Kaafiron Ki Namaaz – A bold narrative in a sensitive society
Kaafiron Ki Namaaz is an independent film set in the picturesque backdrop of Kashmir, and follows the catharsis of three rather unlikely characters on a rainy Christmas Eve. With a controversial title and the promise of unapologetic content, Kaafiron Ki Namaaz makes yet another bold move by releasing on YouTube today, April 7, 2016; avoiding cinema halls altogether in an attempt to evade a losing battle against the Censor board.
Here are some excerpts from an interview with Bhargav Saikia, the Producer and Ram Ramesh Sharma, the Director of Kaafiron Ki Namaaz. They give an insight into the indomitable spirit of their film and why it reaching the audience is more important than making money, among other things.
Ram Ramesh Sharma, Director
Tell us something about the film and its premise. What was the thought process behind the casting?
Kaafiron Ki Namaaz is more of a human drama, with shades of a thriller. It’s about these three men, a recently court-martialed army officer, a writer and a musician, confessing their most personal secrets to each other on a rainy Christmas Eve somewhere in Srinagar, Kashmir. What begins as a dramatic discussion between these three in an old, abandoned hotel, soon turns into a chilling meeting raising some pertinent issues. Meanwhile, the writer’s camera assistant stands as a mute spectator and records everything on his camera.
There are lots of arguments and their counter arguments that are voiced in the film. There is a tremendous rage inside all of its characters. Nobody is a hero. Nobody is a villain. But there is a definite cycle of protagonist-antagonist in the film. “Their arguments” is the protagonist. “Their counter arguments” is the antagonist. And the conflict between them is generating the real friction for the drama. Confessions is the theme of the film.
There is Chandrahas Tiwari as the writer, Alok Chaturvedi as the Army officer and Megh Pant as the musician (Junaid). All three of them were batchmates in the acting course at FTII Pune, and they have pulled off their roles with utmost conviction. Chandrahas ji, who was one of the most renowned names in the Bhopal theatre circuit, passed away in 2013 after a long and courageous battle with multiple kidney failure, shortly after the film’s post-production was completed. It is one of my biggest regrets that we could not show the complete film to him.
The title seems a tad controversial for India. How did it come into being? Is it symbolic of something in particular?
The word “Kaafir” means nonbeliever, “Kaafiron” being plural, denotes nonbelievers and “Namaaz” is prayer. Kaafiron Ki Namaaz literally means nonbelievers’ prayer. All the characters in the film are conversing about their darkest matters to one another, thereby becoming vulnerable. And with vulnerability, comes confession. I wanted to give a glimpse of this nature in the film’s title while keeping the poetic gesture intact – from dark-to-grey-to-white. Therefore Kaafir – impure, Namaaz – pure – Kaafiron Ki Namaaz. A transition from impurity to purity.
While we’re talking about the title, are you apprehensive of any backlashes owing to the title of the film?
All I can say is that I am fully confident of this title. It carries a certain energy, which is the true representation of the film.
Where did the idea for the film first come from?
Actually, lots of things inspired me but the major one was a train journey that I took from Mumbai to Delhi five years ago. There were 3 other passengers traveling in the same cabin as mine – a retired income-tax officer, a journalist from a national daily and his associate respectively.
The income-tax officer and the journalist started talking to each other as soon as they met. Both of them looked like foodies to me. From general introduction to talking about their favorite food recipes, politics and even homosexuality – they were chatting about anything and everything. I had a window seat and I didn’t feel like communicating with them. They were at least 30-35 years older to me. The fourth person, the journalist’s associate, remained all quiet. Unexpectedly, their random conversations turned into a heated argument over a national issue, so much so that they started shouting at each other. I was rather amused, so was that fourth person. But he still maintained his calm and didn’t interfere at all. His silence thrilled me. And I was quite entertained by whatever was going on between the two people.
They both went berserk and started screaming at each other. I was watching all this and not once did I feel like stopping them. It was fun being an observer. It was only after the interference of other fellow passengers from the adjacent cabin that they both calmed down. And I was smiling inside. That fourth person, the journalist’s associate, was still silent. I think he was just seeking some kind of voyeuristic fun. Well, in that way, I too was doing the same. I reached Delhi but this whole set-up stayed with me. The idea of having people from different walks of life and watching them interact, felt very tempting to me. The drama looked very pure to me. Ambiguous in nature, personal on its surface and voyeuristic in its core.
Since the story is set in Kashmir, how essential is the location to the narrative?
An army-man. A writer. And a bandwalla. A conversation between such ironical characters required a similar sort of an environment. A place full of ironies. A place full of questions. Where promises and heartbreaks live together. Where every morning is a hope and every night seems like a confession. Kashmir was the only place which got stuck in my head. A gateway to heaven built on graveyards. As a backdrop, it became my latent character.
The film has some notable singers like Sukhwinder Singh, Usha Uthup, and Javed Ali sing for the movie. What role does the music play in the film?
