When will Bollywood see beyond Kashmir’s snowy slopes and sinister plots?

For a long time now, the Valley has seldom been given a voice

Updated - April 14, 2019 10:49 am IST

Published - April 12, 2019 04:00 pm IST

A still from Vishal Bhardwaj’s ‘Haider’ (2014).

A still from Vishal Bhardwaj’s ‘Haider’ (2014).

In 1964, in a scene from Kashmir Ki Kali , a shy Champa (Sharmila Tagore) looks yearningly at the mountains, turns to Rajiv (Shammi Kapoor) and says, ‘ Kitni khoobsurat vadi hain’ (How beautiful is the valley). Bewitched both by her and the vista behind her, Rajiv replies ‘ Tabhi toh soch raha hun yahan par aake dil kisi se pyar karne ko kyun machalta hai’ (which is why I wonder why the heart longs for love here).

In 2019, Ashvin Kumar’s No Fathers in Kashmir tells the story of a British-Kashmiri teenager in search of her father. It was released last week after an eight-month battle with the censor board. “It took them seven screenings and six hearings to slash, mutilate and compromise this labour of love,” said Kumar. He has since released the uncensored footage online.

Between these two films lies a history. Kashmiri nationalism had already begun to take root in the Valley by the time Shakti Samanta made Kashmir Ki Kali . The following year, India and Pakistan fought their first war. The Valley had, however, since Junglee (1961), already become the backdrop for love songs and sequences, single-handedly modelled by Kapoor’s fascination for the place. And so, even at the height of the 1965 conflict, Amar Kumar’s Mere Sanam and Suraj Prakash’s Jab Jab Phool Khile were released without the slightest hint of the tensions the Valley was being consumed by.

Ashvin Kumar’s ‘No Fathers in Kashmir’ (2019) tells the story of a British-Kashmiri teenager in search of her father.

Ashvin Kumar’s ‘No Fathers in Kashmir’ (2019) tells the story of a British-Kashmiri teenager in search of her father.

Besides swooning over the snowy peaks or sliding down Gulmarg’s slopes, these films did precious little to engage with local culture and language, let alone politics. The Dal lake and its shikaras were regular fare and eulogised in popular songs, but Kashmir’s core identity and its problems were decisively sidestepped. A place beyond the reach of most Indians, Kashmir’s spiritual elasticity and visual splendour were fashioned to serve the mainstream purpose — show, don’t tell.

In the years following Kashmir Ki Kali, a number of Bollywood directors ‘toured’ the State, perhaps holidaying more than understanding customs or people. Consequently, Kashmir became more metaphor than reality, serving as the trough for romances like Do Badan (1966), Andaz (1971), Bobby (1973) and Kabhie Kabhie (1976). Each of these films reduced the land they stood on to a notion, never hinting at its struggle for identity.

The story on the ground was, of course, radically different. By the 80s, insurgency had begun, a number of plebiscite and separatist fronts had come up. By the time theatres in Srinagar were closed in 1989, India’s perception of Kashmir and Kashmiris had begun to dramatically change. Previously peripheral to the landscape, Kashmiris now began to appear in cinema, albeit on the altar of Indian nationalism.

With Mani Ratnam’s ‘Roja’ in 1992, mainstream nationalism took over the Kashmir narrative completely.

With Mani Ratnam’s ‘Roja’ in 1992, mainstream nationalism took over the Kashmir narrative completely.

The border conflict first appeared in Henna (1991), written by K.A. Abbas. It was also India’s entry to the Oscars that year. Though an apolitical love story at its core, the film’s tragic end managed to pose pertinent questions about the war. In 1992, however, mainstream nationalism took over completely as Mani Ratnam’s fervently patriotic Roja was released to near-universal praise. Screened across Doordarshan and its regional channels, Roja was momentous in the way it cast Kashmiris. In one scene, the terrorist Liaqat (Pankaj Kapoor) tells Rishi (Arvind Swamy) that he would not hesitate to kill his own mother and sister for ‘jihad’. ‘It is a holy war’ he says, glibly oversimplifying a problem that had as sophisticated a history then as it now has a contentious future. Kashmir’s beauty had worn off, but its reality was still underwritten.

Though films like the Kargil follow-up Mission Kashmir (2000) and the rather more laudable Yahaan (2005) were sincere attempts to untangle Kashmir’s complexity, they largely tread at a safe distance, romancing and self-indulgent.

A still from Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ‘Mission Kashmir’ (2000).

A still from Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ‘Mission Kashmir’ (2000).

For a long time now, the Valley has seldom been given a voice. Naturally, it became the burden of its people to tell their stories. Kashmir’s first film made in Urdu, Mainz Raat , came out as early as 1964. The second, Iquilaab , never released. Since the closure of theatres in the Valley, the limited distribution of the few films and documentaries made meant they never reached their potential.

Kashmiri actor Aamir Bashir’s Harud (2010) was perhaps a watershed moment. It approached the Kashmir conflict from the inside. Released belatedly and quietly, the film compassionately follows Rafiq (Shahnawaz Bhat), a disillusioned local photographer who becomes a victim of the climate he is born into.

The U.S.-based director Musa Syeed’s Valley of Saints (2012), the love story of shikara-owner Gulzar (Syeed actually cast a local boatman Gulzar Ahmad Bhat) and U.S.-based researcher Asifa (Neelofar Hamid) is as tenderly woven as it is conscious of its politics. It dawns on Gulzar eventually that of all the things he is prepared to abandon, Kashmir isn’t one.

Kashmiri actor Aamir Bashir’s Harud (2010) approached the Valley’s conflict from the inside.

Kashmiri actor Aamir Bashir’s Harud (2010) approached the Valley’s conflict from the inside.

In 2017, Hussein Khan’s Urdu film Kashmir Daily and Danish Renzu’s Half Widow, the latter based around extra-judicial killings, received neither the publicity nor distribution comparable to Hindi or even other regional films. Many of these films have never been screened in the Valley either.

Through the last decade, Kashmir’s image has descended into a broken paradise, as in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014) and Sajid Ali’s Laila Majnu (2018). In both films, madness, like the reality of Kashmir, becomes a reckoning of sorts. Even in the little known yet smartly made Kaafiron Ki Namaaz (2016), Kashmir, hoisted through its political motifs, gradually descends into mania and frenzy.

This year’s Widow of Silence by Praveen Morchhale, and Hamid by Aijaz Khan are likely to disappear without a trace. With tensions having re-escalated on the border, the local narrative may well be exiled.

Though mainstream Hindi cinema has evolved enough to consider Kashmir more than the sum of its snowy slopes and sinister agendas, there has never been a greater need for an empathetic eye.

After the Balakot strikes, producers in Mumbai have apparently scrambled to register films around the attack. One can only hope their opportunism doesn’t obscure a land and people that most of India neither sees nor understands.

The writer follows arts and culture.

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