by disappearances.

disappeared | video clip

Nearly ten-thousand people have disappeared in Kashmir. This clip, from Inshallah, Kashmir, shows the fallout on the women and children of the men who have disappeared. Some heartrending accounts of fraught lives, compounded by state apathy.

disappeared

Parveena Ahangar’s life changed when her sixteen year-old son was allegedly picked up by the Indian army on the suspicion of being a militant. From someone who seldom ventured out of her house, Parveena went around the country, from jail to jail, looking for her son. The authorities could tell her nothing. She formed the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), to unite families of the disappeared looking for their kin. Without formal education, from an orthodox Muslilm family, Parveena mobilised women in Kashmir who are still waiting for the loved ones to return. She was nominated for Nobel Peace Price in 2005.

Parveena’s is a story that echoes across eight to ten-thousand families scattered all over Kashmir. Many whose loved ones disappeared, in the early years of militancy - two decades and counting.

Ashvin’s next film Noor is a fictional story about the women and children caught in the limbo created by disappearances.

kickstarter success

On 20th February 2016, our Kickstarter campaign to raise £74,000 ($100,000) beat its target.

We approached the Kickstarter platform for funding as we want to make a film without having to compromise our vision. We are ecstatic that so many people came together to raise £74,000 towards making this film. It shows there is a real desire out there to see this incredible script on the big screen.

Kashmir has remained in the peripheries of western consciousness and in media darkness for far too long. Noor is our attempt to change that narrative. The people who’ve supported it at this nascent stage are an endorsement of this effort; they are also our audience and our ambassadors.

To support the crowdfunding campaign, I travelled across the UK to visit Kashmiri communities in London, Glasgow, Manchester, Rochdale, Bradford and Birmingham and held free screenings of my films, Inshallah, Kashmir and Inshallah, Football.

publicity