Promoting Asian Cinema

Hailing from north Kashmir’s Sopore in Baramulla district, Toiba Mushtaq has taken up a passion to introduce Asian Cinema in United Kingdom (UK). Talking to The Kashmir Magazine, she described her remarkable journey how she faced challenges in her cinematic life and how she contained them with firmness and determination. Here are the excerpts:

Kashmir Magazine

The Kashmir Magazine: Tell us about yourself and your journey?

Toiba Mushtaq: I struggled massively with everyone’s love for science and my underappreciated love for social sciences. Back in my school days, social sciences were looked down as a stream of interest for weaker students, and I had massive opposition from friends and family likewise when I chose to pursue my Bachelor’s in Mass Communication. That was the start of my exploration of arts and creativities and I never looked back. I have BA (Hons.) in Mass Communication and Journalism, MA in Communication, M.Phil in Television Studies and PhD in Film Studies. My love for films grew during my early graduation days which dwelled into research and exploration during my Masters degree. It was Film Appreciation classes during my Master’s that opened my vision to understand that there’s more to cinema than just entertainment.

TKM: How did your surroundings and experiences shape your interest in cinema and its promotion?

Toiba: Born in late 80’s we unfortunately had no access to cinemas or theatre in the valley. It was just Doordarshan back then, and films were telecast over the weekend. The 90’s saw the boom of cable television but the choices of films shown were limited and repetitive; not forgetting the problematic cinema and stories we had back them. I am glad that I at least didn’t understand the deeper meanings of films back then, but am terrified to even think the impact it had on grown audiences in general. It was only when I moved out of the valley for my graduation. I began to watch films religiously but also chose wisely what to watch and what not to. Ask any film buff, we know that actual gems never see the light of the day in India whether it’s because of sensitive and taboo topics or zero to little budget of the films.

TKM: Can you share a pivotal moment or memory that inspired you to take the path of promoting South Asian cinema?

Toiba: A lot of it came from the fact that I specialized in electronic media production and that’s when I understood the nuances of reading between the lines and understanding the deeper meaning of any shot or lighting or music or dialogue used in the films. I made a few documentaries during my Master’s and it’s only when you witness the whole process of pre-production - production - post-production. You realize the importance of things used in a frame which get usually ignored by a common eye. I remember watching Guru Dutt’s Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam and fell in love with his use of lighting to enunciate the feeling in various shots. Similarly Satyajit Ray’s Charulata had a huge impact on me through the metaphorical dialogue delivery and cinematography, specially the close-ups, as a casual viewer and transformed me into a curious viewer.

TKM: How do you find a balance between your Kashmiri identity and your role as a promoter of South Asian cinema? Are there any intersections between the two?

Toiba: Coming from a society that is predominantly patriarchal and conservative about how we go about our day to day, it hasn’t been an easy journey. Over time, my family and close friends have started to support me and cheered for me. Kashmir hasn’t had a strong hold in cinema but we do have great documentaries coming out of the place whether it be Ocean of Tears, Inshallah Kashmir, No Fathers in Kashmir, or the recent Trans Kashmir. I would however like to see the social structure of Kashmir in films. War and politics have been predominant themes for films based in Kashmir, but the softer and under represented areas is what I would love to see. Our history, culture, arts - there is such richness and diversity that the world needs to know and see it.

TKM: Being from a place with unique challenges, how has your background influenced your approach to promoting cinema and cultural representation?

Toiba: As I said earlier, my decision to pursue a career as a social scientist as opposed to the infamous ‘being a doctor’ was not supported initially by my parents. But, over time they have come around and supported me in my pursuit. They have stood by me through thick and thin regardless of what people say.
I work for an organization which works for and promotes independent cinema or parallel cinema in the UK. Growing up in Kashmir, I understand the importance of having a voice or telling a story; I respect debut filmmakers who take risks and question the status quo. Media is meant to be the fourth pillar in any democracy and it should have full liberty to have a voice of dissent. I know and understand what it means to take a solo path often with no clear answers, no financiers, no big names attached to the film but just poignant and bold storylines.

TKM: What personal strengths or qualities do you think you’ve developed as a result of your experiences in both Kashmir and the world of cinema promotion?

Toiba: Being open to world cinema and knowing that Indian cinema is beyond Bollywood has helped me massively as a researcher. I am a huge fan of Iranian films, their protagonists or any characters are nothing like we see in Bollywood or Hollywood yet most of the stories are so profound. I have watched some incredible films from Sri Lanka or Bangladesh that most of us haven’t heard about. Your willingness to go an extra mile to find these films that you won’t find in any commercial theatre is what will make you a better researcher. In addition, reading opens up your brain; it has impacted me personally - not everyone can travel and explore the world, but everyone can read.
All these years of formal and informal training to have a critical eye while I watch films has helped me pick things that others might miss. In my organisation, after we watch films, we always sit together and discuss our perspectives and experiences from the film. It’s amusing when you realize how people see things so differently; it redefines that whatever you watch is very subjective to every audience and might mean altogether a different thing to them.

TKM: Can you talk about any obstacles you’ve faced as a Kashmiri woman working in a field that might not be traditional or well-known back home?

