On February 8, 1926, John Grierson reviewed Robert Flaherty’s ethnographic docudrama Moana in The New York Sun. One of the celebrated sentences from the review was, “Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth and his family, has documentary value.” This was the first time the word “documentary” was used to define a cinematic endeavour. Grierson went on to state that this new art form could exploit cinema’s potential for observing life. This sentiment of observing, of recording, and documenting a way of life takes an urgent role in Ajay Raina’s documentary, Mout`e Rang (At the moment of death) released in 2022.
The film, running a little over an hour and twenty minutes, is a rare attempt to focus on Kashmiri Pandits who stayed in the valley through the tumultuous 1990s and continue to live there. In recent years, the stories of displaced Kashmiri Pandits have become a part of mainstream conversation due to films like Shikara, The Kashmir Files, and books like Our Moon has Blood Clots. The exodus and its aftermath has been documented to a certain degree. But nobody has shown any curiosity or concern for Kashmiri Pandits who stayed back in the valley; nobody has asked what their lives are like, what their struggles are, how they are surviving in a conflict zone. These questions elicit neither emotion nor curiosity from journalists, activists, politicians or Indians at large. There is no interest in the sociological and ethnographic lives of Pandits living in Kashmir because activism and politics in the Valley is mostly centered around Kashmiri Muslims. The minorities in the Valley, both Hindus and Sikhs, are in the news only when they are attacked by terrorists. This superficial attention is usually used by political parties to secure brownie points with their voter base. As soon as the news cycle changes, the minorities are forgotten. Until there’s another killing.
While the apathy of others is understandable to some degree—after all, India is a large country with many problems—what is disappointing is the indifference, even suspicion of the displaced migrant Pandits towards those who have stayed on.
The distrust stems from a basic question: how are Pandits surviving in Kashmir’s harsh financial, social and religious landscape without having made any ‘compromises’? The compromises hinted at are the covering up of one’s Hindu identity, living as second class citizens, the fear of daughters and sisters getting into relationships with Muslim men, and other such insecurities.
Sanjay Tickoo—the protagonist and driving force behind the documentary—answers these questions unequivocally. He emphatically states that no compromises have been made by Pandits living in the Valley; at least not in the ways insinuated. Tickoo is the president of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), an organisation which represents members of the community living in the Valley. Since 1992, Hindus in the Valley have attempted to form organisations which would further their rights. The first such attempt was led by the human rights activist Hriday Nath Wanchoo. But it came to an abrupt and brutal end when Wanchoo was assassinated. The mantle was then taken up by Tickoo. Over the years, the KPSS has emerged as the most credible organisation fighting for the rights of Hindus in the Valley.
Tickoo’s narration is the heart of the documentary. It is a visceral, frank, engaging recounting of the trials and tribulations faced by the Pandits who stayed back. He spares no one from scrutiny. Not the local Kashmiri Muslims, not the government, not the bureaucracy, not the displaced Kashmiri Pandits. He points out how Pandits living in the Valley have had to fend for themselves with meagre financial and social capital.
The name of the documentary, Mout`e Rang, comes from an incident faced by Tickoo’s family. During the early 1990s, when militancy was at its peak, the neighbourhood where he stayed with his family was desolate, he tells us. Their neighbours, both Hindu and Muslim, had fled. Often, at night, the noise of boots on the tin roof could be heard by Tickoo’s family. Thud, thud, thud they would go at ungodly hours. The boots belonged to militants who were jumping from roof to roof to cross the neighbourhood. In those moments, Tickoo tells the camera, “Your heartbeat is loud enough for you to hear it, your legs would shake with fear, your tongue would go dry, your body would go stiff as if dipped in an icy pond—this reaction to the proximity and the inevitability of death was a peculiar state, one known as "mout `e rang’."
Raina and Tickoo met under tragic circumstances. What brought them together was the brutal massacre of 24 Kashmiri Pandits on 23 March 2003 in Nadimarg. Tickoo had visited the village in the immediate aftermath of the killings, and helped perform the last rites of those who had lost their lives. Raina was there as well. They met and spoke briefly.
Raina continued to meet Tickoo on his subsequent trips to Kashmir. As a displaced Kashmiri Pandit himself, he was deeply interested in the lives of those Pandits who lived in the Valley. At the same time, Tickoo and the KPSS team had started documenting the lives of Pandits who had stayed back. Raina decided to film this endeavour and encouraged Tickoo to do the same. They visited far-flung villages where Pandits still lived in great isolation, unmoored from the larger community. Tickoo also documented instances of temple vandalism and land encroachments. In the documentary, a clear pattern emerges. Both Raina and Tickoo search for exterior, physical symbols like temples, naags (sacred springs which are of immense religious and mythological significance to Kashmiri Pandits), sacred stones and dilapidated monuments. This external search, it seems, is a reflection of an inner search for identity, culture and lost heritage.
