Interview Hindi Kashmiri

Something inside me shifted when I played Ishrat in Hamid, says Rasika Dugal


The actress spoke about her experience working on Hamid, a film that she hopes will enable a more gentle conversation among people.

Our Correspondent

Actress Rasika Dugal is on a roll. After a perfectly understated performance as Safia, wife of the controversial and troubled Urdu writer Sa'adat Hassan Manto, in Nandita Das's Manto (2018) and her role as an ambitious, lusty woman in the popular Amazon Prime Video web-series Mirzapur, she will now be seen in Hamid (2019) playing a Kashmiri woman, mother of an eight-year-old boy, whose husband has become another statistic in the long list of missing people in the conflict-ridden valley. She is trying to deal with the grief and uncertainty of the situation while simultaneously trying to bring up her child.

In an interview ahead of the film's release on Friday, 15 March, Dugal spoke about why she did not want to take up the role when it was first offered to her and how, once she was persuaded to do so by director Aijaz Khan, she went about preparing for it. She also spoke about how the role affected her and why it is important to narrate human stories from conflict situations.

Excerpts:

Hamid is your second film in Urdu, after Manto (though Manto was classified as Hindi). Urdu was once widely used in Hindi films, which were actually mostly Hindustani. Most of the songs, the popular old ones that we still love and hum, are Hindustani numbers. But now it is rare. How do you feel about this?

I think Urdu is coming back in a big way. A lot of people seem to be interested in learning the language again and familiarizing themselves, even if they don’t know the script, at least with the vocabulary.

I think the language resonates with all of us because poetry and even most of the Indian writing, most of the progressive writers wrote in Urdu, even writers like Rajinder Singh Bedi and Premchand. When I was in school I had read Premchand in Hindi and didn’t know till I started learning Urdu that Premchand actually wrote in Urdu. It is very difficult these days to find the stories in the original form. Usually you get translated versions. I have been trying to access a Premchand collection in the way it was written but that’s been a bit of a task.

When you read in Urdu it’s just a different experience. It really is such a beautiful language.

I used to perform as an Urdu storyteller in Dastangoi years back and remember somebody who didn’t know Urdu watched the show, and that has very heavy Urdu, and said 'I came out feeling like I understand Urdu'.

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So I am glad we are still able to have stories which help in reviving the language. Specially for writers like Manto, I think you have to retain the language because the stories are nothing without the language. I am a hard-core Urdu romantic.

Rasika Dugal

Hamid, however, is not really Urdu. The way my character, especially, speaks is the kind of accent you find in smaller towns in Kashmir. Itna mushkil ho jata hai ke agar aap Kashmir mein film kar rahen ho toh you have to catch on to an accent which is how Kashmiri people speak Hindi or Urdu and that changes from person to person, kilometre to kilometre. So the hardest part to catch on to the accent for me was to understand whose accent I should follow.

Finally I zeroed in on one person who was a director himself and our line producer in Kashmir. I thought he was a good choice because a. he was always around as line producer and I wanted him to monitor it very carefully, and b. he is a director himself, he has done some theatre, so he knows how to guide a person.

How did you practise the accent and how much time did you need to get it right?

I had very little time because I signed on to the project 15-20 days before I was to start shooting, for a variety of reasons. It was fairly last minute. So the first thing I told them was Bombay mein baithe baithe mujhe nahi samajh aayega toh aap shooting se dus din pehle mujhe Kashmir le jao. I insisted on that.

But I had started [preparing] even before the contract was signed. I was so nervous about it. There is a very close friend of mine from the film institute who is Kashmiri who primarily grew up in Baramulla but now lives in Bombay while his family lives in Srinagar, I sought him out and said just start working on this with me.

But most of the work happened in Kashmir. I spent a lot of time with this one family in the village where we shot and there were these three lovely women who were very smart, very vibrant and also very giggly (giggles). I had lots of fun hanging out with them but their accents were very hard to pick up. Also they had other work so I couldn’t expect them to be on set all the time.

So I zeroed in on our line producer. I went over the scenes with him a million times. I used to keep uttering those lines again and again as much as I could. I think my manager and spot boy both know all the lines because unke saath bhi maine aise practise ki.

Besides, I kept listening to a lot of documentaries. There was this one which really resonated with me and became the point of connection to understanding my character. Which was this documentary by Iffat Fatima called Where Have You Hidden My New Moon Crescent. It’s very moving in many ways and of course it’s subtitled. I watched it once but would keep listening to it because the only way to learn a language, an accent, is you have to know the lilt of it. You have to get into the music of the accent. To somewhere keep it going on in your head.

I had also recorded all these women I had spent time with so I used to keep listening to those sessions and to the documentary even if I could not watch it.

