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“A Bird at my Window”: Communicative Community and Contextual Visibility

Published onApr 04, 2022
“A Bird at my Window”: Communicative Community and Contextual Visibility


In my conversations with independent documentary filmmakers working on Kashmir that I have conducted during the fieldwork for my dissertation between the years 2013 and 2017[1], it became clear to me that they all shared a concern to move out of the available identitarian frames that have immobilized the Kashmir Conflict. They challenged the way how the conflict has often been framed as a question of geopolitics, national security, and inter-religious animosity. Their attempt was to show everyday life in a conflict zone while experimenting with the form of documentary film to create empathy for political claims that come from the Valley of Kashmir. These two tasks also involved coming to terms with the exile of the Kashmiri Pandit community, a group that was a historical elite in the Valley of Kashmir. In the year 1990, some members of the community had been killed which together with public threats led to the departure of most Pandits from the Valley of Kashmir.[2]

When films on Kashmir are shown in India, there is usually at least one person in the audience who asks about Kashmiri Pandits, often suggesting that the conflict is primarily an inter-religious one. By inter-religious I mean that it is understood primarily as deriving from a history of enmity between Muslims and Hindus instead of understanding it as a conflict that is driven by the layered dynamics of multiple frustrations with Indian democracy, the question of sovereignty, tensions between the center and the region, class-caste- and gendered oppressions and, of course, also religious belonging in so far it is not separated from these other aspects. It is the latter historical perspective as it pertains to everyday life in Kashmir that the filmmaker Iffat Fatima expresses through her film Khoon Diy Baarav[3].

Coexistence in a Zone of Conflict

My research question is in continuation with Priya Kumar’s[4] work on the ethics of religious co-existence in South Asian film and literature. Kumar argues that cultural productions can make a contribution to “envision peaceful coexistence of diverse religious groups in the Indian Subcontinent” and that “ethical and political imaginations” need to be shifted by “offering ways of living together that exceed the political and juridical contract ensured by law, the constitution, or any kind of state apparatus.”[5] This line of inquiry involves thinking terms such as secularism, tolerance, and pluralism anew - beyond ready-made frameworks - by investigating specific media representations and how they enable us to think differently about what it means to co-exist in a zone of conflict.

Kumar limits the concept of “co-existence” to the imagination of what it means to live together amongst different religious communities and how this could be traced in a film’s textures. However, what makes a community and how this living together gets communicated as a political practice of form remains underexplored in her work. How do these representations get mediated through the form of film?

The word co-existence has a realistic ring to it. After all, who would dare to hope for something more in Kashmir’s current political climate? Co-existence does not have the warmth of community. But it also does not come with the coldness of tolerance, a management of diversity – or rather aversion, as Wendy Brown[6] calls it. Nor is it driven by state concerns as in the case of secularism.1 [7]In some conceptual form, it may be a way of de-politicizing identitarian conflicts around religion, leaving space for the politicization of other issues. My contention is, however, that Kumar’s question to unthink religious binaries and go beyond ready-made normative frameworks needs to be extended to a sense of community that relates to the documentary form. The community I have in mind is one of communication that gets realized through mediation. By investigating Iffat Fatima’s film Khoon Diy Baarav, I show in the first subsection how a common space and time or neighborliness was produced in the presentational form of documentary film. Second, I will show how she mediates her film in the sense of circulating, discussing, and accompanying it in such a way that the common space and time can be sustained as part of her film practice.

If a community is communicative, then we all, academics and filmmakers included, build it together. This also means that concepts need to derive from various open-ended feedback loops. They are part of a process of learning, not a matter of application. For one, I am in conversation with the filmmaker who herself provides me with ideas. Thus, I will take account of her own theorization of her practice to think to some extent dialogically and see how her concepts acquire life in practice. Simultaneously, my interest is driven by questions that do not fully overlap with the self-understanding of filmmakers. In this article, these questions take their shape in academic discussions surrounding the concept of community and its relation to media practices under the current political scenario in India. To zoom further in, my question is posed in relation to “repertoires of living together” that bind this collection. Hence, I will begin with a discussion of a common time-space of neighborliness as it is created in the presentational form of the film and how it goes beyond an identitarian Hindu-Muslim frame of the Kashmir Conflict. In a second step, I will trace the power of imagination from my empirical research into the film and the filmmaker’s public statements, essays as well as my experiences of the films’ screenings. In other words, I will link the question of the time-space of neighborliness to the way Iffat Fatima circulates the film.

Neighborliness in Khoon Diy Baarav: Carving a Space-Time of the Common out of Disaster 

The sequence I am going to discuss does not need to be analyzed in view of the narrative of the complete film. It does – as all sequences in a documentary – stand in a semi-autonomous ethical relation that gets informed by our understanding of the documentary status of the images and the social reality that they refer to.[8] That is the reason why viewers so often discuss documentary sequences without necessarily putting them in the context of complete films.[9] Instead, they often interpret these shorter narrative units within their own porous boundaries.