Toiba: My mother still asks me what I do for a living as she doesn’t understand that someone can be paid to watch films and curate them, I laugh about it every single time she questions me. It isn’t a traditional occupation and in Kashmir all the more difficult to explain people what you do. I have met some some incredible people from South Asian Film Industry and to be honest get a little start stuck too. I am often judged about my line of work, my opinions and promotion of cinema as a tool for bringing social change. But, it doesn’t deter me anymore. I put my view forward no matter how hard it is. I have cut down to a lot of toxicity, I don’t respond to trolls. But, at the same time I don’t stop talking about things that make people uncomfortable because I think it’s high time we need to have discussions that have been put under the rug for years while masquerading to be better than others.
I spend more time with things which give me solace and which make me a better person than I was before rather than being pulled down. It’s probably a little easier for me because I live in the UK; but I feel for the women and men who are striving to follow their passions but are challenged by social norms or lack of opportunities. We as a society needs to change, evolve and start meaningful conversations.

TKM: How have your experiences in Kashmir informed your perspective on the power of storytelling through cinema, especially with regard to marginalized or underrepresented voices?

Toiba: As I mentioned earlier I have gone through the struggles of taking an offbeat path and trying to make a career. Growing up in Kashmir of 90s was challenging in its own way. I feel those experiences growing up had a profound impact on my will power, grit and determination. The social and political fabric of our society is a lifelong lesson.

TKM: In your journey of promoting South Asian cinema in the UK, are there specific moments where you’ve drawn on your Kashmiri roots to connect with audiences or filmmakers?

Toiba: During UK Asian Film Festival 2023, we had two films - a documentary Trans Kashmir and a feature Film I’m Not River Jehlum - premiere at our festival. I was incredibly proud that two stories, entirely different narrative, made it to the festival and were seen and appreciated by the audience in the UK. I have a lot of colleagues working in universities where students are drawn to Kashmir and want to pursue research on the topic - be it the political turmoil of the place or the Sufism or poetry ok Kashmir. I often tell them to visit Kashmir and spend time here. I believe till you haven’t been to Kashmir, stood on the same soil, breathed the same air, lived through the same challenges, you can’t really be a researcher on anything related to Kashmir.

TKM: What kind of impact do you hope to make, not just in the realm of cinema, but also in representing the resilience and creativity of Kashmiris?

Toiba: I hope to bring a positive change and a possibility to dream that your willingness and perseverance can take you places; that no dream is too small or too big and that there is also a world beyond just print or television journalism. I want people to appreciate that no hobby is just a hobby or no interest is just an interest; your dedication and hard work will never go unrewarded. Many people contact me seeking job opportunities abroad. The moment anyone knows you are living outside India and have a job they start approaching you saying ‘I need a job’ and that’s it. There is often no clear intent or career plan, but merely the desire for a “job”. Such efforts without a clear ambition will not take you far. I try to reply to as many texts as possible that may need my help or I try to direct them to someone, but often the basic of communications are missing, which is quite unfortunate. We probably need to go back to basics and perhaps this is something our education department should seriously think of. As subjects, I strongly believe Communication Skills and Moral Sciences should be taught in schools. It will not only prepare the young minds better but also help develop softer skills which are critical for every career path.
Kashmiris are known for their brilliance and intelligence throughout the world. Despite the social and political turmoil, Kashmiris have paved their way and shined nationally and internationally. I see young people specially women writing, doing photography, being entrepreneurs and being artists; it fills my heart with content and happiness to see how far we have already come. However, we as a society need to be more forgiving, more empathetic and more thoughtful of our actions and words. I see a lot of hate and trolls on social media; people who don’t take a second to get personal with you. Disagreements don’t have to be personal nor do they have to be offensive.

TKM: Have there been any instances where your background from Kashmir has provided you with a unique perspective that you’ve been able to apply in your work?

Toiba: A lot of times. As a Kashmiri I always have backup plans ready. I know the importance of putting in extra efforts and going the extra mile to achieve things that may come easy to others. Resilience is what I have learnt from being a Kashmiri, we don’t give up easily. We persevere.

TKM: How do you navigate the challenges and emotional weight of being associated with both a zone like Kashmir and a cultural endeavor like cinema promotion?

Toiba: I think every Kashmiri is born a fighter, we are tough and we know how to survive. As I age I have nurtured these qualities so much so that they have become my identity. Most of us have seen the absence of cinema growing up and it’s a pity because Kashmir has been a bed for cultural growth for decades. However, I am glad that cinema in Kashmir is reviving.
I can’t wait to see people discussing good cinema and its positive impact on Kashmiris. I am planning to turn my second book into less of an academic read and more sort of a research and casual read so that even if you aren’t from the field you still understand how films in its various angles can impact us a viewer. I hope whenever it’s ready people here read it with an open mind and the book helps them to see through the power of films on human psyche.

TKM: What message or example do you hope to set for other young Kashmiris who may have dreams that extend beyond the region’s struggles?

Toiba: Don’t give up on your dreams and aspirations even though the road to it is less traveled. At the same time be pragmatic about your ambitions, you will have to work harder for unconventional goals. Life is all about learning and being a better version of yourself than you were before. You are your competition, don’t feel threatened by other’s achievements; cheer for them and wait for your time to shine. Lastly we don’t have to resentful about cinemas opening again in Kashmir. Let’s not jump the gun so quickly and be judgemental; cinema has evolved and so have we as audiences. Give good stories a chance to be seen and discussed. I would prefer people to focus on actual problems rampant in Kashmir and try to fix those for the betterment of the society.