Film Review: Ajay Raina’s ‘Mout`e Rang’ (Color of Death)

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By Leya Mathew

2003. Nadimarg. A nondescript village in South Kashmir. 24 Kashmiri Hindus were massacred in the death of the night. All the families living in the village were killed, shot in the face. Only two people escaped, one young man who had hidden himself in a bukhari (heater) and another who was away in Jammu. The filmmaker Ajay Raina and the main protagonist of the film Sanjay Tikoo first crossed paths in Nadimarg. Ajay attended the funeral. Sanjay officiated it. Talking about what he saw in Nadimarg, Sanjay Tikoo says that it was a turning point in his life. He lost his fear of death there. The dead had been shot in the face. There were no bullets beyond the chin. As he fed water to the corpses, through holes left by the bullets in the forehead, in the cheek, he steeled his resolve to pursue life in the face of death. The film Mout`e Rang (literally, color of death) by Ajay Raina chronicles this pursuit.

The film begins with a poignant voice-over summary by Sanjay Tikoo. When the (regional) state opposes you, when the center opposes you, when your own community who left the valley oppose you, and when the (local Muslim) public oppose you, then how do you survive? The film documents how the Kashmiri Hindu community that stayed back in the valley survive in the face of many betrayals and oppositions.

As a leader of Kashmiri Hindus who stayed back in the valley, Sanjay Tikoo has been at the forefront of organized activism. What Raina has compiled and presented is but a part of Tikoo’s efforts. The work of activism is long and dreary; some of the ordeals of life under siege can be glimpsed through what Raina chronicles in Mout`e Rang.

The film follows Tikoo and other activists as they traverse the valley to record the loss of their community, their identity, and their way of life. The filmic journey begins in Sakhras, Pahalgam. This is a very different Pahalgam from the picture postcard varieties we are accustomed to in touristy Instagram posts. A dusty, dreary Pahalgam introduces us to a differently colored valley. The soundtrack includes the making of the film, here, of footage shot by the activists. Instructions about camera-shooting intersperse with laughter and easy camaraderie as the activists, all male, climb hills and cross valleys. Interestingly, Raina ends the film on a similar note, with unexpected colors and sounds that intermesh the process of filmmaking with the tremendous despair and continued fortitude of a left-behind, abandoned community.

Tikoo revisits Nadimarg. And Sangrampora, the site of another early, deadly massacre. A villager from Sangrampora who had left after the massacre guides Tikoo over the phone to the site of the killing, across the pomegranate tree, the dry canal, over to the ninth hillock where the six young men were shot dead. And then we move to villages where houses were burnt. The Indian Army was but half a kilometer away, in a 130-house village. But that offered little protection. All except one of the houses was looted and burnt. Hopes for azadi had erupted into madness.

As they remember and memorialize the dead, Tikoo and the activists survey and excavate their sacred geography. Theirs is a valley that is emptied of people and haunted by fear but filled instead with sacred springs and stones that restore their soul. Raina intersperses their journeys with poetry, songs, political commentary, and the routines of everyday life.

river Blue

As Tikoo and others seek the route to Poshkar Nag (nag meaning spring in Kashmiri), the poet exhorts:

Who stole the scent of the rose? Who can we ask?

Has the spring and the autumn conspired? Who can we ask?

Thratav kor thrat (the lightning scared us)

Thratav, batav  na (lightning, not Hindus)

Hindus were made to flee, helter skelter

Thunder eclipsed the lit-up stars

Where will you find your nest in the middle of the maelstrom?

The poem takes us to district Anantnag, village Devsar. One Hindu family is left here. As the activists document the remnants of a once thriving community, Tikoo’s voice-over tells a complicated history of privilege, including government jobs and temple lands, and a religious majoritarianism that descended into targeted killings.

Alongside, anonymous Hindus share their memories: “In 1990, a classmate of mine, from another village, his name was Dileep, he had an MA, he was picked up in the night, tied to a jeep, dragged for miles till he gave up his life, a month or so later, Hindus started to flee.” Raina makes it a point to show this narrative in a meat-cooking Hindu kitchen. The close-up shots of the cooked mutton tell us to be wary of another majoritarianism sweeping another land in our times. “When Hindus started to flee, we also packed up to leave.” But the narrator’s family met a procession, and their driver was too scared to proceed. They ended up returning home. And that is how they became the only Hindu family who stayed back in the village. Bereft of neighbors, a grey and rust colored land stretches out across the window. “You couldn’t hear a voice, or a cry. And if you heard a thud, a voice, footsteps, or a cat walking on the tin roof, it made you feel like death had arrived. … malikul moute aav (death has come). Like when you throw a human body in ice-cold water, that’s how we felt.” With this Tikoo explains the title of the film “mout`e rang,” the color of death. The sounds, the physiology, and the color of death, mout`e rang.

There are very few young Hindus in the film except for the young male activists. There is no next generation here. One of the few children we get to see is in Chiyan. He is asked to, and recites the Gayatri mantra, softly, and is then encouraged to say it comfortably, confidently. The other is a baby, to be named Krishan, who lies in the mother’s lap watching the priest perform his jaatkaram rite. Officially 808 Hindu families are left in the valley. According to the activists, there are only 657 families. But there is strength in numbers, so the 808 is not contested. Here is a play of numbers that skirts with fear and death.

Tikoo lays the blame not just on the militants or the state. He also blames the community that left, not for leaving, but for completely ignoring those who stayed back.

