Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Autumn in the Dominion of Canada Yields Bounty from India:
A Conversation with Aamir Bashir, the director of Autumn – Part One: The Political Context of Kashmir, Personal Beginnings of Aamir Bashir, Movies and Mohawk Cigarettes
Taking a break from boozing, hunting, trapping, fishing and fighting with my manly buds in the bush up here on the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the outer regions of the glorious Dominion of Canada, I sallied forth in early September to the normally cold, creepy and empty concrete wasteland of Hogtown to partake in the 2010 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (bearing that truly unfortunate acronym TIFF) whereupon I saw 36 movies, hustled some new properties, caroused with old friends I only see on the festival circuit, filed numerous reviews, missed a party I wanted to attend because I had stupid electrical problems with my car, and in spite of this, still managed to attend more parties than I cared to (and not one on par with those held at the Tobermory Royal Canadian Legion Hall – all north country festivities driven by the inimitable thump-thump-thumpety-thumping of the illustrious DJ Scubalicious).
Inevitably though, one can only hack so much clean country living while staring at endless Blu-rays in the cottage (now newly equipped with a glorious off-grid solar electric system fulfilling my wife’s need for green living and my need for libertarianism), a red-blooded fella’ such as myself ultimately desires total immersion in cinema.
In spite of my ire over TIFF’s boneheaded decision not to show Monte Hellman’s new picture Road to Nowhere, which premiered in Venice (where it garnered a Lifetime Achievement Award for the fiercely independent auteur), but apparently wasn’t good enough to screen in the city of Smugly Fucklings, there were plenty of fine movies to see in the festival’s new stomping grounds in the financial district of the aforementioned cold, creepy and empty concrete wasteland of Hogtown.
In addition to the festival’s pilfering of south Toronto’s majestic-mega-multiplexes to unspool their wares, we were blessed with the arrival of the new festival headquarters known as Lightbox (please note I refuse to mention the corporate sponsor that demands its name preface the otherwise deliciously named venue). An architectural nightmare from the outside (fitting in ever so blandly with the rather ugly financial district), it sports a spectacular environment within, chockfull of several magnificent state-of-the-art auditoriums that will be devoted to cinema of the highest order all year round (in addition to TIFF itself).
* * *
One of the best movies I saw at TIFF was Autumn (Harud), an exquisite independent film from India by Aamir Bashir. The picture’s world premiere was in Toronto and will continue its festival run during The London Film Festival in the UK, Rotterdam and, no doubt, other fine venues of world cinema. This is a picture that totally caught me off guard – it is measured, delicate and replete with the sort of observational details that could have descended into ass-numbing pretension – especially in less assured hands (and frankly, even in those that should know better).
Set in the Kashmir province on the northernmost tip of India (I think I’ve got an obsession with northernmost tips), Autumn tells the tale of those who live amid violence, terrorism and poverty, with only a bleak future ahead of them. After an unsuccessful try at militancy following the disappearance of his brother, the film’s central character Rafiq (Shahnawaz Bhat) exists in a perpetual walking cat-nap, alternately loafing with his friends and working a dead-end job (morning newspaper delivery). Life for Rafiq moves slowly and is punctuated only by bursts of violence around him. Through the course of the film, scattered gunshots are heard, bombs go off and at one point, he and his buddies discover a man on the verge of dying with a gaping bullet wound to the belly (which eventually leads Rafiq to a slightly better job).
Though haunted by his brother’s disappearance, Rafiq wishes to move on. There is the overwhelming feeling of the inevitable – that his brother has been kidnapped by the security forces and/or killed, and certainly, Rafiq seems to accept this, though his parents refuse to believe their eldest son is dead. This cloud of non-acceptance hangs heavily over their home. At one point, Rafiq’s father Jusuf (Reza Naji) suffers a nervous breakdown – adding more strife and tragedy to a situation foreign to most of us in the West, but a matter of course in so many other parts of the world.
