To guests at Raja Hut in Gulmarg, proprietor Parvez aka Faulad (Iron) Khan is the laughing cook stirring a steaming pot of tea or ladling heaps of fragrant rice topped with kebabs at dinner. He is also the local winter sports enthusiast. Khan’s story of a cook-turned-militant-turned-entrepreneur is now the subject of a documentary film, Iron Khan, which will have its first public screening at the Iran International Documentary Film Festival: Cinema Verite, next month. The film is also on the market list of the 2018 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, to be held between November 14 and 25, for distributors to pick it up.
>By 2016, the first-time director Nasee Khanday had shot several hundred hours of footage of Gulmarg’s lush yet struggling winter sports scene but hadn’t yet found the subject of his documentary until he ran into Khan’s lodge that had been sealed by the local civic body. “I had been filming Parvez Khan since 2010 but wasn’t getting a proper perspective for the film. Initially, I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to show. But, when his hut got sealed, it was like his life got sealed,” says Srinagar-based Khanday, 32, who runs the Gulmarg Backcountry ski lodge.’
Faulad (Iron) Khan’s story is part of the local lore. In Qazipora village in Tangmarg, Khanday grew up hearing stories about the cook who joined the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) in 1989, when militancy took root in the valley.
Khan, a tough-looking, bearded man, now in his mid-50s, worked as a cook in Hyderabad before returning home to take up arms, like countless other young men of his generation. His father worked as a cook in a government department. He earned the nickname Faulad because he could break bricks with his hands, and was very good at martial arts and judo. He went to Pakistan for arms training and returned to fight here.
News reports record that Khan surrendered in the 1990s after a militant group killed his younger brother Tariq, deciding on a life of peace. That’s when Khan, as the film narrates, handed in his Kalashnikov to the Army, spent two months in jail before setting up Raja Hut, a modest one-storey wood building that has quietly become the accommodation of choice for serious snowboarders from the West, who head to Gulmarg each year once the snow season begins.
Khanday’s hour-long documentary follows the former militant’s family over seven years, charting the growth of his sons Dada and Ashraf from smooth-skinned teenagers to grown men committed to snowboarding and running the hut and young daughter Benazir, who buries herself in study. Khanday initially wanted to stitch together three stories that would form a solid commentary on the state of adventure sports at India’s ski capital, but he opens the film showing Khan shattered after the Gulmarg Development Authority declares his structure illegal in 2016. The film follows him as he tries to come to terms with his sole source of income being snatched away, and challenges the decision at the Jammu & Kashmir High Court.
The film is also the story of an ordinary Kashmiri family. “The only way you can build a big hotel in Kashmir is if you have money to pay off the government. That’s the reality of Kashmir. There is too much corruption in every sector,” Khanday says. Khan’s legal battle is at the centre of the narrative which flits between happier times at Raja Hut and what the situation can be like if peace returns to the Valley. Khan, too, blames the corrupt local government for leading young boys to pick up guns and stones.
As snowboarders glide down the pristine white mountain slopes, Khanday’s film is also an endorsement for Kashmir’s potential as a winter sports destination. “Kashmir has the capacity to host international events like the Winter Olympics,” says Khanday, adding, “Winter sports is the backbone of the locals’ livelihood.” Khan, though, is often found fretting over the quantity of snowfall. For small businessmen like him, the five-month-long winter season that is dominated almost exclusively by amateur and professional athletes is just as crucial as the summer vacation that brings in tourists.
During one of his dizzying downward runs on the board, Dada — who says that snowboarding is his life and the mountain his mother — breaks his leg in a freak fall. What should then have been a routine drive to consult a doctor in Srinagar 50 km away, turns into a near nightmare as Dada and his friends arrive to find the summer capital shut down following the killing of two school children. Nervously navigating past Army trucks and armed policemen, they are forced to return home without visiting the doctor.
The film’s narrator and Khan’s son, Ashraf, is the only one who reflects on, and voices, the despondency that both he and his injured brother feel as the patriarch struggles to keep the family afloat. Ashraf drops out of school in 2016 to help out at home after a lifetime of smoking takes his father to the hospital.
For first-time producer and Mumbai lawyer Suril Desai, the decision to back Khanday’s idea was born out of a need to understand Kashmir better. “I have always followed what is happening there but felt that news never gives a good enough insight,” he says. He met Khanday in Gulmarg in 2015 when Desai had attended a snowboarding competition he had sponsored and stayed at Khanday’s lodge.
Khanday says Khan became a window for him to understand the changing face of Kashmir. “It is interesting for a guy like Parvez Khan to go from being an extremist to a liberal who supports girls in learning snowboarding. I found it inspiring that the guy who used to hold weapons is now cooking for other people,” he says.