By Amir Suhail Wani
“BOLLYWOOD rekindles romance with J&K as filmmakers find picture-perfect”, read a news report that appeared just a day ago. The chartering of J&K Film Policy 2021, the active intervention, advocacy and appraisal of the honourable governor, pitching Kashmir as the finest destination of filmmakers and roping in bureaucrats, public figures and celebrities to promote Kashmir on the filmmaking map has resurged the interest of stakeholders. The unveiling of Kashmir Files, for better or worse, has reignited the perception of Kashmir and its influence of forthcoming movies on Kashmir shall be the object of interest for cinema lovers, film critics and commoners. But in the midst of all this, while Kashmir continues to serve as the canvas or colour of Bollywood, the question of characterization and portrayal of Kashmir in Bollywood, its people and issues topical to it deserve special revisit and revaluation.
When Europeans landed in Asian and African countries, they started to reconceptualise the identity, ethos, values, modes of life and existence of the natives. They thought of native cultures as laboratories and juxtaposed the notions they had developed in their homeland. This enterprise was so demeaning and dehumanising that centuries after, the approach was bracketed within the hateful academic adventure of “Orientalism”. The Europeans objectified the natives to the point of representatives of inhumanity, barbarism and backwardness. The approach has backfired though and an entire corpus of Oriental literature has come to be received with a pinch of salt and even the genuine and impartial works of Oriental scholars have come under scrutiny. Something similar is shaping the relationship between Bollywood and Kashmir and this calls for an immediate attention lest it translates itself into a snowball effect.
Described as the “Paradise on Earth”, Kashmir has been for long a sought after and cherished shooting place for Bollywood players. The decades of 70s and 80s witnessed a boom in Bollywood’s influx to Kashmir and films like Kabhi Kabhi, Noorie, Silsila and others, saw the light of the day and further augmented and strengthened the position of Kashmir on film shooting map.
However, the chain of events, as it unfolded in the 1990s, changed the situations in the valley and this led to abandoning of the valley by filmmakers. While Valley came to be vacated by filmmakers, it grabbed the ideas and ideology of Bollywood in other ways. The events unfolding in Valley started to be seen in the backdrop of narrative building and ideological warfare and removed from the paradigm of scenic beauty and filmmaking, the spot came to be seen as the space of violence, bloodletting and aggressive shooting. Let’s try to understand how Bollywood has chronologically portrayed Kashmir and what are the cautions that need to be observed in this schema of portrayal.
The earliest engagement and representation of Kashmir in Bollywood movies revolved around the axes of Romanticism and heightened sense of its natural beauty. The key scenes featured lush green rolling hills and verdant meadows, gently flowing streams, snow-capped mountains and nature in all its splendour. The vale was portrayed as a wonderland, far removed from the tensions and turmoil that characterized the rest of India in particular and World in general around these times.
This, in a way, represented the collective subconscious to escape the tragedies that characterised everyday life in search of tranquillity, ecstasy and Utopian ideals of Joy and merrymaking. Prateek Sur, in his article, characterizes this era by saying that “The location was so much in demand that, at a time, there were at least six-seven shoots happening in Kashmir. The number went up more so during the winters when all the locales used to get covered in snow. There was a colloquial saying from that period which stated that the entire film industry used to be chilling together in Kashmir during the winters”.
There were both visible and hidden agendas playing behind this emphasis on the scenic and serene aspect of Kashmir and it was driven by the multiple engines of narrative building, economic considerations and political contestations. The grim and gore aspects of abject poverty, underlying political instability and regional uncertainty were brushed under the carpet in these movies. But this representation, characterizing valley by serenity and calm was to change soon and forever and the cascade of events erupting in 90s, suddenly gave way to the portrayal of Kashmir in Bollywood movies that radically differed from the prevalent characterisation.
The first prominent change was that the Valley ceased to be a scenic background and the canvas on which were projected the outside incidents. The incidents, political events in particular, began to occupy the central stage in Bollywood cinematics and the gentle happy-go-lucky attitude of the Kashmiri locals gave way to characters who were shown as potential terrorists.
Very quickly the romance and love gave way to guns and danger. “The shots of tribal women grazing sheep in the valley were soon changed to heavily armed forces”, notes Prateek.