Films such as this have been extremely prevalent during the past 20 years – especially so in the new millennium, but seldom have these works transcended their subject matter the way Autumn does. (Good subject matter tends to blind the eyes of people who should know better. They will often extol a film’s virtues based solely on what the picture is about, ignoring the style and craft, which can frequently be run-of-the-mill at best.)
With Autumn, director Aamir Bashir unflinchingly presents a world where death, destruction and corruption are endless – an eternal plodding state of aimlessness and despair. Life is cheap and can end very quickly. Our filmmaker captures this eloquently through a camera-eye that seldom moves and reflects the day-to-day mundane activities of Rafiq as if the very act of living feels like an eternity – like death itself.
Shots will often hold longer than audiences might be used to, but the detail and observation within these shots is so exquisite that we experience a highly evocative portrait of a life lived merely for the sake of survival. This is NEVER boring – it is the stuff of great drama – etched with the kind of command one usually experiences in the work of such masters as Yasujiro Ozu, Satyajit Ray or Carl Dreyer, but almost never in the work of young, contemporary filmmakers.
Needless to say, when I reviewed the film for Daily Film Dose, I received plenty of responses from those who immediately wished to see the film, but the note I received that truly excited me was from Courtney Goldman, one of my filmmakers in the Editing Lab at ‘Uncle’ Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre (where I continue to preside as the Senior Creative Consultant in the Film Department after stepping away from a 12-year-long stint as the Producer-in-Residence in order to continue making my own films, after an admittedly lengthy hiatus). Courtney had already seen Autumn, loved it and very much appreciated the review – always an extra special treat for me when it comes from one of my charges, but where I immediately got that extra special gooseflesh was when she mentioned her personal acquaintance with the filmmakers.
I knew immediately that Aamir Bashir was someone I wanted to meet and write more about. Given the film’s title, it was only appropriate we finally met on a crisp fall day with typically overcast Toronto skies (which are overcast with smog when clouds are not present).
Armed with Hogtown’s best coffee from the Cherry Bomb Café in the Parkdale district, I bundled Aamir and his partner Shanker Raman into my pathetic gas-efficient Toyota Yaris (oh how I miss my gas-piggish 1976 lime green Pontiac Laurentian) and drove to the leafy enclave of High Park.
We settled under a picnic canopy and started to talk.
Greg Klymkiw: One of the things I find about cinema over all the other art forms is that because technology, industry and commerce are so inextricably linked to the art, and because it’s essentially an art of the 20th century and now the 21st, the advancements, technologically and otherwise, have been so rapid there are certain vocabularies of cinematic storytelling that filmmakers have barely scratched the surface of and…
Aamir Bashir: …and moved on.
Yes, and that’s always driven me a little crazy because in actuality, it’s not the ‘moving on’ that’s the real problem, but the…
…the ‘leaving behind’.
Yes, the forgetting of certain techniques. It’s so unfortunate.
Your film, of course, has a very unique style by contemporary standards and yet it has a vocabulary that used to be fairly common that blends with current approaches and in so doing is something very new and unto itself. Now I’d like to start with your background. You were born in Kashmir?
I was born in Kashmir and I spent my early schooling life there and in summer 1990 left to study history at St Stephen’s College. That sort of coincided with the beginning of the insurgency in the late 1980s.
[After an ongoing series of border disputes and several rigged elections, an insurgency began to fight Indian rule. India accused Pakistan of instigating and training mujahideen, an Arabic word meaning strugglers or those strugglers who will do jihad which, in turn, refers to struggling with internal faith, struggling to uphold Muslim ideals and within the controversial context of interpretation, participating in Holy War. The results of the insurgency have been thousands of ‘disappearances’, deaths and ‘terrorist’ attacks.]
You obviously have a perspective on your world before and after the insurgency and I’m curious about what it was like growing up in the pre-insurgency years – as a kid in Kashmir. What were some of the highlights of your life there at that time?
