Lamhaa is one of those docu-dramas that could have easily toppled into the territory of over-statement and over-simplified politics. And boy, haven't we seen that happen in very successful political cinema in recent times?!
Rahul Dholakia, who earlier made the gently persuasive Parzania on the aftermath of the Gujarat riots, doesn't lose his storytelling equilibrium even when the situations of crises described by the skillfully-written plot scream for attention. Restraint and honesty go hand-in-hand in Dholakia's Kashmir, which we'd like to believe, is the real Kashmir, unalloyed, non-magnified, intense and utterly devoid of artifice.
The camera moves restlessly through the dangerous crowded main roads and tense by lanes of Kashmir where anything can happen. The cinematographer James Fowlds seems to know the Valley of the damned with the transparent scrupulousness of an insider who can place himself outside the explosive bustle of a portion of earth that's rapidly slipped into the stratosphere of anarchy and mayhem.
The high-octane screenplay has no space or time to shed tears for the innocent and the dead. Miraculously liberated of overt sentimentality Lamhaa moves with candour and confidence through a world whose politics has become progressively impossible for the outsider to comprehend. Dholakia's narrative moves through a labyrinth of pain and violence without trying to make common sense of them.
The narrative imposes no morality on the escalated violence of the Valley. Neither does Dholakia get excessively 'cinematic' in his approach to the complex material. Most of the time he lets the characters be. The Valley of simmering discontent comes alive in front of us in a ferocious but toned-down swoop of politics and drama.
The narrative moves swiftly and steadily through the characters' lives. It isn't always easy to tell who is on the right side, probably because the lines of morality are not just blurred in the Valley, they've almost completely disappeared. Jannat is in a limbo.
Lamhaa is a tearless ode to people who have become so isolated from the mainstream of Indian life that the adorable children openly and abusively talk of India as a separate country. The dialogues (Ashwath Bhatt) spare none, not the politicians and certainly not the other power-brokers who in the films words have turned Kashmir into a lucrative business company.
At the lowest level, Lamhaa is thought provoking mirror of mayhem and misapprehensions on a piece of earth that once was paradise. At the highest level it's an even-pitched docu-drama which doesn't mince words nor try to act cute about a throbbing crisis. The pitch is controlled even when the circumstances in the plot are totally out of control.
As Sanjay Dutt walks into the volatile Valley with leonine strides we feel for a while as though Dholakia wants to insinuate a larger-than-life super-hero into headline-driven politics. But Dutt soon blends into the savage fabric of a life lived on the edge by people who have nothing to lose any more.
The film is dotted with memorable cameos. Among the fringe players Shenaz Patel as a woman looking for her husband for 18 years leaves a lingering impact. Among the principal cast Kunal Kapoor as a young militant turned conscientious politician determined to gather peace into the Valley and Anupam Kher as a treacherous political leader get it right dead-on.
But the real revelation is Bipasha Basu. In a powerful role that Shabana Azmi would no doubt have played twenty years ago, Bipasha sinks herself into her character imparting a dramatic resonance into the role without resorting to stock expressions. The sequence where she gets mauled by militant women is as traumatic to watch as it must have been for Bipasha to shoot.
Lamhaa is not an easy film to watch. It comes to no decisive end. It takes into consideration the entire politics of Kashmir without careening towards excessive drama. This is that rare political drama where every component in the jigsaw of politics and terrorism is put on screen with a sensitivity and precision that repudiate melodramatic excesses.
A word of special praise for Mithoon's songs. The lyrically lush tunes break into the deafening sound of bomb blasts and roaring guns to remind us that once the best poets of Kashmir wrote poetry on the beauty of the Valley.
The beauty of Lamhaa lies in its constant gaze at that beauty that one still glimpses in the shimmering waters of Dal Lake on a quiet and peaceful day.