 The sequence begins with the image of the house of Pandit Motilal Bhat, an astrologer who didn’t leave the Valley but is one of the few Pandits who stayed on. Parveena Ahangar, the main protagonist of Fatima’s film, visits the astrologer to get her charts read. Parveena heads an organization called the Association of the Parents of Disappeared People (APDP) which tackles enforced disappearances in Kashmir. According to Amnesty International, one speaks of enforced disappearance when security forces capture and imprison people without officially acknowledging the imprisonment or giving any information about the whereabouts of the victim. While Motilal Bhat is going about his craft there is a cut to a Himalayan bulbul chirping away on his window pane. The bulbul was already there in an earlier sequence with Hajra Begum, who is also the mother of a disappeared young man. Hajra accompanies Parveena to her meeting with the astrologer who is also her neighbor. Motilal tells Parveena that when he saw the bulbul he told his wife that they were expecting guests. Asked about Hajra, he said that his lands extended to hers and that “tragedy has struck” because three of her boys have been “martyred” – Parveena corrects him and says “four, since one has been disappeared”. Then he recites some verses in Sanskrit while working on the charts which he hands out to Parveena. She says, “he twists pain into rhymes”. Both, she and Motilal laugh. Then two women in burka, who during the conversation sat quietly in a corner, exit the house. At this point the sequence ends.

The two women may wear burka because they visit a Hindu astrologer and many people amongst the reformist Islamic traditions look down on these practices seen as superstitious and Hindu. The burka may give the women (if they were women) a sense of protection to continue the relation to the Pandit and to Sanskrit astrology. What I find worth noting here is how the metaphor of the bulbul works. The bulbul is a famously talkative bird who mediates the temporal expectation of the encounter between the women of the APDP and the Pandit. By this I mean that he light-heartedly introduces the discussion and creates a shared relational space – a space that the filmmaker prefigured by having Hajra talk to a bulbul in the preceding sequence. Another thing worth noticing is how loss is acknowledged. Motilal speaks about the tragedy that struck his neighbor Hajra and the martyrdom of her sons. While he does so in the language of the Kashmiri struggle for freedom, he prepares astrological charts for Parveena and chants verses in Sanskrit. The time-space of a community can not only be found in a mutual acknowledgment of loss but also in a subtle orientation towards the future via a common practice in the present which is astrology in this case. Fatima addresses this sequence:

“Because he is an astrologer, he is supposed to have certain powers. He can predict the future through these charts. When you go to a pir2, a pir will give you an amulet which is a protection, it gives you solace. He [the astrologer] is giving her a taviz [amulet]: he rolls the chart, he gives it, then you can cover it and put in some silver and then they will keep it. It is something that will help. He has a certain amount of influence in that area and a spiritual clout. Hajra knew him, he helped her several times. It can come from an inner quality or spiritual quality but it could come from political power – like an MLA [member of legislative assembly], who has a negation power with the state.” (Iffat Fatima in conversation with the author, 05.02.22)

The practice of astrology involves some objects that give good luck a durable form as they keep connections to potential power, a power of negotiation that the women of the APDP need in the highly volatile conflict space of the Kashmir valley.

To sum up: We have an element of the fauna (the bulbul), a culturally marked technique of Sanskrit learning (astrology), a material object (the taviz), a spiritual force, and a material interest in security that connect people who are often sorted in different identity categories in the dominant frames.

For a long time, I have been fascinated by the richness of Fatima’s film – how she captured the details and complexities of everyday life in Kashmir. In a forthcoming article about her experience of filming Lanka: The Other Side of War and Peace3[10], Iffat Fatima describes her approach in the following way:

“In talking about themselves, I imagine those who are victims of violence acquire agency; in a way, I think they are aware of it. Especially when they are talking to a camera. The camera does come with a certain amount of power. However, if you honestly explain your objectives and then leave the choice to the person to tell whatever they want to within that context, I suppose it’s a mutual relationship at that moment. I think they, in a way, seize that moment to express something that lies suppressed.  In some ways, maybe it empowers them. At that moment, when they are narrating their stories to the camera.  I think they somehow willfully appropriate the camera’s power; they acquire agency. It gets them out of their victimhood in a way.  Once the film is made, the agency power gets transferred there, into the film.  When you say it’s a powerful film, what do you mean?  Essentially, the power of this agency is reflected in the movie. […] Then there is its audience. Even if it’s only for the period of watching the film and participating in that moment, I think there is a transfer. Meaning that, in a sense, the camera has empowered the subject, and then you hope the viewer feels impacted and empowered by the story. Empowered enough to communicate the story. I believe that one creates some sort of space and an understanding, perhaps, in people’s minds.”[11]

