Noor: a story of Kashmir

NOOR tells the story of the bloody Kashmir conflict through the lense of a young woman searching for her disappeared father. 

Ashvin Kumar
19 February 2016

Set against the backdrop of the Kashmir conflict, NOOR is a story about a teenage girl from Britain trying to solve the mystery of her father's disappearance in Kashmir. 

It is a disarming, coming-of-age story about two teenagers falling in love, filled with the hope, optimism and belief in the goodness of the world that informs those years. 

NOOR highlights a bloody yet forgotten conflict that has kept the two nuclear nations of India and Pakistan in a state of conflict since their independence in 1947 one that has taken 100,000 lives, in which nearly 10,000 husbands, sons, brothers have 'disappeared'. 

With rising levels of Islamophobia in the Western world, NOOR presents a humanitarian view of some of the complex issues affecting our world today. It offers a life-affirming, alternative narrative to entrenched positions while shining a light on a conflict that has been virtually obliterated by the hegemony of Western media and public consciousness.

I've made two documentaries about Kashmir over the last five years, Inshallah, Football and Inshallah, Kashmir; both are available on Netflix. In making them, I came away humbled and somewhat perplexed by that sense of shared humanity that seems to bind people, transcending divisive religious and national affiliations. 

They have a word in Kashmir called 'Kashmiriyat'. Very hard to translate into English but loosely, lets call it 'brotherhood'. For me 'Kashmiriyat' encapsulates optimism, hope and light-heartedness - a sense of culture, sophistication, understanding and forgiveness. It is this sense of 'Kashmiriyat' that I want to recall in 'Noor'.

Conflict, I realised, is its most brutal in the kitchen - when the family is gathered for a meal or a cup of tea. And that it is the women and children who are gathered around that hearth, upon whom the crushing weight of absence and loss falls most heavily. It is through the mundane, the humdrum lives of two teenagers from disparate worlds and their experience of love, that NOOR pays homage to the indomitable spirit of these women and children of Kashmir. 

They are the traumatised survivors who endure a merciless occupation, a colonisation of hearts and minds that is now become institutionalised by ritualised humiliations. Theirs is a heart-breaking vigil with no end. And yet, remarkably, it is they who keep the struggle for dignity alive, long after the world has forgotten their predicament.

So join us now. By backing this film, you'll be doing much more than backing a film on Kickstarter, you'll be championing the cause of the half-widows, orphans and disappeared men of Kashmir, contributing to and spreading the voice of freedom and democracy. 

We can't wait to show this film to the world.

The story

Born into conservative British Kashmiri community, Noor is taken to visit the family of her disappeared father in Indian Kashmir by her mother Zainab and Zainab's new fiancé Wahid, a senior bureaucrat in the government of India.

Noor explores her new surroundings, which are both strange and familiar to her, through photography, and finds herself falling for a local boy, Majid, the son of her father’s best friend. Together, they strip away her mother’s lies about the fate of her father, and in their search for the truth they stumble upon a forbidden area near the border.

Noor begins photographing what they find, before they are uncovered by a military patrol, and imprisoned in the local army camp. They are separated, and Majid is brutally interrogated to find Noor's camera. When they come to her, Noor manages to hide the camera away.

Meanwhile, Wahid secures Noor’s release, but refuses to risk his career further to help Majid. Noor, terrified, agrees to come with them, but on the journey home, realises she can’t leave Majid in jail and convinces Zainab to come with her back for Majid. Against Wahid’s wishes, they return, but without his bureaucratic clout they are put at the mercy of a Major in charge of the village, and he just wants one thing – the photos from Noor’s camera.

Noor is given a terrible choice: expose the truth to the world, or save Majid from the fate of her father.

Why Kickstarter?

A film like this is hard to make in today's industry. The conflict in Kashmir is a controversial issue to say the least and it takes brave people to back films about such a divisive subject. 

Despite that, the remarkable people at Sundance selected NOOR in their screenwriters lab, and the Asia Screen Academy sustained us with a grant to develop the script.

The first conventional film investors we talked to wanted us to change our vision of the film. They wanted less politics or skewed politics to show one side better off. Everyone had an angle. 

We want to make a film without being beholden to anyone’s agendas. Crowdfunding gives us this freedom. If we can meet our target every extra penny will go straight into making this film the best possible one we can make. 

We don't want to compromise on the vision of our film, and that's why we've come to you.

We’re running a Kickstarter campaign to raise a minimum of £74,000, which along with our own funding covers the bare minimum we need to make this film.

Kickstarter has the power to make this your project. We love what Kickstarter can do - make revolutionary, important projects that won't happen otherwise. 

And that's the truth - without your help, we're not going to have a film. 

The plan

Your support and funding will get us the minimum we need to go out and shoot this film. We are planning to shoot in May for five weeks, and deliver the film by the end of the year.

Our goal is to premiere at one of the big festivals like Toronto, Sundance, Berlin or Cannes. We've got an amazing team on board who have delivered dozens of films between them. We're ambitious, and we know this film is going to be great. 

We're aiming for a major release in 2017.

The cast

We want this film to be completely authentic, and so we're working with our brilliant casting director, Shakyra Dowling, to find the best actors from the communities the characters come from. We want to find a real life Noor from the British Asian community, so over the next month, we will be touring the UK to find the best young actress you've never heard of. If you're interested, you can see the casting call here: https://twitter.com/ShakyraDowling/status/684072205441994752

The rest of the roles will be cast from the UK and India, and we'll be doing an open casting call in Kashmir to find the best, authentic local actors. 