The Islamization of the valley and its effects on a minority community are equally harsh. “Shouldn’t we go for namaz today?” a young Hindu man is asked, daily, in Srinagar, by his friends. He had a beard till recently, and was told, “Now you only need to change your name.” “You’d look better with us” “What does this mean?” he asks the filmmaker, “a joke repeated many times is a message,” the young man says off camera. He compares his situation to that of molested woman, who if she raises her voice is blamed for her own molestation. He says pointedly, “we have been raped, we have been molested, morally, psychologically, we can’t say anything… either we are living here (silently) or we die (if we protest).”

It is, over and over again, a film about and by men. On camera, in black and white and shades of grey, we see a barricaded temple still in use. Here too, a young man sings fervently. The men sing, they cook, they speak of their pain, in metaphors and plain speak. They speak of the women. Local Muslims taunt, they “miss” Batte (Hindu) women.” But heartbreakingly, the same taunts were echoed by the Hindu community that left. Visiting family in Delhi, Tikoo faced taunts from his own community members—that his women folk were now compromised. The women themselves appear briefly, in the background, and that is another story that is yet to be told.

Temples are the centers of community life in many parts of India. But in the film, Raina presents us with a series of empty, encroached, desecrated, and appropriated temples, all encountered on one day, August 22, 2011, to emphasize the scale of abandonment. If this is what the activists found in one day, what does their cumulative archive look like?

With temples abandoned and people no more, Tikoo and his group find their way instead to a revered land—the vermillion shedding stone in Tshontabal, the sacred stream of Gangejatan, the paired sites of Ramun Har and Sita Nag, the seven ancient chinars of Sapt Rishi at Vasuk Nag, Pushkar Nag with its female deity who once lay face-down in the spring, the sacred stones of Potul Nag, the stone-mass of Raithan, and finally Tul Mul, famous for the Khir Bhavani temple.

If you don’t take care of a spring, it dies, says Tikoo. Many of the springs have died, and the temples too. And when family dies, to not be able to pay proper respects to the departed is another kind of slow death. For this reason too, Hindus have left the valley. Tikoo started cremating the dead with Nadimarg. The priest was too scared to attend. In a not-so-shocking revelation, Tikoo notes that he had visited Nadimarg prior to the massacre and urged the authorities to provide protection. His request had been disregarded. To care for those mourning their dead, Tikoo learned the rituals, prayers, and rites of death. He immerses the ashes in Shadipur in Sumbal, at the confluence of the Jhelum and Sind, near the ancient chinar in the middle of the river.

While those Kashmiri Hindus who left the valley gained quotas in educational institutions, and for a brief while jobs and resettlement back in the valley, those who stayed behind were eligible for neither. Tikoo recalls that he scoured the camps in Jammu searching for his family, eventually finding his maternal grandmother in Kirmchi village in Udhampur in a state of disarray and despair in the piercing heat of the plains. He says, “we went looking for them, they did not come to search for us.” To live through apathy and taunts has been the plight of the Hindus who stayed behind.

The color of death, Tikoo explains, is a horrific sight. At the moment of death, life both intensifies and fades away. In a sincere echo, Raina ends the film with Dusshera celebrations in Srinagar. In the rainy, muddy ground, Ravan refuses to stand. Rain above and mud below. Tikoo sits contemplative till Raina interrupts him with friendly banter. The damp fireworks of the rainy Dusshera are punctuated by Tikoo’s poignant comment that they will celebrate the festival in Muzaffarabad (across the border, in Pakistan) next year. “The gods there are different. Neither the gods nor the government in India listens to you,” he concludes wryly.

The film almost did not get made. Though principal photography finished in 2014, Raina continued visiting Kashmir searching for closure. He shot till 2018. He felt unable to edit the film, to tell the story of Islamic majoritarianism in a mainland that was witnessing sweeping Hindu majoritarianism. Having been through Gujarat 2002 and Nadimarg 2003, he knew well that majoritarianism has no religion. But he also knew that his film, if made, would be taken up, viewed, and celebrated for all the wrong reasons. The release and popularity of Vivek Agnihotri’s Kashmir Files eventually prompted Raina to edit his footage. Once he began, it moved fast. This is the fastest post-production Raina has done, finishing his rough cut in less than a month. Kashmir Files is enormously popular among the Kashmiri Hindus who left. Raina felt that the stories of those who stayed behind in the valley could not be held hostage to other majoritarianisms. As Tikoo faces ailing health and a bleak future, Raina knew he owed it to the people in the film to tell their story in the sincerest way possible. Raina returned to Srinagar in 2022 to show the fine cut to Tikoo and the other activists. Whether it can be screened in Srinagar for a general public is a question that needed be asked. Where and how the film will be screened and circulated continues to disturb Raina. Most likely, the “progressives” will ignore the film and the majoritarians will welcome it without realizing that this is in fact Raina’s manifesto against majoritarianism. Tikoo says in the film, “to make fun of other people’s faith is very cruel” but we live in times of immense cruelty.

Bio:
Leya Mathew is an Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences division of the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University. She has a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Her research examines the socio-cultural transitions that have accompanied economic liberalization in India. Her current project traces youth aspirations in the context of precaritized work conditions.

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One thought

  1. It is so truthfully said and narrated itade me go down the memory lane it is we who made you to suffer the humiliation I am sorry if a Hindu is Delhi Mumbai told about the women who stayed back are abused it is disgusting and hurtful.
    I know Battas have a trait of bad human as we lack fellow commaradship.
    Wish to see the film as it depicts the truth which is to be accepted by us and the so call Hindu majority.
    No words to express more it is agony to revisit the horror.

    Like

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