It was pretty idyllic. Kashmir is a beautiful place, especially the access to nature – you just have to drive an hour in any direction to find it. My school was heavy into nature activities, so there were always summer camps and skiing in winter, swimming and regattas and lots of outdoor activities throughout the year. My uncle, who I dedicated the film to, was a journalist who owned his own daily newspaper called Aina (‘the Mirror’), which he edited and published. So from a very young age, I was exposed to the politics of the place. My uncle was only 45 years of age when he died, almost homeless. He was evicted from his house by the government on the pretext that his uncle who had migrated to Pakistan gave the house he was living in to him. They have a law that when someone evacuates their home, the state custodian takes it over.
[For a variety of reasons, Bashir’s late uncle, Shamim Ahmed Shamim, didn’t exactly endear himself to the state.]
He started his political career with the most powerful party in Kashmir at that time, which is still the ruling party today, the National Conference. My uncle was a protégé of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, who was also called Sher-e-Kashmir or the Lion of Kashmir. He was the Prime Minister of Kashmir, which was an autonomous region. After starting his career with the National Conference party, my uncle gradually rebelled and became an anti-establishment figure. His writing, his editorials – he was a lone voice against them.
[Shamin Ahmed Shamin, in a 1969 Aina personality profile, wrote the following about Sher-e-Kashmir: ‘Was Sheikh Abdullah a successful politician? There can be more than one opinion about it. Was Sheikh Abdullah a good man? This is a moot question. One thing beyond dispute is his patriotism. He loved Kashmir to distraction. He could sacrifice the world’s kingdoms for the sake of Kashmir. His entire life has been an expression of this love. It is for the sake of this unfathomable love for Kashmir that Kashmiris turn a blind eye to his faults and see only his virtues.’]
In that sense even at a young age I was politically aware and I do remember local governments falling due to the machinations of the Union government – coalitions wanting this or that and not getting it. Cinema played an important part in the insurgency. Lion of the Desert is considered as a catalyst for the insurgency. This was the only film in English that ran – four shows a day for months. Normally, English-language films would only play twice a day and the rest of the screen time was taken up with Bollywood titles. Lion of the Desert, though, proved so popular it took Kashmir by storm, and soon you started hearing audience members shouting out political slogans during the shows while it was playing.
[Lion of the Desert is the epic war film from the 80s starring Anthony Quinn and Oliver Reed that depicted the exploits of Arab Muslim leader Omar Mukhtar and his fierce battles waged during World War I when Libya was conquered by the Italians who, for their part, ruthlessly and brutally subjugated the peoples of Libya. Substantially financed by Libyan ruler/dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the picture was directed by Moustapha Akkad, best known as the producer who bankrolled John Carpenter’s Halloween and presided over all the sequels in the franchise. I recalled enjoying Lion of the Desert when I first saw it in the 80s. Watching it again recently, I have to admit the picture kicks major ass. Akkad directs with passion, the battle sequences in particular are phenomenal and more than make up for some of the clunky dialogue sequences. The picture even presents an Islamic point of view that is extremely convincing and heartfelt. The sad irony is that Akkad was killed in a Jordan hotel targeted by a suicide bomber.]
And what place did religion play in your childhood?
As far as religion is concerned, I grew up in a fairly liberal atmosphere at home. Also, the neighbourhood I grew up in was not only mixed but fairly cosmopolitan by small-town Kashmiri standards – comprising journalists and civil servants from other parts of India. The only time I remember my mother insisting that I offer my prayers was when my uncle [Shamin Ahmed Shamin], her brother, was dying of cancer. Those prayers – all prayers at home were in the Muslim tradition – went unanswered. Besides, going to a Christian missionary school, the oldest educational institution in Kashmir, and getting a daily dose of stories from the New Testament, made sure that I had a fairly religious upbringing, which of course was instantly negated by a Western, rationalist education. All in all, it was fairly confusing and more than enough to keep me away from religion.
Your uncle’s literary militancy aside, much of the pre-insurgency life seems, as you already said, so idyllic.
Kashmiris were for a long time not considered a volatile bunch of people. I remember whenever small troubles took place, one policeman with a bamboo stick used to control a crowd. From there to what it is now, it is quite a transformation. Even when the insurgency began, Kashmiris used to say that the Kashmiri militant is not really a revolutionary because all you needed to do was deliver one slap during interrogation and the Kashmiri militant would vomit everything – ‘I didn’t do anything!’ This is the joke within the Kashmiris. We were never hardcore.
