Hina Khan's debut in Hindi cinema is not conventional by her own admission, but there is something to be said about one's impeccably kempt hair and visage through the toughest of tribulations that lends itself to a more Bollywoodised approach to a categorically sociopolitical drama. Lines, Kashmiri filmmaker Hussein Khan's movie about the plight of Kashmiri civilians, is a film that defies categorisation, and maybe not particularly for the better.
Hina Khan in a still from Lines
Set in 1999 during the Kargil War, Lines is the story of Naziya (Hina Khan), a young, vivacious daughter of the household who has now come to assume the role of the "man of the house," as her family, with her grandmother Fatima Bibi (Farida Jalal), mother (Rani Bhan), and uncle repeatedly reminding her. She is a farmer, a job typically ascribed to a man; her womanhood often remains unacknowledged, sometimes even mocked at.
I cannot say it is most comforting to watch a woman's badassery being equated with 'manliness' or its overused cutesy counterpart 'tomboyishness.' However, in hindsight, it does lend the film authenticity. A war-torn Kashmir with no exposure to holistic discourses on feminism would not exactly be populated by woke middle-aged refugees barely making it alive on the daily.
Here, a certain frenetic Tara Singh does not chant "Humara Hindustan zindabad tha, hai aur humesha rahega." Instead, a young Pakistani restauranteur Nabeel (Rishi Bhutani) ruminates on how siasat and rajneeti (politics) is to be blamed for the plight of Kashmiris for decades.
In a strikingly restrained scene, newly-wedded Naziya and Nabeel are in their flower-strewn love-chamber, playfully teasing each other. Outside in the courtyard is their Man Friday Billa, who has had a bit too much to drink, and is now peacefully snoring. The tenderness of the night is violently cleaved open as two loud gunshots are heard. Billa shrieks, waking everyone in the house. The petrified family huddles together " this night could be their final one. Three seconds later, Billa sniggers in guilt, admitting the gunshots may have been fired somewhere far, and his inebriated self was unable to gauge the intensity of the threat. The family is relieved, and they scuttle back to their rooms, annoyed that their peaceful slumber had been disrupted by a drunk man.
It is a nuanced portrait of civilian lives in conflict zones " they have now learnt how to tune out the fear of death and tragedy " any threat beyond the walls of the house is not impending enough.
Similarly, when Nabeel journeys across the border with his grandmother to reunite her with her sister, all photos, videos and memories of Pakistan are seized from him at the Indian customs office. Evidently perplexed and heartbroken at not being able to show his home to Naziya's family, he complains about the stringent laws of the land. The scene is remarkably un-verbose, the crevices on Nabeel's forehead conveying more than a self-important soliloquy ever could.
Notwithstanding, subtlety is not what director Hussein Khan intends to opt for. Lines favours a more unequivocally on-the-nose approach for the most part of its 77-minute runtime. In many scenes, characters break out into monologues about the atrocities that they have had to witness or lament how they have had to abandon their paternal homes because they were near the LoC.
Their tales are jarring and heartbreaking, but one cannot help but wonder what it would have been like had the filmmaker trusted his audience to be a little more perceptive.
Lines, like Sardar Ka Grandson that released on Netflix India in May, tends to walk the fine line between dramatisation and raw pathos. In the case of Lines, the filmmaker's unambiguous stance is amplified to an extent that individual accounts begin to sound impersonal, didactic, and manipulative.
The lack of subtlety is not the only issue with the film though. Like many of its genre predecessors of cross border romance, Lines routinely oversimplifies the centuries-long India-Pak conflict. What could have been a perceptive, layered drama is reduced to a predominantly mushy romance.
There is a significant tonal shift in the third act of Lines, though, when Naziya and Nabeel decide to relocate to Pakistan. The grim realities start to trickle into inside the walls and visits to government offices become increasingly futile. The camera stays steadfastly focused on Naziya's frustrated face at not being able to communicate with her husband across the border, her exasperation driving her to opt for illegal means. This is the part that ably salvages Lines from becoming a superficial fare where its sociopolitical context takes a backseat.
This is not to say that there is not enough to appreciate in this movie " cinematographer Laxmi Chauhan's lens is unsettlingly encompassing. It does not sprinkle a helping of magic dust into the fabled landscape to play on Kashmir's 'Paradise on Earth' moniker. Everything from its shuttered shops, empty roads to a singular battered tea stall serving tea to army personnel stands in contrast to how Kashmir is depicted in popular media.
Naziya and Nabeel are nothing if not an embodiment of the sweeping Bollywood romance. The movie uses a familiar Love Across the Salt Desert template to underpin broader themes of identity and cross-border amity. Their cutesy love story is engaging enough for you to remain invested in the characters, and it is their contentious journey to a wedded life that lends the film its highly impactful, emotional climax.
In its entirety, the film is not particularly pathbreaking " and as disappointing as it might be to this reviewer " Lines achieves what it set out to do. That is it makes some sense of the "bizarre situation which life inflicts upon those who live on borders, revolving around the story of a husband and wife divided between the lines".
Lines is streaming on Voot Select.