The Wounded And The Damned:
A young boy looks at the hands of a woman and pronounces her age to be in the late twenties. When asked his age he snaps, that a man’s age is determined by not by his appearance, but by his experience. What remains unsaid, is that this child, barely in his teens, has seen and endured suffering far beyond his years.
The scene is one of the most moving in Nikhil Allug’s film, Shehjar (Shade in Kashmiri), that takes up, indirectly, the issue of Kashmir and the continuing agony of the people of the state torn apart by militancy.
The film begins, with a group of four – Nasif (Sunil Kumar Palwal), a burqa-clad Mariyam (Ira Dubey), Jasim (Zahid Mir), and Khalid (Burhan Shafi Itoo), as they embark on a long journey, starting by boat somewhere in Kashmir, then walking through a forest, taking a car to the town of Katra, from where, after a brief stopover at the home of an acquaintance, they catch a train to reach Mumbai.
On the way, as they exit Kashmir, the car is stopped by military men. One of them remarks good-naturedly, as he scrutinizes Nasif’s ID, that he looks too young to be the kids’ father; did he start young? The tension starts to build, and the audience wonders why the four do not speak. They eat their meals silently and barely a word is spoken over the long trip to the city.
In Mumbai, they are met by a man called Zaffar (Kali Prasad Mukherjee), who treats them to a fancy dinner, and then takes them to a duplex apartment, which has minimal furniture, a TV and well-stocked kitchen. Once they settle in, the true nature of their relationship is revealed. (It is difficult to write a spoiler-free piece on this film.)
Allug observes their interactions with a cool detachment, building up a kind of claustrophobia in the large but eerily bare apartment; the characters having no communication with the world outside, no sounds even filtering in through the curtained windows. The only person they meet is Zaffar, who brings in provisions and asks after their well being. The males have nothing to do, except watch television like zombies, while Mariyam does the cooking and cleaning.
The youngest, Khalid, smokes, is brash, rude, with an attitude bordering on religious fanaticism, in the way he talks to Mariyam as if she were an inferior being, and demands a dastarkhwan (a rug spread on the floor to serve meals in Muslim homes) from Zaffar, because he is “not used to eating at a table.” Still, there is an innocence to him the air of a boy forced to grow up too soon, and unprepared for this life. Jasim is quiet and melancholy, but committed to the cause he chose, or one that chose him.
First through the conversations between the two boys the tragedy of Kashmir is referred to, and then the uneasy exchanges among the adults slowly reveal why the four are in Mumbai, why they are isolated in the flat and what they have to do in the coming days. Even though it can be guessed by now, the plot thickens and violence bubbles just below the surface calm—the stultifying routine broken by a drive through Mumbai, with Zaffar as guide, when Jasim complains of suffocation in this enforced confinement.
Nothing is what it seems, and all of them have their own secrets and traumas, which the writer-director (also cinematographer and editor) gradually uncovers, as the inevitable climax approaches.
The film has a lot of plot holes, but Allug controls the simmering suspense up to a point, when the audience hopes that the denouement will be different; that the experience of those anxious days together would change hearts and deflect the arrow that has already left the bow.
Shehjar, with all its flaws, is an intriguing film, which is doing the festival rounds, like most indie films do, before getting a general release.