Kaafir: Can terrorism, prejudice and soulmate love mix?
Kaafir (Zee5, 2019) is a web series that was originally broadcasted on a popular Indian digital platform two years ago. However, its beautifully complex story has a timeless quality to it and I found its themes and messages ring so true when I watched it recently.
Cast and Credits
- Main Cast: Dia Mirza (Kainaz Akhtar), Mohit Raina (Vedant Rathore), Dishita Jain (Sehar).
- Director: Sonam Nair
- Cinematographer: Pratik Shah
- Written By: Bhavani Iyer
- Dialogues: Vicky Chandra
- Languages: Hindi and English. Subtitles (in English) available.
- Genres: Thriller, Romance, True Story
- Episodes: 8 (average duration 30 – 60 minutes)
- Producer: Sidharth Malhotra, Alchemy Films
- Digital Platform: Zee5
Kainaaz Akhtar, a Pakistani woman based in Kashmir tries to commit suicide after being painfully and brutally rejected by her husband, and finds herself swept ashore to the riverbanks in Jammu, India. Although she had inadvertently crossed the border, she is presumed to be a militant and is thrown into jail as she’s unable to pay the fine for illegally entering the country. Seven years later, Vedant Rathore, an Indian lawyer-turned-crime-journalist for a local television network, discovers Kainaaz and her story and wants to seek justice for her and her 6-year-old daughter, Sehar.
Kaafir covers several important themes that should strongly resonate with South Asian communities as well as global audiences who would be interested to contemplate on:
- How the elusive promise of Kashmiri freedom is leaving in its wake a vehement, visible sense of psychological trauma and frustration faced by both the Kashmiri Hindu and Muslim communities who reside in this perturbed region.
- The loosely-hidden Jihadist agenda of trying to “capture India”;
- How human interest news stories in Indian journalism generate more Television Rating Points (TRPs) because of the so-called “emotional connect” and are often superimposed over strongly relevant crime/terrorism/hard news stories which are actually in the public interest;
- The possibility of a woman being both a terrorist and a mother, although Kainaaz isn’t actually a militant;
- The psychological development of children born in prisons and how their recovery from the trauma warrants strong levels of empathy, compassion, patience and support;
- How army families deal with trauma, death and grief;
- The societal pressures of becoming a mother after marriage, especially in rural South Asian communities, but this could very well ring true for women across all classes, qualifications and cultures;
- The ruthless patriarchal structure typically seen in South Asian families: i.e. what the self-appointed “head” of the family says, i.e. the father, goes, even if its detrimental to the quality of the lives of his fully-grown, well-educated and liberal-minded children.
Narrative Flow: Prejudice and Soul Love Intertwines
The subplots are as divergent as ever but converge and intertwine so beautifully courtesy of the nuanced, rich, writing by Iyer, the empathetic direction by Nair and the heartfelt, realist performances delivered by Mirza, Raina and Jain. Please note, this web series is actually based on a true story.
Here are the main junctures in this web series that really stood out to me and why:
Pressures of becoming a mother
When Kainaaz gets rejected by her husband and his family for not being able to get pregnant after only 1.5 years of being married, it was assumed that it’s her “fault” when it was actually him who had biological issues. Her own family is seen to be embarrassed by their daughter’s supposed infertility and didn’t make her feel welcome when she was dropped off back to them. Unfortunately, the realism of this scenario still rings true to this day across classes, education and cultures.
Stresses of living in war-torn, politically-conflicted regions
As someone who was born and raised in the Western world, I have always experienced a blend between diaspora Indian and Pakistani community life. The fact that these communities are labels that carry such strong negative connotations in South Asia only came to my understanding when I started watching films and shows around this subject matter.
Seeing Vedant struggle to find a lawyer to take on Kainaaz’s case, because he did not want to return to practicing law due to his own personal trauma of losing his brother, startled me. None of the Indian lawyers wanted to take on her case because she’s a “Pakistani” and taking on her case would lead to them losing their reputations and even livelihoods. Vedant is forced to quit his broadcast journalist job and take on Kainaaz’s case himself.