One thing I’ve always been interested in is the notion of colonisation. Canada, of course, was a colony of Britain. In fact, because of the Commonwealth, we’re really still beholden to the Crown – so much so that I wanted, from the beginning, to call my film column for Electric Sheep, which is UK-based, ‘The Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada’. I have benign childhood memories of the idea of living in a ‘Dominion’ and certainly as a child with Eastern European immigrant grandparents, I heard stories of Anglo-inflicted racism. Even my dad, who was born in Canada, would refer to Anglo-Canadians with a bit of a sneer as ‘The’ English. Not just English, but the English, so even he felt this dominance of Britain. And of course, all of this is incredibly benign given the utter horrors perpetrated upon Canada’s aboriginal peoples by British colonisation. What are your thoughts on colonisation?
Well, the idea of India only happened during the British time. It was never one single unit or one single nation – it was a bunch of trading zones brought together by the British, so in that sense, we owe the idea of India to the British. That’s why Gandhi, when he was fighting for independence, was trying to delay it for a while because, according to him, the people, this so-called nation, was not ready to be an independent nation. As for our experience, I went to Christian school founded by Cambridge priests, all our judicial and bureaucratic institutions are British, our railways were set up by the British, so it’s all there – it’s all there.
But what has happened now – at present – is that India itself is behaving like a colonial power with its own people. That is happening not just in Kashmir, but also in seven individual states in the northeast and across the Red Corridor, or the tribal belt of India, which goes from Central South India all the way up to Eastern India. Along this belt, tribal peoples live in mostly forest land and have been labelled ‘Maoists’. Of course, leftist guerrilla groups support them, and it’s probably an even bigger problem than Kashmir is right now, but it’s just that the media highlights or wants to club Kashmir with this ‘bad’ Islamic problem across the world.
Here, in this Red Corridor, it’s even more colonial than ideological because big industry along with the state wants to go in there and rape, pillage and plunder whatever they can – these beautiful forests that mining companies and others want to destroy are one thing, but the people living there will be displaced. The government brazenly wants them to change their lifestyles, they want to move them into concrete buildings and give them television sets. Local police officers and people who are in charge of security say, ‘All we need to do is give them TV sets’. They just become consumers themselves because they’re not dependent on the forest anymore.
So India is actually a colonial power itself and it scares me. It’s a scary place and of course, the west is backslapping India as an ’emerging power’, ‘an economic power’ and all that. The whole middle class has bought this idea that these tribal peoples, these ‘Maoists’, or Kashmir, are an obstruction to our progress – that if these people in Kashmir will just get jobs there will be no problem.
[At this point in our conversation, I was reminded of Bashir’s depiction in Autumn of all the disenfranchised young men in Kashmir – with no future, no motivation, dead-end jobs if jobs at all – a world where jihad seems like the only way to break free of colonial repression and domination and my mind shifts back to… cinema.]
When did you fall in love with movies? Was it gradual? Was there one epiphany or several?
In the early 1970s, in our neighbourhood there was one TV set – it was state-run television – and whether the movies were colour or black and white, the TV set itself was black and white, so that is how we would watch them. Everyone would descend upon this one household that had the TV on Sundays and watch this movie in the living room. Everybody’s there – a sea of slippers outside, everybody’s sitting down and there’s literally no room to walk, or step or stand. I must have been four or five years old at that time…
And what type of films were they?
Most of the films were Hindi. They were mushy and romantic and all the kids would cry, thinking about the ‘poor mother’, the ‘poor kid’ or whatever was happening on the screen. And that was one experience. That was my introduction to cinema. But when I was 14 or 15, that’s when the VCR came.