Representation of Kashmiris has thus oscillated from overly passive and generalized to overly aggressive, mirroring India’s political discourse of the disputed valley as dangerous. Romance gave way to danger as guns replaced sheep and heavily armed forces replaced tribal women in a politicized narrative twist.
Kashmir’s pure white snow now drips with blood. There has been a flurry of Bollywood films from the 1990s onwards keen to capitalize on Kashmir’s violence. These films conflated Kashmiris with terrorism and positioned Islam as dangerous threat. Mission Kashmir (2000) offered a tragic revenge narrative where a young Kashmiri man was driven to violence, though the film shied away from depicting the horrors of state-sponsored violence. Also released in 2000 was Fiza, about a Kashmiri family living through the 1993 Mumbai riots where the son joins a terrorist organization.
Similarly, Fanaa (Destroyed in Love, 2006) features a Kashmiri terrorist who ultimately sacrifices his life for his cause. “Director Vishal Bhardwaj extends the trope of a tragic avenging young man in Haider (2014), his critically acclaimed adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The film is set amidst Kashmir’s insurgency in 1995 and features Shahid Kapoor as Haider, a young student and poet, searching for answers about his father’s disappearance and haunted by years of violence between militants and the army. Neither side comes across well, with enforced disappearances and state-sponsored violence depicted in one of the most realistic interpretations of the violence seen on screen to date. Seemingly unable to move on from his haunted past, Haider loses himself to revenge and in the process advances the association of Kashmir as troubled, violent, and unable to escape from itself”, Writes Alexander D. Bhattacharya. The later generation films have largely revolved around the conflict and the issues arising there from. Raazi, a movie released in 2018, is a representative sample from this genre of films. These pictures have swung on the perennial theme of classifying the Muslim subjects of the state as the defining “Other” and an icon of political and security threat for the rest of the country.
Thus, we see the repetition of the archetype of violence, identified with the Muslim subjects of the state, as the dominant theme permeating the oeuvre of Bollywood industry post 90 incidents. The aesthetic objectification of valley during the first wave and the vulgar depiction of people as agents of violence and disorder and thwarting them against the rest of India has created a pandemonium of sorts by paving the way for misrepresentation and mischaracterization of Muslim subjects and by analogy, of the entire valley. This uncensored and uncorrected representation awakens us to the fallacies of film-makers and the first of which is the objectification of people. Films have bereft the native people of their inherent agency of action and have been assigned the character and agency suitable to the theatrics of Bollywood, no matter how anti-polar it stands to the reality. Another error on part of Bollywood has been to posit the natives as ever-serving “Political Other” and what Rene Girard defines as the “Scapegoat of violence”. This has significantly defined the attitude and behaviours of people from other cities towards the people from Kashmir and the repercussions thereof have been terrible.
Media can’t speak too much of its impartiality and value neutrality. It has a definite, long lasting and sometimes most powerful impact on the psyche of viewers. It thus needs to be careful in its portrayal and representations. This public image and influence of media, and Bollywood in this case, demands high standards of accuracy – historical, political and ideological on part of producers and other men at the helm of affairs. This sense of responsibility demands higher attention when it comes to Kashmir – the place which has already been subject to contestations and negative portrayals. Referring to and benefitting from authentic historical sources, eye-witnesses and authorities – across the religious and ideological divide shall be the task of premier importance in any adventure that aspires to the representation of Kashmir.
But sadly, what's being fed to the masses in the mainland is the myopic picture of the mountains. Driven by the poor research and agenda-setting, the scripts behind these cine-shows are hatched to fuel hatred and hostility towards a particular community in the society. It's one thing to set the records straight, but its other thing to resort to perfidious plotting. Such malicious treatment is bound to backfire. Distorting reality through the cinematic projection gives birth to a grim reality which is now rearing its ugly head in many places.
Therefore, it's incumbent upon filmmakers to represent their characters with neutrality and without framing them in any value-judgement framework. More important is to shun away the exotic representation and presaged portrayal of people to avoid any misadventures arising from these characterizations. Lest Bollywood wakes itself to these responsibilities, there is an imminent danger of Bollywood seeing itself characterised as propaganda engine and hate mongering industry with reference to Kashmir.
- Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
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