DIRECTOR: Santosh Sivan

ACTORS: Purav Bhandare, Anupam Kher, Sarika

Alone bird falls dead to the ground as a little child and his grandfather walk up the hills. The boy appears puzzled. The grandfather (Victor Banerjee), before burying the dead, suggests the bird’s maqsad or purpose in life must have been accomplished. This is why it’s no more. Everyone, he says, must have a mission, else life would appear pointless.

The little boy has a maqsad. In his case, it is to get back his pet donkey, Birbal. The family had sold it off to protect their home. The boy, Tahaan’s grandfather dies shortly after. His mother (Sarika) is mute; sister, unmarried; father, missing among many in Kashmir. He is still determined to be with his soul-mate, the little donkey. He plants himself by Birbal’s side, helping an old man ferry goods across the valley.

Along the way the film says a lot, without quite saying much, which is what all artistic filmmaking is all about. The kid fleetingly enquires about deserted homes from where the Hindus have fled away. He observes little children in the mountains whose pastime is playing ‘terrorist-terrorist’ with each other. The game is a lot like hide-and-seek, except they kill each other with fake guns, an inspiration from their own childhood.

He asks quite often who owns the mountains. The old-man (Anupam Kher), his boss, tells him the mountains own us. They will survive, while we will all move on. Our existence is a very small thread of nature’s much larger story.

Were it not for the child’s name, I would have mistaken him for one of those rose-cheeks picked up from a kahwa shop in Kashmir. But the film itself isn’t about performances alone, though almost each stands out. Few directors appear blessed with a visual sense of Sivan’s. His cinematography may have entirely set a new path for camerawork in Hindi cinema after Roja (1992), or maybe even Raakh (1989), his debut. Many have imitated his slick shots since (and most for the wrong reasons). Yet, the Valley in Sivan’s Kashmir here, though lyrical and in its natural best, appears in a strange way, sullen and unhappy. You observe them like you would appreciate good actors - never drawing attention to themselves.

This is quite unlike Terrorist (1999), Sivan’s early film as a director, where the tightest close-up of water dripping from a little girl’s hair actually seemed to take away from the intimate story of a suicide-bomber that it was. In fact, the last few years, as a director and already a much proven cinematographer, Sivan has seemed more interested in the subject than cinema in isolation. Navrasa (2005), his docu-like account of the eunuch community didn’t need much photography at all.

Life goes about its own usual ways even in times of bombs and terrorism. It does for Tahaan’s Kashmir. As it does for all conflict zones of the world, from whose life Sivan has suitably borrowed to tell this sweet, subtle, sensitive story. It’s the human, apolitical nature of this quiet film that instantly draws you in. The subject may be intensely political. The picture isn’t.

At some point, entirely avoidable according to me, little Tahaan meets the militants. A terrorist-outfit, sensing the kid’s resolve toward his mission, hires him to ship a handgrenade in return for the donkey. The eventual message is still of choices and hope. All is not lost; thanks for letting us know. This film deserves immediate shelf-space among the senselessness around.

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