I think the music is the state of mind of the film. All the songs seem to reflect the characters’ dilemmas. And the film’s narrative gets nurtured in their presence.
Bhargav Saikia, Producer
How did Ram Ramesh Sharma and you team up with each other?
When Ram narrated the basic idea behind Kaafiron Ki Namaaz to me in early 2011, I immediately decided to make this film. I had no clue where the money would come from or how we would assemble a cast & crew to shoot in Kashmir. But I decided to launch my independent film company with this film. Ram and I were still in film school back then. Many people thought that we were out of our minds to make an independent feature-length film without any prior experience of making even a professional short film, and without graduating from film school. But we were willing to take the risk. We were seriously absorbed by the concept and completely believed in each others ability to pull off the film. We eventually dropped out of film school in our final semester, later that year, to begin pre-production for the first shooting schedule in Kashmir.
The film has travelled around and gained acclaim across major festivals around the world and India. Where is it headed next?
We shot Kaafiron Ki Namaaz in 2012 in Kashmir, and it took almost a year to complete the post-production. The film was completely ready in June 2013. It participated at Film Bazaar in Goa later that year, and premiered at the Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea in May 2014 in their international competition section. Kaafiron Ki Namaaz was also screened at a number of other film festivals in 2014. These included Ladakh International Film Festival, International Film Festival of Colombo (Sri Lanka), Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival (Indonesia) and Kolkata International Film Festival. The film won the top 4 awards for Best Feature Film, Best Debut Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor at the festival in Ladakh.
The jury was headed by veteran filmmaker, Mr. Govind Nihalani who loved the film and praised it for its gripping and powerful narrative. Maxine Williamson, artistic director of the prestigious Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA) in Australia, who was also part of the jury, appreciated the film and included it in the official competition of APSA 2014. Seeing the film’s reception at these festivals, a number of production companies had shown active interest to release the film theatrically. But as time went by, things didn’t work out as promised to us. Hence, I decided to release the film digitally on YouTube. Kaafiron Ki Namaaz will have its exclusive digital premiere on the official YouTube channel of Lorien Motion Pictures on April 7th, 2016.
Did you try for a theatrical release? What advantage does YouTube provide, which surpasses cinema halls?
As a producer, it was very tough for me to take this decision to release the film for free on the Internet. Yes, we did try for a theatrical release, but after a long wait for the film to release in cinemas and also the issues with the film’s title, it made sense that we release the film ourselves on a digital platform to enable and ensure that it reaches out to the audience in its entirety and without any limitations. Considering the independent nature of the film, it is more important for us to give the film the audience it deserves, and the digital medium is perfect for this purpose. I may not make any money out of it, but I hope that this release will bring a respectable audience base for the film and also highlight the hard work of all the creative professionals associated with it. I am confident that this decision will pay off in the long run.
Because of the powerful title and the intriguing setting of the film in Kashmir, Kaafiron Ki Namaaz has been in the news since 2011 on social media and elsewhere. Over the years, the film has managed to catch the attention of quite a few people. We released the official trailer of the film on YouTube two weeks ago and the reception on social media has been excellent so far. With over two lakh YouTube hits and counting, for a small independent film with absolutely no known faces in just two weeks, I believe the trailer has managed to be a perfect tease amongst the film’s target audience, and the anticipation for the film’s release is quite high amongst its target audience. People have loved the official poster too. I am also trying to use my network to promote the film in colleges and universities across India.
What is the scale of the film with respect to the budget?
The budget of Kaafiron Ki Namaaz is very low even when compared to other well known Indian independent films in the recent past. We were fortunate to have highly skilled technicians who really believed in the film, and made it look and sound excellent. As a producer, I tried my best to use the available budget intelligently without compromising on the technical aspects. The scenic locales of Kashmir have been shot aesthetically by cinematographer, A. Vasanth, and that has really made the film stand out visually. The film’s music by Advait Nemlekar and the brilliant sound team comprising of Dhiman Karmakar (Sound designer), Baylon Fonseca (Supervising sound mixing engineer) and Sinoy Joseph (Sound mixing engineer) have made the film very distinct aurally. I am proud of what we have achieved with whatever little budget we had at our disposal.
Lastly, what kind of censorship issues did the film face for release? Does the content have anything that could create a controversy?
There were significant issues and delays regarding the censor certification of the film, especially the film’s title which hasn’t been cleared for certification since 2011, and also certain scenes in the film which make a strong political comment. It is a conversational film, and there are many arguments and counter-arguments which are voiced in it. I don’t believe that the content of the film is controversial as several pertinent issues have been highlighted in a balanced manner. The producers’ association also feel that the film’s title is too sensitive. However, the film was screened in India in Kolkata, Ladakh, Guwahati, Delhi and Mumbai to packed audiences, and most people have praised the title. We have had absolutely no complaints regarding the title till date. The title is purely metaphorical in which “kaafir” denotes impure and “namaaz” denotes pure – it symbolizes the journey of the film’s characters from a state of impurity to a state of purity.