The VCR exposed me to a whole new world of movies. That’s when my parents, during one winter, went for a holiday, and I had to stay back home to prepare for an important exam coming up. They gave me a little bit of money for groceries and I remember spending almost all of that money on movies and not on Hindi films, but Hollywood and English-language movies from The Godfather to Ryan’s Daughter to Taxi Driver to British sex comedies – everything! I must have seen over 200 movies that one winter.
So the VCR was the explosion for you?
I’m just trying to place this in context since I’ve got at least 12 to 15 years on you and whenever I meet filmmakers from slightly earlier generations, it’s that whole Tarantino thing of watching movies on VHS. My own epiphanies with all of the same pictures happened on a big screen.
Oh yes, I did have the experience of seeing many movies on the big screen as well because my uncle had press passes and I got to see movies in a special press box separated from the rest of the audience. The movies in the theatres though were almost always Bollywood, so it was truly the VCR that I consider as being the most significant period for me – when my view of storytelling, how to tell a story, changed. Of course, there were a few English-language movies I would see on a big screen. I remember watching The Blue Lagoon. When I came out of the theatre, my physical education teacher from school was there and he was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And yes, I guess I would occasionally sneak out in the evenings to see English movies on my own, but one movie I remember going to see on a big screen was Kramer vs Kramer, with my parents.
Of course, and the stuff you watched on VHS was probably a lot cooler than the English-language stuff you saw on a big screen.
My dad used to take me to see a lot of cool movies on a big screen – many of which would have been considered inappropriate for children to see, and I can tell you my life certainly changed when he took me to see The Wild Bunch when I was about 9 years old. On a big screen no less!
I need to see Lion of the Desert again.
Actually, forget about Lion of the Desert. If any picture inspires and galvanises people in India, it’s Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.
A big-screen picture for sure.
Yes, but one that plays every year on television and is screened reverently by everyone…
So, after that point at which you discovered a new way of telling stories and you went to St Stephen’s to study history, was there any plan at that time to get involved in movies?
Oh no, no plan to do that at all. In fact, there was no plan at all.
That sounds familiar – my entire early 20s were basically no plan – other than slacking and doing cool shit I enjoyed doing. Say, do you mind if I have a cigarette?
Please do. Would you mind if I tried one of yours?
Oh yes, my pleasure. I’m smoking these fabulous All-Natural Natives that I get from one of the Mohawk reservations in Buffalo. I even occasionally get them in Toronto from a Vietnamese mob source. I can also get Canadian brands manufactured by our Aboriginal brothers on Indian land up north. I prefer the American ones, though. They have fewer additives.
[By this point, we light up the full-flavour cigarettes and begin puffing away.]
The thing with the Mohawks is that they came to this point where they said, ‘Fuck it! Our people like to smoke, but the White Man is poisoning us, so let’s make our own cigarettes.’
[We both share hearty laughs over this and begin coughing.]
Of course, these will kill us too.
I don’t like the cigarettes from America, the Marlboros and all those. They don’t taste right to me.
What do you think of these?
Oh, very nice.
An old acquaintance of mine, Camelia Frieberg, the producer of Atom Egoyan’s really great early work, used to smoke Bidis. She got me hooked on them for a long time. Are those still popular?
Just with old hippies now?
Yeah, old leftist intellectuals.
[End of Part One]
Next month, we will continue the discussion with Aamir Bashir and focus on his acting career in Bollywood, his collaboration with co-producer, co-editor, co-writer and director of photography Shanker Raman – who will also join the conversation – and last, but not least, the development and making of Autumn and the unique pacing of the film.
Note: The above piece included some plot summary used in my original review published at Daily Film Dose during the Toronto International Film Festival.
To coincide with the film’s European Premiere at the London International Film Festival, I am now republishing my Daily Film Dose review in its entirety:
Autumn (2010) dir. Aamir Bashir
Starring: Shahnawaz Bhat, Reza Naji
The proper pacing of a movie can be a seemingly amorphous goal for many filmmakers. The whole problem, I think, is in the notion of whether something is too slow or not fast enough and what precisely defines and contributes to an audience detecting, then reacting to a picture when it lugubriously shuffles along. That said, and where the confusion can come in, is when even a break-neck speed in terms of cuts, movement and/or line delivery contributes immeasurably to creating a dragging effect. Audiences (and I’d argue most reviewers) aren’t always aware that it’s a supersonic speed that, more often than not, induces boredom and/or sore sphincters.
