When a region is caught in conflict for a long period, the stories of its people and their way of life get sidelined. The urge to share these stories is what made Baramulla-based Mehvish Rather, 25, study filmmaking at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia and later quit her advertising job in Mumbai. “Those living outside Jammu & Kashmir don’t know much about life here. I wanted to show that these are real people. To make their stories relatable, I decided to focus on food, which everyone enjoys,” says the debutante filmmaker, whose documentary Kandurwan: Baking History was screened at the recently concluded Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF).
With “food” as the central theme, she simultaneously worked on two documentaries about kandurwan (‘kandur’ means bread and ‘wan’ means shop) and wazwan (‘waz’ means chef) last year. While Kandurwan: Baking History is about the shops of traditional breadmakers, the latter, Wahsah Waza: Backyard Chefs is about the cuisine of Kashmir. “As creative people, one always seeks inspiration. It’s good to go back to the roots as that’s what you connect with,” says the filmmaker, who wishes to be known only by her first name, Mehvish. She moved from Mumbai, where she worked in an ad agency, to Baramulla in March 2018 to become a full-time filmmaker. When some months later, the Mehbooba Mufti-led government collapsed in Jammu & Kashmir, her priority was to finish shooting the two documentaries. “We were worried that the political situation might deteriorate. Fortunately, it was all calm during the shoot,” she recalls.
While developing the documentaries, familiarity with her subjects came in handy for Mehvish, a self-proclaimed “foodie”. Challenges cropped up when she tried to make connections with the traditional breadmakers or chefs. “Both kandurwan and wazwan are male-dominated fields. I was probably too young to be taken seriously by them. I realised that after a few failed attempts of trying to establish a rapport with them. The process became easier when I took my mother along,” she recalls. After that, they opened up. “The local people are mainly questioned about the conflict and turmoil when someone approaches them with a camera. They were thrilled that someone wanted to talk about their profession, culture and life,” she adds. Both films have been shot across Jammu & Kashmir including Baramulla, Srinagar and parts of south Kashmir.
Mehvish says she always nurtured the idea of becoming a filmmaker. After finishing her Class XII from St Joseph’s Higher Secondary School, Baramulla, joined St Stephen’s College, New Delhi, in 2012 to study English. “I applied to study filmmaking at Jamia Millia Islamia as I knew it would give me more creative freedom — be it through a music video or personal video,” says Mehvish, adding, “Once I went back home, I realised I can just shoot the stories around me.” Her decision has paid off as both the documentaries have been well-received in the festival circuit. Kandurwan: Baking History has won best short film award in Do Pao Film Festival Portugal and adjudged as the best short documentary in Top Indie Film Awards in Japan. It has been selected for the Food Film Festival Bergamo in Italy, NukhuFest in New York, River to River Florence Indian Film Festival in Italy and Ethos Film Festival among others. That apart, Wahsah Waza: Backyard Chefs premiered at Film Southasia in Kathmandu recently.
However, Mehvish was unaware of many of these selections including Kandurwan: Baking History’s inclusion in the DIFF’s screening schedule for many days due to the lockdown in the state. She happened to be in Mumbai for the post-production when the special status to Jammu & Kashmir was about to be revoked. “On August 5, I took an early morning flight to Srinagar. I was apprehensive of what would follow and I wanted to be there. I had a hunch that I might not be able to communicate with others. So, I shared my email ID and password with the DoP of my film, Nikita Saxena. I asked her to handle the communication with the festival authorities,” says Mehvish. The journey home was not easy. She landed at the Srinagar airport but could not travel to Baramulla. She stayed with her sister who lives near the airport. Her father came around midnight, when the restrictions on movement were relaxed, to pick her up. “We were stopped at over 30 checkpoints on our way. We finally reached home around 7 am on August 6,” Mehvish narrates. She came to know about the selections of her documentaries once the landline connection was restored.
Mehvish joins the small tribe of Kashmiris trying to tell their stories. “There’s a lack of voices that are Kashmiris, primarily due to the lack of educational and other opportunities. We were struggling to get basic education leave alone experiment with a camera or something else,” says Mehvish, who during her Delhi days, sought out movies, documentaries and TV shows to learn more about the medium. Her father is an engineer and her mother a homemaker. She is the youngest of three sisters.
She is currently working on her third project, a feature-length documentary on Sufism. “Contrary to the belief that Islam came to my state through warriors, it came through Sufi saints. Sufism is diminishing as there is a rise of other ideologies. It’s also a reaction to the conflict,” she says, adding that she also wants to highlight another section of the society which is currently overlooked. “I want to tell the story of the LGBTQ community of the region in a fiction format,” she adds.