The crew

Ashvin (Director/writer) began working as a director in theatre and founded one of the rst digital post-production studios in India in 1996. Ashvin is the youngest ever Indian Oscar® nominee, for Little Terrorist which was also nominated for European Film Academy and twenty-four others. He is a two-time National Award winner for Inshallah, Football and Inshallah, Kashmir, and has since directed Dazed in Doon, The Forest and the UNHCR commissioned documentary, I Am Not Here. Ashvin is a voting member of the European Film Academy and BAFTA.

After working in finance Josh Cockcroft (Producer) turned to producing film and theatre. Initially he created sell out runs in major venues across the UK including the Arcola Theatre, Warwick Arts Centre and Liverpool Playhouse. He then moved on to working on multiple Oscar and BAFTA nominated films such as The Square, Philomena, Pride, 12 Years a Slave andBrooklyn. He has also worked on television productions for international distribution working for BBC Worldwide.

Roland Heap (Producer) began his career at Abbey Road as a sound engineer for feature fims including Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. In 2008 he founded Sound Disposition in London which has provided complete sound post- production for a number of successful movies including The Sweeney, Shadow Dancer, A Single Shot, Odem, Sword of Vengeance, American Hero, Kill Command and more than 100 others.

Shakyra Dowling (Casting Director) entered the entertainment industry over two decades ago, she founded her own successful theatre production company, and then went on to work for a well known producer, assisting in the casting of several West End shows. Shakyra then teamed up with Kristina Erdely, and as a casting duo they built up a sizeable portfolio, which provided the perfect springboard to her work as a solo Casting Director.

Her fervor for independent cinema compliments her keen eye for spotting upcoming talent. Being a movie addict and a devotee of theatre means that Shakyra is never without her casting cap on.

There will be some very exciting announcements about more crew soon!

The look

The film will be shot in Kashmir and Birmingham, UK. Kashmir is a beautiful place, and we intend to take full advantage of that. We want to capture a sense of unease visually; the beauty of the land offset by ugly bunkers, barbed wires, juxtaposing with the story of teenage innocence, adventure and even fun. An adventure in a rural idyll, creating a humanitarian foil to the oppressive setting of Kashmir’s killing fields.

The background

Kashmir is a country of undisputed beauty that has been scarred by the years of dispute between the nuclear nations of India, Pakistan and China. Partitioned in 1949, Kashmir is split by the Line of Control which divides India and Pakistan, and is a (flash-point) of tension. In Indian-occupied Kashmir, an area not much larger than Greater New Delhi, the civilian population lives in the shadow of more than half a million troops.

Many times in the past 50 years the simmering tensions have spilled and sparked full-blown battles, with uprisings, incursions, curfews and the brutal repression of civilians widespread.

The conflict in Kashmir has claimed more than a hundred thousand lives so far, of which ten thousand are ‘disappeared’ people - civilians whose vanishings have not been explained. The recent discovery of mass graves may provide some horrifying answers. Their existence is deeply troubling in a modern democracy.

But the blow is hardest for those left behind, most of whom are women and children.

The International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice has been demanding exhumation of the mass graves since the the earthquake in 2005 first confirmed their existence. Though the group sought the intervention of National Human Rights Commission and State Human Rights Commission in 2009, little has been done to find the identity of the bodies in the graves and the perpetrators of these crimes.

The Indian state, for the first time, admitted the existence of thirty-eight unmarked graves containing two thousand, one hundred and fifty six unidentified bodies on the 21 August 2011. However, in 2012 the government of Kashmir refused to perform DNA testing on the bodies found in the mass grave due to 'lack of resources'.

The ongoing conflicts have led to the displacement of a huge number of people. In the UK alone it is estimated that there are five hundred thousand people of Kashmiri descent with many hundreds of thousands more scattered over the world from America to Australia.

Risks and challenges

As in any independent film without a named cast, 'Noor' does not have a distributor attached yet. We want to open the film at one of the major festivals and there secure the services of both sales-agents and distributors, with the view that critical reviews and acclaim will get us a far better deal and the right distributor for our kind of film. Getting one at this stage may tie us into a contract that may not be the best for the film.

We are also mitigating this risk in two other ways. One is to secure the services of a 'named' star cast. We've had an in principle yes from at one major star but negotiations are in progress and they will continue past the final date of this campaign. We are going out to the others, simmilarly.

The second, by ensuring that we make the film for as low a budget as possible. This is possible because of unique advantages our team has not least being Ashvin's record of producing low budget films including two films in Kashmir itself both of which are greatly admired and lauded in the Kashmir valley. He has tremendous good-will, networks, access and local knowledge that translate into cost and time saving. Further, co producer Roland Heap's post production company, Sound Disposition, in London gives him access to networks, crews and discounts that are impossible to access on the open market. We are also applying to various soft money funds such as the BFI, Creative England and local UK screen agencies to subsidise the costs of production and post production.

Our goal is to debut the film at one of the major film festivals like Sundance or Berlin or Cannes.

If you fund the project, we intend to start pre-production right away, shoot this May/June/July and finish the film in time to submit it to the festival.

There's a very accomplished team behind the scenes and we're busy putting together a brilliant cast and crew to do everything we can to get into these festivals!

Finally, making a film is always an epic undertaking with a million and one moving parts and a lot of unknowns. We're starting with a great script, and a highly experienced team of people with an excellent track record of delivering films in time and on budget.

Thank you in advance for making this possible.

With only a day left to get the film off the ground, help to kickstart the campaign and get involved here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ashvinkumar/noor-a-story-of-kashmir

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