I have often tarred and feathered the cinematic output of Iran (and recently added Kyrgyzstan to my ass-numbing-by-country list), but of course, it has less to do with my desire to be obnoxious than with the fact that there ARE rules to the grammar of cinema – the biggest being that a filmmaker must ALWAYS be serving the story and its forward movement, and furthermore, serving the dramatic beats in a style and manner that hammer them home the best.
Autumn is a stunning new film from India that, for the most part, is snail-paced, but in spite of this, I cannot recall a single moment when my mind wandered or when my eye strayed to my iPhone to check email. My eyes were super-glued to the screen. I couldn’t take my precious asymmetrical globes off the picture if I tried. Part of this is director Aamir Bashir’s desire to tell his story in a manner in which it’s all important for us to experience the minute by minute, hour by hour, day in and day out, emptiness in the lives of Kashmir’s young men.
Living amid violence, terrorism and poverty, and with only a bleak future ahead of him, our central character Rafiq (Shahnawaz Bhat), after an unsuccessful try at militancy following the disappearance of his brother, exists in a perpetual walking cat-nap, alternately loafing with his friends and working a dead-end job (morning newspaper delivery). Life for Rafiq moves slowly and is punctuated only by bursts of violence around him. Through the course of the film, scattered gunshots are heard, bombs go off and at one point, he and his buddies find a man on the verge of dying with a gaping bullet wound to the belly (which eventually leads Rafiq to a slightly better job).
Though haunted by his brother’s disappearance, Rafiq wishes to move on. There is the overwhelming feeling of the inevitable – that his brother has been kidnapped by the security forces and/or killed, and certainly, Rafiq seems to accept this, but his parents refuse to believe their eldest son is dead. This cloud of non-acceptance hangs over their home like a heavy, dark cloud. At one point, Rafiq’s father Jusuf (Reza Naji) suffers a nervous breakdown – adding more strife and tragedy to a situation foreign to most of us in the West, but a matter of course in so many other parts of the world.
This is the story of a world where death, destruction and corruption are endless and by extension, while life is cheap and can end very quickly, while it goes on, it seems to be an endless, plodding state of aimlessness and despair.
Director Bashir captures this eloquently through a camera-eye that seldom moves and captures the day-to-day mundane activities of Rafiq – it’s as if the very act of living feels like an eternity – like death itself. Shots will often hold longer than audiences might be used to, but the detail and observation within these shots is so exquisite that we experience a highly evocative portrait of a life lived merely for the sake of survival. This is NEVER boring – it is the stuff of great drama – etched with the kind of command one usually experiences in the work of such masters as Yasujiro Ozu, Satyajit Ray or Carl Dreyer, but almost never in the work of young, contemporary filmmakers. Bashir is, by trade, an actor, but I sincerely hope he continues to find subject matter that inspires him as much as that on display in Autumn so he can give up his ‘day job’ and dazzle us again and again with his astounding command of cinematic storytelling.
This is a story that DEMANDS a measured pace. The picture is almost neorealist in extremis and there is little by way of overt lyricism – save for the few lyrical moments in the lives of the characters; most notably when Rafiq’s chum sings a haunting song as the young men laze about under the autumn sky and the lads encourage him to enter a television variety show for amateurs with talent and, most importantly, when Rafiq becomes drawn to taking photographs using his late brother’s camera. The pace is what PRECISELY allows for small moments like these to take on almost mythic proportions within the narrative itself.
Too many art and/or independent films almost annoyingly wear their slow pace like some badge of honour. This is why such pictures give this slower approach a bad name – their ‘artistry’ feels machine-tooled.
Not so with Autumn. This is one of the most stately and profoundly moving films I’ve seen in recent years – it is replete with compassion and humanity, using its exquisite, delicate pace to examine and remind us how precious every second of life on this earth is.
From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty: