Elevate Difference

Yi As Akh Padshah Bai (There Was a Queen)

Yi As Akh Padshah Bai (There Was a Queen) is a documentary that tells the story of women in Kashmir, the northwestern region of the India currently controlled by Pakistan, India, and China. The directors dub it "the world's most picturesque conflict zone". India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir, and conflict has been a constant in the region since the 1990's when Kashmiri separatists began clashing with both Pakistani and Indian forces. Shot between 2005 and 2007 by an all-female crew, the film opens with two people telling stories of their children going missing without warning. Grief and missing children are themes that recur throughout the film.

The documentarians travel between cities and villages, and speak to Kashmiri women about their experience with the conflict. They ask the women what they think will bring about peace. Despite differences in geography and age, the women's experiences are remarkably consistent. Many tell stories about husbands, brothers, and sons being taken from them by armed men in the middle of the day, or being arrested under false pretenses and tortured until they confess to being a separatist. After false confessions have been extracted, the men are released, only to be picked up months later and interrogated again. 

Other times, men vanish from their homes, leaving in the middle of the night to join one of the fighting factions. All the women are subjected to violence, either beatings from police or the gunfire and bombings that explode throughout the day. Most of the women can't imagine what would need to be done to bring about peace, and Hajra, a woman with four missing children, remarks, "Anyway, if your heart is rotted, what does it matter if peace will come?" For Hajra, and for many mothers like her, a ceasefire won't bring an end to her mourning.

While Yi As Akh Padshah Bai is concerned with the survivors of the conflict, it also deals with those who are missing and the gaps and silences. People and stories vanish without an explanation, and there is no clear narrative. The difficulty for someone unfamiliar with the Kashmiri conflict or the region is in trying to make sense of what's unspoken. Because Kashmir has a blend of cultures and languages, even the directors—who are themselves Indian, though not entirely fluent in all the local languages—miss pieces of the women's narratives.

Despite the difficulties in translating culture and language, what shines plainly through the film are the Kashmiri women's rage and grief at their powerlessness. The women have no legal recourse to seek restitution for their missing sons and husbands, who are the primary breadwinners for their families. Yi As Akh Padshah Bai is a film that is shocking, heartbreaking, and more than a little confusing.

Written by: Catherine Nicotera, May 29th 2009