Fatima addresses how a common space can be carved out of disaster. But it is a space in people’s minds, a space of the imagination. She does this by working with her protagonists in such a way that their agency gets entangled with her camera. Agency, or the power to act – as it is conditioned but irreducible to structure – is for Fatima a matter of degree and a relational arrangement in which the coming together of camera, filmmaker, human and non-human agents produce an organic form. Thus, in the above-analyzed sequence, the power of affect is mediated by the camera’s space of commonality as it gets articulated through the agency of the characters – including the bird. It is in Fatima’s terms an “organic” result from her embedded mode of film production. In this sense, a continuity of overlapping agency that is truly common emerges in response to a shared loss. Fatima’s presentational form makes it hard to claim the sequence to be a token representation of Muslim-Hindu harmony. The depth of the everyday continuity of a common space and time troubles any desire for easy classification. This may be one of the reasons, why some members of her audiences have been reacting in deeply visceral ways to the film’s images, often weeping, wrestling for words in the face of an almost undeniable testimonial force of the images.

The house of Motilal Bhat

Motilal Bhat in conversation with Parveena Ahangar

Bhat reading the charts for Parveena

Tactics: Sustaining a Space-Time of the Common at the Threshold of Dangerous Visibilities

I mentioned above that for Fatima, the questions of circulation and reception are crucial. I elaborated elsewhere[12] on how her practice involves accompanying her film to screenings and monitoring the audience to get a better sense of the films’ impact on audience members. Since the Kashmir Conflict is intensely contested at many places where she screens the film - especially in India -, almost every screening involves some danger of participating in the creation of the wrong kind of visibility:

“The public sphere as it is stands is extremely charged. The possibility is to build an alternative culture. I think we can only look at a future period. We can only contribute to that. We live on that hope that things can change – when they will change we can’t tell – but then, things can change very quickly. If you look at the RSS [an organization of the Hindu-right in India], today the build-up has been over ninety years and now they control the public space. It is important to create another space and push at some other level [than where RSS is pushing]. And towards something that you can foresee under these conditions. Personally, I can’t see the possibility to challenge it in the public sphere as it stands today – institutions, everything is working towards that [Hindunationalist hegemony]. That space exists at a certain community level. A person like me is still able to connect. There is control, it is linked to spectacle, but at the same time, there are these subgroups that are working. And I think that this is very important. We have to look at the world as a mobile, constantly changing space and the possibilities of opening out have to be created. And there are people doing it in many different ways. … I don’t mean hope in a sentimental manner. Nothing is at a point of the end. For work it is important to keep a low profile, to somehow invisibilize yourself. That helps you in the work you want to do – to get that free space in which you function. Where you can maintain that invisibility.” (Iffat Fatima, 05.02.22, in conversation with the author) 

Iffat Fatima develops two interlinked dimensions here. One is of time, primarily the questions of how to sustain transformative action and how to express temporal dimensions of everyday life in the form of film. The other is spatially structured visibility. They merge when her practice requires a space to be built together with “subgroups” that sustain it. Already the choice of the prefix ‘sub’ for these groups suggests that they are somewhat underground, perhaps part of a space suitable for a guerrilla “tactic”. Note that the term tactic etymologically refers to an “arrangement”. She is talking here about institutions such as film clubs, pockets in academia, neighborhood film screenings, alternative film festivals, and so on.[13] When Fatima speaks of connecting to sub-groups, I regard this as a practice that introduces a film – as an affective-material-arrangement – into an emergent space that is defined by dangerous visibilities.

These visibilities are dangerous because they are, in Fatima’s terms, affectively “charged” at the edge of mass publicity, defined by a public as stranger sociality[14]. Let me give an example. Fatima often successfully avoids the film’s appropriation by the Hindu right. It is a regular occurrence that films dealing with Kashmir are turned into stages for moral outrage and Hindu nationalist spectacle. I have argued elsewhere[12] that she tries to control the moment of stranger sociality by defending the “skin of the film”[15] – its affective-communicative interface that keeps it under the threshold of mass publicity. This threshold is one of mass visibility, an “open edge”[16] where the damaged public/private sphere at the intersection of the Hindu nation and information capitalism captures the film externally. Externally means that the film as a form, a tactical arrangement of time-space-affect around which one gathers and which people can experience and debate, is no longer engaged with. While the film is multi-sensorial its external capture centers on those visual characteristics that can get fractured and circulated on digital platforms. When this happens visibility takes on the external form of spectacle – the film becomes visible as an abstraction to be appropriated and circulated for moral outrage - the organic form Fatima so carefully created would be lost.