There is a sense throughout the film, of a whole people and culture slowly, visibly, inevitably diminishing; all while the world watches on as a mute spectator.
The disappearance is not just emotional rhetoric. According to a KPSS survey, there were 687 Pandit families in Kashmir in 2008. By 2015, the number was down to 654.
And currently, according to Tickoo, there are around 500 families left. Those who did not leave even at the worst of times are now doing so because of financial and sociological reasons. Private jobs in the Valley are non-existent. There is fierce competition for government ones. Finding matches for marriage is hard. Living as a Hindu minority in such an overwhelmingly Muslim society takes a toll on the psyche. Just being yourself in everyday life is a strain, which ironically, is the state Indian Muslims find themselves in many parts of India these days. The BJP-led central government has been equally uninterested in this demographic disappearance as were those preceding it. The number of voters are simply too small to matter. And it is getting smaller every day.
In such a paradigm, Raina’s attempt to capture the disappearance of the community is a valiant one. The preservation of Tickoo’s voice on film is an important act. There are many poignant scenes in the documentary. At a poetry reading, poet Zareef Ahmed Zareef reads poems about the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits and how the Valley is incomplete without them. While reading one of the poems, he recites a line which goes:
“Tratav kor phrat” (the lightning scared us)
Someone in the crowd jokingly asks:
“Batav kor phrat?” (the Pandits scared us?)
“Tratav, Tratav,” the poet corrects the heckler and the crowd laughs.
The moment is important because the poet is trying, through his words, to paint the absence, the void, which has been left in Kashmir due to the exodus of the Pandit community. But for the gathering, who indeed have troubles of their own, this is something to occasionally sigh or joke about. Nothing more.
At another point, Raina, Tickoo and the rest of the team visit the village of Chiyan. The date is 11 September 2011, coincidentally the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre in the US. Two young boys walk up to them. They are kindergartners. Their names are Afzal and Burhan. The latter holds a toy gun in his hand. He points it directly at Tickoo and a perfectly innocent conversation ensues. He asks their names. Which class they study in. Only in a place like Kashmir can a toy gun and the name ‘Burhan’ become heavy with significance, and gain meaning. Only in Kashmir can such innocent coincidences portend a violent future.
While the essence of the documentary is coherent and important, it does leave the viewer wanting when it comes to aesthetics. There are practical reasons for why this is so. These visits to distant villages and conversations with local Kashmiris make the bulk of the film’s visuals. The footage, shot over 15 years, by different cameras, by both amateurs and professionals, has a grainy, ‘home video’ aesthetic. B-roll footage, though used poetically at times, constitutes the majority of the visuals. Raina tells me that the footage reminded him of the early footage that American army cameramen shot in Germany, particularly in Berlin after the destruction of the wall. According to him, the look essentially enhances the value of the film as a document rather than just a documentary. Which is true but one cannot help but think that it could have been a much richer experience if the visual aesthetics of the film complemented the story it told. Another perspective missing from the documentary is the experience of the Kashmiri Pandit women who stayed in Kashmir. We barely hear anything about them except at one point, when Tickoo praises them for having continued wearing bindis and sarees which mark them out as Hindus in Kashmir.
Surprisingly, the reception to the documentary has been cold. There have only been three screenings of the film till now. The first screening was at the National Film Archive in Pune. The second was at Vikalp in Prithvi Theatre, Bombay and the third at the Chennai International Documentary and Short Film Festival. A few Kashmiri academicians teaching at universities in India and the US showed some interest in screening the film as part of their course, but Raina never heard back from them. This pattern has repeated itself multiple times. Raina’s fear is that liberals and progressives would ignore Mout`e Rang. “They would prefer deriding a crassly made film like The Kashmir Files but when the same truths are shown on the screen dispassionately, without unnecessary drama, they ignore it,” he says.
Raina could have promoted and sensationalised the movie as the story of Hindus being ill-treated in Kashmir which would have made for an eye catching, ‘click-baity’ angle. But he does not believe in using his art to create divisions among people. He feels he has recorded the facts and it is now up to the audience to acknowledge them.
Irrespective of the reception, one thing is for certain. Through Mout`e Rang, Raina has documented an important slice of Kashmir’s history. The story of Kashmiri Pandits who never left Kashmir has been saved for posterity through Tickoo’s narration. Hopefully archivists and historians of the future will give this documentary the importance and merit which it deserves.
Karan Mujoo is a gurgaon-based writer
(This appeared in the print as 'Documenting A Disappearance')