Plot Thickens: Inside Bollywood’s Biased Kashmir Lens


Actor Salman Khan during a movie shooting in Kashmir.

Year 2022 is kicking off a spell of fresh Bollywood flicks on Kashmir living up to their ‘scripted’ hype. But in a bid to be in the limelight, many say, the filmmakers are only making clown of themselves by showing the distorted picture.

FRESH from his yet another successful cop flick, the tinsel town’s “Mr. 100 Crore” filmmaker lately showed up in Kashmir.

Rohit Shetty’s sudden arrival in the valley came days before his Singham movie sequel was announced. This time, Ajay Devgn-star movie would reportedly revolve around the stringent policing in Kashmir during the Article 370 abrogation.

Even as the director-on-recce turned down such moviemaking motive, but the valley’s cinematic history makes it an obvious potboiler.

Before Shetty, a “blue-eyed” director who proposed “Veg Wazwan” was in the valley for his own “Mission Kashmir”. He’s shooting the nightmarish episode of nineties with a certain script.

Come next summer, many say, and his film will be presenting an extreme version of Vidu Vinod Chopra’s Shikara.

Interestingly, the reel script has dramatically changed in the “Naya Kashmir”. Just like the real unfolding plot, there seems no check and balance on the Kashmir content being fed to masses in the name of entertainment. Even Delhi has been tirelessly inviting Indian filmmakers to recreate the bygone Bollywood romance in the restive region.

However, in the times of OTT platforms and anti-hero epics, the valley is only witnessing a biased lens projection.

The contemporary cinematic treatment of Kashmir is a huge departure from the rosy picture of the UPA days. The ruling NDA, it seems, is even trying to outdo its predecessors and political rivals in the cinematic works as well.

What was rosy, many reckon, has now become a gory. And not-surprising-anymore, it has its cheerleading audience too!

But amid the fascination for the fringe content, the good-old “paradise on earth” fixation is still there. Ask any newbie in the cine-world on a work-tour in Vale, and they’ll tell you: If there’s any place on earth which will intoxicate you, allure your soul and entice the artist inside of you, then it has to be Kashmir.

As a eulogy as well as an elegy, Kashmir recites its verses through pain and joy, blood and beauty, fall and autumn. The valley is devotion, so they say, a pious enchanted piety which will suffice your hungry soul with the shimmering waterfalls, beautiful shikaras in the lakes, the deodar and Chinar trees and the great Himalayas.

Kashmir is so captivating that even if an outsider hasn’t been here ever, s/he will still fall in love via stories and movies, unknowingly or knowingly. That’s how Kashmir is — an art which cannot be confined in any form!

No wonder then, it has always intrigued Bollywood filmmakers to serve a slice of mesmerizing mountains in every art of theirs.

The official romance between an artist and Kashmir started during the ’60s when director Shakti Samanta directed ‘Kashmir Ki Kali’ which was one of the highest-grossing films that year.

After that, the discovery of paradise started. Most of the romantic movies during the decade were shot in the valley. The picturesque place became the romance hub for Indian directors.

A still from the movie, Kashmir ki Kali, in which late Shammi Kapoor was seen wooing a Kashmiri girl played by Sharmila Tagore.

During the ’90s, Bollywood started perceiving Kashmir as a war-zone. From the flowing wind of romance, Bollywood directors successfully established Kashmir as ground zero in the public perception.

From a place which attracted tourists, it had become a place people feared. Kashmir grabbed attention like never before. The place which was paradise had now become a bane.

Eventually, the table took a turn and during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Bollywood got stormed by various artistic directors and writers who wanted to portray Kashmir’s landscape, culture, tribes, hospitality and warmth to contribute to this gorgeous, beguiling and divine place.

One such director and writer was Imtiaz Ali, who while shooting Highway in Kashmir managed to interact with students in Kashmir University.

“Kashmir is regarded as special in the country… It is like the jewel of the country… But it is represented very little and I do share your sentiment that it has not been completely and accurately described. There have been films on Kashmir, but there is much more than what has been shown,” Ali said during an interactive session organized by Media Department of Kashmir University.

Through his movies like Highway and Rockstar—where the protagonist moves to Kashmir and parts near to the Himalayas to find peace, Ali successfully established the connection of viewers with the region’s inner beauty. He also broke the stigma of beauty by saying, ‘But you have to understand when they say that Kashmir is heaven on earth, they probably don’t say it because of its scenery, they probably mean the people. Because it’s always the people that make the place.’

During that media interaction, Ali encouraged the Kashmiri youngsters to become storytellers and enlighten the world with the essence of the real Kashmir.

