“Don’t talk to them, Sir — they’re locals,” says a jawaan to his commanding officer. The central conflict in Shoojit Sircar’s Yahaan is best summed up by this line. It’s the strange paradox of soldiers who don’t trust the people they are protecting, and vice versa.
Kashmir has always been the central issue in most Indian war films, but it has always been handled in a detached way. Since insurgency began in 1989 almost no films have actually shot in the valley (Yahaan is an exception), and even when some other location is meant to be Kashmir, it only serves as a backdrop for heroic, patriotic soldiers to scream at vile terrorists or armed forces from ‘our neighbours.’ Kashmiris are relegated to cannon fodder, fleeing peasants, or oddly Punjabi love interests with nothing to do beyond a song and a brisk abduction near the climax.
The Indian war film, however, is changing — for the better, I might add. Last year we had Farhan and Javed Akhtar’s Lakshya which, even if its specific frontier setting was removed, still worked as a top notch tale about a soldier’s motivations, and, more broadly, a human’s need for a purpose and the finding of it. However, that film’s political side was expertly handled too, neatly crystallising the core of the India/Pakistan conflict into a three hour film — no easy task, and something not even achieved by three J.P. Dutta films (Border, Refugee and L.O.C. Kargil).
While Lakshya told the soldier’s tale through Kashmir’s eyes, Yahaan tells the story of Kashmiris through a soldier’s eyes. On his first posting in the valley, Captain Aman (Jimmy Shergill) is put in charge of protecting a small town. His bunker sits next to a house in which a beautiful girl (Minissha Lamba) lives, and needless to say the two fall in love.
This is really only the skeleton of the plot, as it serves to help flesh out a number of well-integrated threads about foreign terrorists, army corruption, the fear both the Kashmiri people and the Army harbor for each other, and Kashmir as this place removed from the rest of the world. It would be easy to make a heavy-handed film like most Indian war movies before it, but Yahaan handles itself with pitch-perfect subtlety (it’s needless to mention here that while the film was critically acclaimed — even winning an award — it was not a huge commercial success).
The film reminds me a lot of another Jimmy Shergill movie, Charas (also an under-appreciated favourite of mine) — that film was also set in a far removed and forgotten part of India, but its plot had things to say about us all. Jimmy Shergill might be the most underrated actor in the country right now (along with Prashant Narayanan), but he hasn’t crossed over into B-movie territory (B meaning ‘Bad’ here), and continues to pick great roles in great films and bring something special to them. Captain Aman may have twenty lines in the entire movie — no Sunny Deol-style patriotic speeches here — but Shergill just owns the screen even when he isn’t saying anything.
Minissha Lamba gets most of the lines — indeed, her character has more to say — and while she’s very pretty and emotes well, her dialogue delivery can be strangely clipped; it slows down when you expect her to speed up. It’s still a good, solid performance, however, and any dialogue quibbles are lost in the excellence of the rest of the film.
The real surprise, however, is the amazing work by the supporting cast. From some known names like Yashpal Sharma (who usually plays baddies but does a brilliantly conflicted and sensitive version here), to complete unknowns like the people who play Adaa’s family, they all bring something special and memorable to the table. Even the sniper in Aman’s platoon — ‘Tendulkar’ — is good despite having only two lines and around thirty seconds of screen time.
Lakshya had a foreign cinematographer (Christopher Popp), and so does Yahaan in the form of Jakob Ihre. His work is nothing short of magnificent. Popp shot mainly in Ladakh and gave the film a huge feeling of space, with sunny meadows and wide open vistas, but Ihre goes the opposite way, shooting tight and close, low angles and a lot of good handheld work. Kashmir is perpetually bathed in blue during the day, only showing warmer colours at night and in Adaa’s home. The feeling of claustrophobic confines even in an open, heavenly valley is palpable. The good camerawork and editing extends to both the calm rural scenes and the action scenes (of which a bomb blast at interval point is a particular highlight).
This is Shantanu Moitra’s first major work on film songs since his breakthrough in Parineeta earlier this year, and he continues to show a flair for more earthy, acoustic tunes. It would be interesting to see what he makes of, say, a hip hop or club song now. Gulzar’s lyrics continue to be sublime. If Javed Akhtar is Da Vinci, then Gulzar must be Dali, and that analogy still doesn’t do his work justice. Needless to say, the lyrics are pretty-much untranslatable. Learn Hindi, it’s easier than you think.
Moitra and Gulzar’s songs however, are overshadowed by newcomer Sameeruddin’s spellbinding background score. As subtle as Sircar’s direction, as evocative as Ihre’s cinematography — it’s so good it that once again I must plead and pray that the Indian music industry at least takes a chance and brings out a proper soundtrack album of a film rather than just the songs. Maybe as downloads? I’d pay for that.
Yahaan is a must watch, and a worthy companion to Lakshya if you’re looking for a double feature. What more is there to say? Well, the film was originally titled Adaa, but I’m glad they changed it to Yahaan (Here). As I write this there as been another terrorist bomb attack in Srinagar, but after seeing the film it no longer feels as if it took place in some far, unknown, altogether alien part of the world called Kashmir.
It feels like here.