I love working on accents. It’s one of those joys I have as an actor. And I find it easy to connect to North Indian languages and accents, maybe because I am Punjabi and grew up in Jamshedpur, so kahin aapke zehen mei hoti hain yeh languages. Even if consciously aap realize na karen, the way you have been brought up and the kind of language you are listening to always affects you.

The other thing I wanted to discuss was your preparation for the character. Learning the accent is just one part of it. The other is to understand the character’s motivations. You have some background in social work and journalism. Did that experience help you in any way?

I didn’t do any active social work or journalism. I had studied a very interesting media course in Bombay and after that I had worked as a research assistant. But they were mostly ethnographic studies. The one I did was primarily on gender and public space, studying how women access public spaces in a city like Bombay. I spent lots of time standing at stations and food stalls at railway stations and understanding whether public amenities were equal for men and women and therefore in the design of our public spaces are we encouraging women to be out there or not.

It wasn’t dealing with another economic strata and I definitely had no experience of understanding what people in conflict situations go through, specially in a land like Kashmir which has been in conflict for so long.

So I was very nervous, also because I had such little time. In fact, the first time [director] Aijaz [Khan] called me I told him aap please kisi Kashmiri ko hi cast karen. And he said no, I am very sure you can pull this off.

I had issues and it’s a good debate to have with yourself as an artiste that who is an insider and who is an outsider telling a story. I remember articulating it like this to Aijaz, that no matter what I do, I will always be an outsider to the story of the people of Kashmir. But he was like no, I think you can go beyond that.

Eventually, primarily because of Aijaz’s confidence in my work, I decided to sign on for the project, but I had no idea how I was going to be able to understand the life of a woman whose husband has gone missing. That is a grief that is beyond my realm of experience, fortunately.

But after working on this movie and spending time in Kashmir, having lived the character for whatever was the period of the shoot, do you think you have a slightly better understanding now of what these people are going through?

I wouldn’t say it’s understanding, but I’ll just say something within me shifted. That’s the best way I can describe that experience, because it’s not really tangible and it shouldn’t be, because these are not tangible things, and the only way you can truly connect with somebody is when you can’t articulate how you connected with them or can’t fully understand that experience. These are not experiences to understand but to live and I did feel that the shooting of the film affected me in a big way.

I felt a very deep connection to Ishrat and I think this was primarily through this lady Parveena Ahanger. She runs this organization called APDP [Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons] in Kashmir, and I listened to a lot of her interviews. There was so much strength, but there was so much grief. If you watch those interviews you will know what I am talking about.

But one thing that really made me connect to the role was in this documentary, the one I mentioned, there is this conversation between Parveena Ahanger and her friend. The sons of both, aged between 15 and 16, had disappeared and they were having this conversation and reciting this couplet that they normally recite in the rallies the organization has. That one couplet, in Kashmiri, it just stuck in my head.

I asked a Kashmiri co-actor who had come to do a smaller part in the film, can you please explain this to me? He is a very talented theatre actor. He explained the couplet to me and then put it to tune and I recorded that. There is something so haunting about it, that really became my connection to understanding Ishrat.

What was the couplet, maybe not the exact words but the gist?

I can tell you the exact words, ek minute. It’s in Kashmiri. I remember it in tune, but if I start singing you will run away (laughs). It says, ‘Ba chchas e pan maran / boz miyaney dardilo praran chus y vallo’. Loosely, it means ‘where are you, my beloved, I am waiting for you.’

That’s a very simple thought, yet profound.

Han, woh translation mei bahut simplistic ho jata hai, but when you listen to it in that language and to the way these ladies recite it so matter-of-factly, it’s heart-rending.

Until the 1980s, Kashmir was this place where romantic films were shot. Then it became a place to set patriotic films in. Now we have quite a few films looking at the sort of limbo people there are being pushed into. How do you see this change?

I think it is very important to tell human stories about a conflict situation because those are the stories that often get left out of a mainstream narrative on a conflict area.

What’s really special about this film, besides the story of Hamid and his mother, is that it attempts to tell the story from all sides. So there is a very strong character of a CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] jawan played by Vikas Kumar, and there is beautiful interaction between Hamid and him.

The film as I look at it is a gentle conversation between all sides and that’s what I am hoping for. I think there could not be a more important time to have that gentle conversation than today.

Finally, do you see any similarity between your role in Manto and your role in Hamid?

Absolutely none! Though in the simplicity of the look of the character, you might feel there is a same tone.

Safia was the most nurturing and loving person. She cared so deeply for her children and for her husband. [For] Ishrat it's almost like the grief and lack of closure on her husband’s disappearance have snatched away the feeling of motherhood from her. And that’s actually one of the things I find very interesting about the story. Usually, in any film, in most films, the relationship between a mother and a child seems to be sacrosanct, you know, there will always be love there. But here is grief so big that it can take even that away from you.

When you watch the film, what I find beautifully sad about it is that they are both really trying to deal with their own grief and in that they are sort of drifting apart instead of coming together.