Vedant faces backlash against his father and family for going out of his way to support a Pakistani, when it was a Pakistani who had taken his brother’s life. Vedant was at pains to explain that if they could look at Kainaaz as a human being, as a traumatised woman, who also happens to be a single mother wanting to go back to her home country and it wasn’t she who had taken his brother’s life. But it all falls on deaf ears. However, a resolution to this subplot does happen towards the end of the web series, which hopefully is educative to the audience.
This makes us question our tendency to label and negatively stereotype roles and races. Just because Kainaaz is Pakistani, doesn’t mean that she should be automatically labelled as a “militant” or a “terrorist”. When Vedant seeks to get her the justice that she deserves, he spells all this out in an impactful courtroom speech.
It’s also heartbreaking to see how Sehar, Kainaaz’s daughter of 6 years, gets confused as she struggles to understand and adjust to the real world with life in jail, which was has been her world all her life. She is also seen to struggle with her identity as being the daughter of a Pakistani mother and an Indian father. A highly-nuanced performance by Dishita Jain, by the way, she’s definitely a star in the making.
Mohit Raina as Vedant Rathore
This brings me quite organically in describing Vedant’s characterisation which has been impeccably essayed by one of India’s finest actors, Mohit Raina. If I come across as effusive in praise, it’s because I personally and professionally reckon he deserves it. Noted film theorists have stated that the mark of a truly worthy actor is when spectators forget about the “star” qualities of these actors and immerse into the characters that they are essaying. Mohit’s version of Vedant is just that. On the face of it, Vedant’s character seems arrogant, self-absorbed and aloof. But, as we get into the thick of it (by Episode 5), what we actually find is an immense level of depth within him that encompasses a type of empathy that’s perceptive, palpable and poignant.
Soulmate Love between Vedant and Kainaaz
Amidst the harsher storylines, there also emerges a beautiful, soulful love that blooms between Vedant and Kainaaz. It doesn’t take long for viewers to get a sense that Vedant isn’t just fighting Kainaaz’s case to seek her justice: there’s something much more profound that he feels for her! Does he fight her case and make it into a national cause out of a love that’s so unconditional that it doesn’t matter whether this love is realised or consummated? Is it for the best that two of them stay apart and love each other platonically? It makes one raise the question: what is the point of a love that’s so pure and yet, seemingly futile? The chemistry that the two share is based on mutual knowing, lots of long silences where love is spoken through the eyes; and no expectations are made of each other. It’s so engrossing to take in the love that Vedant and Kainaaz have for each other: a love that’s platonic, deep, mutual and truly unconditional. They fight a battle that would physically separate them from each other, as Kainaaz and Sehar do eventually return to Pakistan, but the love between her and Vedant remains.
Dia Mirza as Kainaaz Akhtar
The entire web series focuses on Kainaaz’s story and her tumultuous journey which has been beautifully, sensitively and authentically performed by Dia Mirza. Towards the end, where Kainaaz gives a television interview, the way she says these poignant lines stays with me:
“When I look at the open sky and mountain everyday from the bars of the jail’s window, I would see the same sky and mountain that lies in my country. Nature is the same for everybody. It’s humans who make boundaries.”
It’s characters, such as Kainaaz’s, whose life journeys and experiences lead to forging new pathways with the aim of cultivating some peace, joy and cordiality between communities that are otherwise plagued with grievous, life-scarring plights.
Mise-en-scene and other technical aspects
Kaafir is a technical delight to watch. It’s neatly edited with all the subplots coming to timely resolutions and the nuanced characterisations make for binge-worthy, repeatable viewing. The dialogues have been beautifully written by Vicky Chandra, who blends Hindi, Urdu and English in a smooth, effortless way. The sets are relevantly designed and the breathtaking views used in the establishing shots and certain character back stories are suitably interspersed so as not to disturb the narrative and yet make their presence felt to viewers.
English subtitles are available with this web series although a lot of the dialogue is actually in English. This timeless and timely story is highly recommended for those who love watching poetry in the motion picture format.
Kaafir is available to watch on Zee5. These views are my own and are not endorsements to the show or platform.