Interview #23 – Ashvin Kumar

Ashvin Kumar is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker whose third film ‘No Fathers In Kashmir’ is a coming of age drama examines the conflict of the titular region through the eyes of a British-Kashmiri teen. We caught up with Ashvin while he was in the UK promoting the film.

The film took five years to make. What were the main reasons behind it taking such a long time?  Was it difficult to secure funding?

Yes, it was initially extremely hard to fund the film. I had to crowd-fund 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 eventually managed to enter Kashmir with an extremely tight, shoestring budget.  We then encountered further delay in our initial shooting as the valley where we had planned to film became subject to lockdown and curfews so we had to put back our starting date.  This meant we lost most our crew who all had to go onto 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 look-alike 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.

How did you go about casting the film? In particular the two young leads?

With regard to the casting of Zara Webb and Shivam Raina, our wonderful 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.

The opening text reveals horrific details about the conflict in Kashmir. Why do you think the conflict isn’t more widely known?

The last 20 years of government propaganda about Kashmir has created a one-sided discourse and any opinion that contradicts that discourse is considered anti-national which is absolutely ridiculous. The press has also really abdicated its duties in reporting anything about Kashmir to the outside world.

It underlines the reasons why this film needs to be seen by as many people as possible and to provide a counter narrative of compassion and empathy in place of fear and hate that dominates mainstream discourse in India.

Do you hope the film can draw some attention to it?

For Kashmiris, the average Indian is a soldier in jackboots and camouflage and carrying a gun, and for Indians the average Kashmiri is a kid throwing stones at the army – these are the caricatures that have been propagated for the last 30 years. I hope that as the film is seen by UK and international audiences it will stimulate support, debate, curiosity, awareness, and compassion for the situation that Kashmiris find themselves in.

There is a great sense of sadness and despair in the film but a hint of optimism too. Are you hopeful about the conflict being resolved?

I believe that the Kashmiri issue will be solved by the young people of today, the millennials in their 20s or 30s because they’re not carrying the trauma of Partition nor are they carrying the burden or prejudice of their parents and grandparents generation.

What sort of distribution do you have? What do you think would constitute success for the film?

Having suffered at the hands of the Indian censor, which meant me having to take legal action and nine months of dispute in order to get the film released there, I didn’t really know what to expect from the UK.  I have been delighted by the reception the film has received here, particularly from the cinemas, both independent and multiplexes, which has meant the film is playing in all of the key cities around the UK and I’m currently doing some special one-off Q&A events too to support the film.  I am also very excited that the film is going to be screened at the House of Commons which I hope will then go on to open up some kind of debate and raise awareness about the situation in Kashmir.   To get the film shown in UK cinemas is in itself what I deem to be a success but the fact that the film is also getting excellent reviews from the critics and great word of mouth from the public is an added bonus.

You also take on an acting role. How did this come about? How did you find being in front of and behind the camera at the same time?

I stumbled into screenwriting and directing because I actually wanted to have a career as an actor but back in the late Nineties when I was trying to do that the opportunities for theatre/character actors in the Indian film industry were few and far between.   Acting came to me very naturally starting when I was at school and performance helped me enter a space where I was able to communicate directly to an audience.  Of course life has taken a different path and theatre roles still haven’t come to me.  However, when I came up with the screenplay for No Fathers in Kashmir, the character I play emerged and I said to myself this is my opportunity to play a complex and difficult role, especially as it’s dealing with very volatile sentiments and the issue of Islam in a way that perhaps some people may take offence at.  I felt that if there was anybody who should play a role like this it should be me, not just because I wanted to be on screen but because there was a deep responsibility in representing a character who is not likeable.

As for being in front and behind the camera, it’s something I was quite confident I could pull off as I have previously directed myself on stage.  I think I’m quite instinctively aware of myself as an actor and what, as a director, I want from a scene. Perhaps through sheer willpower I was able to switch off the director part of me when acting.   I think one of the biggest challenges was because there was so much at stake in terms of getting the film made. For the other cast members once they’d finished their particular scenes they could leave the set and relax but for me there was no switching off. I would certainly act and direct again but one thing I would do next time is to make sure that I have somebody to take the logistical weight off my shoulders as a lot of the time I was problem solving.

Somehow, I managed it and, thankfully, after a while it became second nature.

What are you working on next?

I’m focusing on my acting career next. I want to produce a few things. I’m working with first-time directors and am keen to find new talent. I have also been given an amazing script, which I plan to start shooting towards the end of next year. After that, I plan to start working on a feature film, in which again I will play one of the leads.

Our thanks to Ashvin for his time and to Lizzie and Sue at Porterfrith for arranging the interview.
No Fathers In Kashmir is out in the UK now.

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