Thus, Iffat Fatima stays vigilant when it comes to this kind of visibility. All those aspects of her practice that can be captured in nationalist outrage require invisibility while those that can open up and mobilize a more sustained sense of community may become visible and debatable.

To sum up: visibility - as a doublet of a multi-sensorial form and external capture - requires the right arrangement. In Fatima’s practice, a public is not a pre-existing space but comes into being as a highly mobile arrangement: it requires the right moment, place, time, audience, and presentational form. She carves out a time-space of the common during the filming, in editing, and in the practice of screening, debating, and circulating the film as a tactical movement. She does this not once but again and again. The tactical movement through contextual visibility consists of the difficulty to calibrate distance and closeness, space and time, networked audiences and strangers, always susceptible to the failures of the institutional public space to sustain communication.

Tactics are required for Iffat Fatima because communicative openness has become a moment of appropriation within the “Hindu nationalist crisis machine”.[17] Informational capitalism furthers the process of info-commodification where decontextualized snippets on or about a film are appropriated, turned into money and nationalist rage. Thus, the open community is bound to a dialectic where an increase in scale effects may destroy the form – the communicative heart of a film – as digital environments and their everyday interfaces threaten to fragment the very time and space that Fatima carves out for Hindu-Muslim neighborliness via the form. This poses a threat to the film as a durable common space and time that could mediate a common feeling. In fact, its durability (the ability to keep the form intended by the filmmaker) is conditioned on constant vigilance and monitoring.

Conclusion: Contextual Visibility

I have shown how the time-space and affective arrangement that is created via the film form suggests ways of living together, an imagination of a community no matter how thin, no matter how far – a possible community to come. Through Khoon Diy Baarav neighborliness can be conceived as a temporal and spatial relation of living together, of opening one’s self and one’s home to the other who is already implicated in a relational bond by the contiguity of space and time. In the process, relational difference is not overridden or subsumed under some abstract frame – such as geopolitics, national sovereignty, moral laws, etc. – but engendered through the encounter between Parveena, Hajra, and Motilal mediated by a bird and the practice of astrology, thus creating a common space-time. Iffat Fatima’s embedded mode of production enabled her to capture these encounters between neighbors through the thickness of everyday life, pointing out a shared loss and towards possibly shared futures.

However, I argue that an understanding of form requires going beyond the focus on imagination as textual representations of living together. In the section above, I give a sense of how this common space and time is sustained through the practice of film circulation and what problems lie on the way. The form that creates this space-time of commonality involves communication as an open horizon linked to the form’s durability. The form is expressive of the power to act of the filmmaker and all involved in the process of making and screening a documentary film. The sequence I have discussed above shows how an open horizon beyond fixed identities may be imagined through the presentational form (the artifact as it appears on screen). But as a matter of communicative form, these imaginations remain tethered to the vulnerabilities of the damaged ‘public sphere’ of Hindu nationalist hegemony and communicative capitalism. This intersection threatens the form to loosen its grip, its force to sustain a common space-time and feeling.

I have shown how Fatima responds to the non-available public sphere by a tactical type of “invisibility”. I have elaborated this invisibility as a tactic in which a sensorium - the sensual field between a film and its environment - requires constant vigilance: a careful movement between spaces into which her film gets introduced. By tactics, I meant that her film is not circulated as something ready-made. Instead, it gets introduced into specific contexts again and again as a fluid and highly mobile arrangement. The “subgroups” (film clubs, universities, etc.) mentioned by Fatima are not durable enough to sustain a public space as such. It is a visibility that emerges in the lack of a sustainable space of political appearance, pace Arendt. I have to admit that the metaphor of “text” in “context” does not quite capture well the sensorium Fatima negotiates – it sounds too representational. However, if thought of more as a “texture” with its connotations of “having a feel” and that this feel can be ambivalent – it may “con” us or help to “connect” us – we are on the right track to what I understand as “contextual visibility”.

Fatima’s practice is at the edge of multiple tensions between visibility and democracy pertaining to the complex interplay of institutions and imaginations on different scales. If we want to imagine open communities and practice communities of communication, independent documentary filmmakers who want to imagine a common space-time beyond ready-made identities may give us both, a glimpse of the depth of control in India’s inflection of nationalism and information capitalism as well as some glimpses of hope for subjectivities that may go beyond it.


I would like to thank Fritzi-Marie Titzmann and Nadja-Christina Schneider for their many helpful comments and critical suggestions.


This publication is part of my research funded by the Volkswagen Foundation within the Freigeist Projekt “The Populism of the Precarious: Marginalization, Mobilization, and Mediatization of South Asia's Religious Minorities”, Freie Universität Berlin.


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