The hero of the film Saving the Saviour is a 15-year-old ragpicker called Bilal Ahmed Dar. His source of livelihood is Asia’s second biggest fresh water lake, Wular. Filmmaker Jalal Ud Din Baba follows Dar as he picks up trash and recounts his story — a boy from village Lahawarpora in Bandipora, who quit school after his father died to support his mother and two sisters. Saving the Saviour won the Special Environment Award by the United Nations on the 22nd World Water Day in the US this year. Dar was made a brand ambassador of the Srinagar Municipal Corporation, and was mentioned by Narendra Modi on Mann ki Baat.
For Baba, it was a small step in a fight that is often shrouded in the larger conflict of Kashmir — to save its environment. “There aren’t many people like Bilal. It’s a small effort but there is still inspiration for those living in cities,” says the filmmaker. He calls himself a guerrilla filmmaker, “I operate single-handedly without any external help or team, research, scripting, budgeting, shooting, audio recording and editing. I choose ideas and concepts myself and save money from my films, teachings or workshops. Even my children and wife chip in with funds from their personal savings,” says the 45-year-old.
Last month, he won three awards at the CMS Vatavaran Film Festival for two films, Global Warning: Kashmir Chapter and Saving the Saviour. He has won more than 15 national and international awards. In 2014, Baba captured the devastation caused by the floods in the Valley in Shrouded Paradise.
Baba’s first film, Hum aur Humare Jheel, in 2001, was based on Wular Lake. There have been over 15 others on various environmental issues of Kashmir since then. “I say, with azaadi, we need the Wular Lake, without azaadi, we need the Wular Lake,” he says. The lake, which does not get the attention that the famous waterbody, Dal Lake, does, tugs at his heartstrings. “The deterioration started in the ’90s when the militancy was its peak. The counter agencies and the militants wanted to grab the lake for transit activities as it was the easiest route to Srinagar. Even the government put the marine army into the lake. Nowadays, sewage and solid waste from the whole of Kashmir goes into the lake,” he says.
In 2012, Baba started making Global Warning: Kashmir Chapter, which won the 2nd Best Film award in the world category at Handle Climate Change HCCFF 2017 in China. “I heard the world talk about global warming and climate change, and started researching the issue,” he says. Baba realised that climate change was affecting the every identity of his land. He met a cherry farmer in Ganderbal who told him that, for several years, it was not snowing like it should in January and February. In the middle of March and April, when almonds, cherries and apple trees start blooming, there would be sudden snowfall. “Even the saffron produce has reduced from two to three kilograms to half a kilogram from a hectare. One can renovate and reclaim the damage made by the floods, but what about climate change?” he asks.
As he talks, parallels from politics spill into his battle to raise awareness about the environment. “Since the past five years, forests have been taken over by the military or the militants. The habitat of the animals has been encroached upon and they have disappeared. It was rare to hear about man-animal conflict 20 years ago,” he says. He talks about animals coming down to the farms and eating the produce. “I’ve seen seven cases in one village this year and plan to make a film on it,” he says.
His interest in nature extends to a concern for the vanishing tribes. Another film, Pashtuns Beyond Taliban, is about a community “who are not terrorists, they are the most polite tribe I’ve seen”. “There are families, on the either side of the border, in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but unable to communicate with one another. Letters reach after two years, and these are vetted by the intelligence agencies,” he says.
He met a 94-year-old woman, Sakina Khatoon, who wanted to see her cousins but died with the unfulfilled. Baba travelled to Pakistan to track her relatives. “A place she remembered was Battagram in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is a district now, and it was difficult to find them. Later, I got to know names of some shrines and I could track them. The family spoke to one another for the first time through Skype,” he says.