CIFF 2011: Inshallah, Football (2010)

Producer/Director: Ashvin Kumar

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If my life depended on my knowledge of the Asian subcontinent, I’d be playing a very off-key harp somewhere out there in the universe. That’s why the CIFF’s “Spotlight South Asia” is such a welcome addition to this year’s festival, providing emerging voices from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka a much-needed showcase and giving people like me a chance to better understand this ancient and volatile region. My first foray into the “Spotlight” offerings, Inshallah, Football, was massively eye-opening, even as it told a story that’s all too familiar throughout the world today.

Basharat Baba is a very talented soccer player from the Srinagar district of Kashmir who has been recruited to live the dream of all aspiring soccer players—to train for and compete on a professional team in Brazil. But the Indian government won’t grant his request for a passport. Why? Herein lies the sad reality that has plagued Kashmir. This predominantly Muslim state has been trying to exercise its legal sovereignty since its forced occupation by Indian troops beating back Pakistani forces trying to control Kashmir following the 1947 Indian Independence Act that created the two independent countries. In Basharat’s case, his father’s past as a Pakistani-trained militant in the 1980s and 90s has put him on a government blacklist—the sins of the father, so to speak, preventing Basharat from realizing his dream.

Inshallah, Football provides helpful title cards that familiarize viewers with the facts and issues of the region, but there are some universal truths about the human condition that get a thorough airing as well. The dismantling of the British Empire left traditional political structures that existed before the British arrived in shambles in many parts of the world besides India and made land grabs in the name of security rather commonplace, for example, the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. The paradox of structurally democratic nations heavily oppressing a minority population is also easily recognizable as the paranoia of power desperate to keep it. That such oppression breeds militants who are denied their rights is no surprise, nor is blacklisting of future generations of perceived enemies of the state.

Ironically, the film shows Basharat to be a young man very much like any in the world. He asks a pretty girl for her phone number even as he maintains a steady relationship with another girl, he hangs out with his friends and engages in some playful rough-housing, he becomes childishly stubborn when faced with the need for compromise, and he doesn’t understand why he is being punished for something he didn’t do. Basharat is lucky; he was given the chance to join a soccer academy run by Juan Marcos Troia and his wife Priscilla, who moved from Argentina to start a feeder system for talented Kashmiri youth to soccer clubs throughout the world. If he hadn’t gotten that chance, it is likely that he might have been one of the angry youths, their faces hidden, who throw stones at the Indian troops who dog their every move with random arrests, harassment, and “defensive” volleys of tear gas, and rubber and live bullets.

That possibility was his father Bashi’s worst nightmare. Bashi’s life as a militant had been filled torture, imprisonment, and separation from his loved ones. It was also an adventure and one in which Bashi committed his share of crime and violence. He talks movingly of the night he thought he would die—the warden of the dreaded Papa 2 prison, Kashmir’s Abu Ghraib, told him, “You know the policy now is capture and kill for militants. You were lucky you were captured at home.” Bashi is quite unemotional about his militant days; he has moved on, and is now a successful real estate developer.

The Indians show no such signs of moving on, and the cause for which Bashi fought and so many others died is a long way from won. I was absolutely floored to learn that Kashmir is the world’s most heavily militarized occupied zone, with 500,000 Indian troops holding back a perceived threat from Pakistan. It’s hard to understand why the Marcos Troias want to live in Kashmir, but they are a pair of do-gooders the Indian government should welcome for reducing militancy and sending Kashmiris out of the country. Unaccountably, this affable, loving couple had their visas revoked at the end of the film; while they won a one-year extension at the last minute, I have to think that director Kumar’s own run-ins with the occupying Indians caused them this unwarranted trouble. Inshallah, Football lost three appeals with the censor board, and finally won an A (Adult) rating, normally reserved for films depicting extreme violence or graphic sex, thus limiting its exhibition potential in India. Fight the power by seeing this important documentary and sharing your thoughts widely.

Inshallah, Football will screen Thursday, October 13, 5:00 p.m., and Saturday, October 15, 12:00 p.m. at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St. It will show Sunday, October 16, 8:00 p.m. at the University of Chicago’s DOC Films, 1212 E. 59th St.

Previous coverage

George the Hedgehog: Irreverent and adult, this comic-book-based animated film pits George, a pleasure-loving hedgehog, against his clone, a stupid, vulgar internet superstar. (Poland)

The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)

Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)

Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    2nd/10/2011 to 9:18 am

    “The paradox of structurally democratic nations heavily oppressing a minority population is also easily recognizable as the paranoia of power desperate to keep it. That such oppression breeds militants who are denied their rights is no surprise, nor is blacklisting of future generations of perceived enemies of the state. ”

    Superb writing on what you persuasively pose throughout as a vital subject. Even though this was tempered by the fact that the director had a run-on, and was motivated to make the film, it reflects (as you further suggest) a universal problem. And yes, it is startling that Kashmir is so heavily militarized.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/10/2011 to 9:28 am

    Sam – Kumar has made a number of films critical of the government, so this is nothing new. He is a Hindu from Calcutta, Oscar-nominated for a short film, Little Terrorists, and has a slew of concerns about human rights, environmental protection, and artistic freedom. I’d be very curious to know how he got on to this story; I hope he will attend the festival.

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