Since that interaction, Kashmir has witnessed a creative boom with new-age Kashmiris telling stories of their strife-ridden homeland in a very objective and dispassionate manner.

But despite being vocal about it, very little of Kashmir’s culture and tradition has been shown in the movies. It’s either a paradise or political battlefield in the lens of Bollywood. There’re hardly any humans with dreams and life.

Period of Utopia

Before the explosive political tensions made it a dystopia for Indian moviemakers, Kashmir was utopia for the film fraternity.

Back in the war-ridden Sixties when Pakistani irregulars had reached as far as in capital Srinagar on the Operation Gibraltar, filmmakers had started exploring the geographical locations for their subject of line. It was during this exploration that Kashmir became a symbol of love and romance for Bollywood.

The beautiful scenic valleys and pasture-laden mountains of Kashmir caught the eye of the Bombay showmen. A large number of films shot in the valley during that period hardly spoke about the culture, tradition, heritage or even music of Kashmir. The sole purpose of shooting in the mountains was the beauty which went parallel and hands in hand with all the romantic movies of that time.

The prominent films shot during that time was Arzoo (1965), Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965), Roti (1974), among others.

These movies did show Shikara, Houseboats, traditional dress, Pheran and a headscarf, but what took the backseat was the essence of the authenticity of Kashmir.

The sole purpose was to portray romance in an utmost beautiful way. Kashmir or Kashmiri culture was more or less shrunk to a scenic set.

In Jab Jab Phool Khile, late Shashi Kapoor played the memorable role of Shikara wala.

Later, prominent director Yash Chopra continued the tradition of enhancing the beauty of Kashmir on camera through his movies, like Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Noorie (1979) and Silsila (1981). These movies made Kashmir a fantasyland for the people across India.

But these movies weren’t about Kashmir. Filmmakers were just borrowing the bewitching beauty of the valley to make their films appealing. None of them tried to show the reality of the land.

Bollywood filmmakers could not see anything beyond the snow-capped mountains and verdant valleys of Kashmir.

Period of Dystopia

The post-1989 films changed the image of Kashmir for Bollywood, media houses, potential sightseers and the dwellers of Kashmir.

There was an abrupt change when the insurgency started. A new type of storytelling took place which was going to change the entire perspective of Kashmir. The region was now either brewing for militancy and militants, or getting sympathies for same in the cinemas. The art of cinema became more of political turmoil.

Mani Ratnam’s 1992 movie, Roja, came in this backdrop and changed the game of filmmakers.

Originally a Tamil movie, Roja was a political drama which showcased violence in Kashmir for the very first time after the armed conflict. This movie opened the gate to many more directors and writers to fester the wound of Kashmir.

Loosely based on the real-life kidnapping-drama of Indian Oil executive director, K Doraiswamy, the movie depicted a story of a Hindu female protagonist from small-town Tamil Nadu fighting against all odds to rescue her husband.

The movie became a regular feature film on Doordarshan during nineties.

Roja paved way to the movies like Mission Kashmir, Yahaan, Fanna, etc.

But these political dramas were denounced as the “picture propaganda” by the natives caught in the throes of political tensions. The overwhelming review remains that most of these films were quite dishonest in their portrayal of the political events in the valley. While they mostly lived up to their jingoistic hype, observers say, these cinema reels failed to show the picture marred by the political uncertainty and siege-mentality created by the growing boots to the ground.

With the result, it’s believed, the Kashmiri identity faced the “film hostility” in many parts of the India where cinema creates the popular public opinion.

And then came Haider

An Indian adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Haider with the star-studded cast unsettled many propagandists in the film industry with its chutzpah clout.

It could show some realistic drama because of the native scribe-script writer, Basharat Peer. One can even find shades of Peer’s Curfewed Nights in this Shahid Kapoor star movie.

Successfully adapted Hamlet’s twists and turns in the backdrop of the armed insurgency in the Kashmir of the 1990s, Vishal Bhardwaj showed the true essence of Kashmiris and Kashmir.

The movie didn’t fail to showcase the agony of Kashmiris too beyond the political hotspot. The movie also raises the point which was majorly not known to many Indians – Disappearance and Half-widows.

Shahid Kapoor’s Ghanta Ghar act became one of the high points in the movie, Haider.

But now, with the summer shift of 2019, the filmmakers are apparently arriving to shoot the scripted plot. No wonder many of these filmmakers are openly—and quite brazenly—questioning the ethnic practices while coming for the cinematic projects.

How do natives feel about it?

Well, ask any Kashmiri made subject of this reel enterprise and most of them will reply, quoting a line from the 1939 film, Gone with the Wind: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

  •   Nasir Bhat contributed for this report.

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