Cinema Asian America: Directors Senain Kheshgi and Geeta Patel Discuss ‘Project Kashmir’

"Project Kashmir." (Dishoom Pictures)

This month Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On Demand features the powerful, award-winning documentary “Project Kashmir.”

A region high in the Himalayas which has been fought over by India and Pakistan for more than fifty years, Kashmir is site of Asia's most bitter conflict, where more than 40,000 lives have been claimed, and is a flash point between two of the world's nuclear powers. Central to the conflict are tensions between the region's Hindu and Muslim communities that trace back to the Partition of India by Britain in 1947 into separate Indian and Pakistani nations.

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Directors Senain Kheshgi and Geeta V. Patel, two American friends from opposite sides of the divide, one Muslim, one Hindu, investigate the war in Kashmir and find their friendship tested over deeply rooted political, cultural and religious biases they never had to face in the U.S. “Project Kashmir” explores war between countries and war within oneself by delving into the fraught lives of young people caught in the social/political conflict of one of the most beautiful, and most deadly, places on earth–Kashmir.

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To create a much-needed platform to understand and talk about the politics and history of Kashmir, Project Kashmir quite specifically uses the two of you, South Asian American filmmakers, as central characters to frame the topic. Why was this way of contextualizing the conflict important for you?

Originally, we were not planning to be in the film. We are filmmakers first and foremost, and our goal was to find the right characters and tell a story that would transcend the local politics. However, as the characters in the film brought us into the story and reacted to our backgrounds of being from opposing sides of the conflict, we began to embrace the reality that we would have to be part of the story. This is the beauty (and tragedy) of documentaries. Since we are of Pakistani and Indian origin, we felt the complexity of this relationship could resonate with the South Asian diaspora with the hope of bringing more understanding to the conflict. Since we were exploring our personal reactions, no one could say the film was skewed in one way or the other. However, being Muslim and Hindu we were insiders and outsiders to Kashmir, so we bridged the gap for an audience that was unfamiliar with many aspects of the conflict. There are plenty of informational, journalistic documentaries about war and conflict but we wanted to make something more emotional and expressionistic… something that left you in the gray area… that's what war feels like. There is a lack of clarity that is unsettling. We wanted to convey that.

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The two of you spent quite a bit of time in Kashmir, both researching and shooting the film. How did your thinking of your own positions and roles within the conflict (and film) change, and what might have this revealed the nuances and complexities of Kashmir itself?

SK: I was drawn to make this film because my family had experienced the Partition of India and had migrated to Pakistan in the early days of its formation as a country. Even though I was born in Pakistan. I always felt closer to India. My parents, grandparents and great grandparents had been born there and our ancestral homes were there. With the Partition, they became outsiders in their own land. So, I always felt a great kinship with the people of the Kashmir. They are fighting for their ancestral homeland and the right to be independent. Unfortunately, many forces collaborated and created a heated, untenable situation on the ground that has led to neighbor pitted against neighbor. It was difficult for me to understand how this shift to violence occurs in individuals. How does one try to reconcile conflict when there is very little understanding between groups? I was not prepared for the strong alliances I formed. I have a journalistic background and thought that I could remain impartial but unfortunately, I also slipped down the rabbit hole of war.

GP: At first, I felt that many Muslims in America were overly sensitive about the racism against them. I felt they were a bit paranoid. As I walked in their shoes as a minority in Kashmir, I quickly learned my lesson. I was completely overtaken by the feeling that everyone was watching me and judging me. That feeling, of distrust and lack of confidence within myself, it was horrible and yet I couldn't control it. I was nearly embarrassed to be a Hindu. Since then, I have learned that so much of these conflicts plays on our insecurities and knocks bullets into our spiritual armor. I've learned that we are ultimately responsible for the way feel, for the idea that we are "victims'. At the same time, there are very real actions being taken against certain communities - usually minorities- that instill fear and humiliation. At some point, we start seeing one another as different. This is where we have to work together, and work on ourselves. We have to get rid of the ideas- and maybe even the confidence - we were raised with, and instead really observe what is happening around us. That is the truth and the only truth. As human beings, we deal with this conflict every day on some level. As someone living in Kashmir or any other hotbed for social conflict, it's something you deal with so often that there's no time to think or breathe! And that is where the answer lies.

Read more interviews with Cinema Asian America filmmakers here.

Project Kashmir interviews a number of incredible individuals who have dedicated their lives (both by choice and necessity) to understanding and resolving the region's conflicts. Can you briefly describe one whose presence has really stayed with you?

GP: All the subjects in the film have taught me so much and made me a better person. I can say collectively that Aarti, Muzamil, and Khurram all had the opportunity to leave the conflict for good, and yet they keep working to stop the violence. This is commendable and inspiring. I mean, no one is really watching them. They could slip away so easily. We look to movies and politicians for heroes and yet the real heroes are the ones who fight for justice because they don't know any other way to be themselves.

SK: While all the subjects in the film are such self-less individuals, I have to say I most connected with the journalist Muzamil. He had a way of contextualizing the conflict in a very clear and concise manner yet then he would pull back and contradict himself. There is so much pain and emotion that comes from living through war. It is confusing and heartbreaking. As a journalist, he had to find a way to report on the conflict, to make sense of something so senseless as this war. He fights so hard to make the outside world care about what is happening in Kashmir while at the same time being a victim of the conflict himself.

How have you used the film as a way to create conversation about the region's conflict, and where is this conversation today? Since you made Project Kashmir, there have been a growing number of films made in the region, many also by Asian American filmmakers. Can we see a turning point in how Kashmir is documented and discussed?

This film was the one of the first (if not the first) film to be accepted by all sides of the conflict and interestingly, each side thought it was biased to the other. I suppose that means we achieved our purpose. We wanted to allow Kashmiris to see a little of themselves in each of our subjects. All of the Kashmiris have suffered because of this conflict and we wanted to create a space of dialogue to begin the conversation between groups.

We had an incredible response at film festivals, classrooms, colleges and screenings around the world. Many groups have used the film to discuss other kinds of conflict besides war. We had hoped that this film would show how people can and do react differently than they expect during times of conflict. It takes work and compassion to really listen to the other side. The film has also been part of the US State Department's American Documentary Showcase. Through this diplomatic tour in other conflict areas and countries around the world, we have been able to create dialogue and discussion on the topic of conflict resolution.

What are you working on now?

SK: I have been working on a feature documentary in Pakistan that continues to explore the impact of conflict on the individual. I am also directing a film for ESPN as part of their new Nine for Nine film series (the successor to the award-winning 30 for 30 series.) and I am also directing a short for Cinelan and their Focus Forward program about one Pakistani man's obsession with social networking and his quest to bring Facebook to the cloistered Islamic schools in Karachi.

GP: I am making a new documentary for PBS, a romantic comedy documentary called One In A Billion. It's a totally different genre from Project Kashmir! I'm also directing commercials and a narrative feature.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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