Wahid Bhat | Srinagar
They say that cinema is the mirror of society, but how to portray the ever-changing societal surrounding when cinema halls have been turned into bunkers and theatres into military checkposts in the name of safety and security of the nation. Kashmir, plagued by militancy since the late 80s and its violent eruption in the early 90s has seen a complete shutdown of, a once very flourishing medium of entertainment, cinema.
Ironically, many Bollywood blockbusters have been shot in Kashmir and received global admiration over the years, but the people of Kashmir are yet to see them on the 70 mm in the comfort of their localities and cities.
Covered by barbed wires and hanging empty liquor bottles, the few cinemas in Srinagar are the abode of the paramilitary forces today. However, it was an armed group that first sought the closure of cinema and theatres in Kashmir. According to Journalist Iftikar Khan a group names Allah Tigers were the first to issue a press release in local papers for the same. Kashmiri youngsters, especially those who were born in and after the 1980s, have never seen a movie in a cinema hall, except those who travel to Jammu or other parts of the country. Despite this virtual ban on films, the reality is completely different, Kashmiris love Bollywood films and enjoy them courtsey satellite television and at times piracy.
“Kashmir is one of the few places in the world which does not have its own film industry,” Danish Ahmad, a Kashmiri film student at the Centre for Research in Art of Film and Television in New Delhi, told Ground Report. Filmmakers in Kashmir say that the dismal state of culture and arts, films included is a result of the violence that has engulfed the valley for nearly two decades. “I think the absence of a film industry must be seen within the context of the wider cultural space in Kashmir, now almost destroyed by 20 years of conflict,” filmmaker Sanjay Kak told Ground Report.
Kak said that Kashmir’s older traditions of music and theatre are languishing while new traditions have simply not been given the space to grow. “But this is hardly surprising since a new culture cannot grow within the deeply militarised space that Kashmir is,” he adds.
Violence has wrecked Kashmir since 1989 when insurgents started waging a struggle for ‘freedom from India’. Tens of thousands are estimated to have been killed since the insurgency began. “We have gone through so much during 20 years of conflict which we want to show through films, but we cannot,” said Ahmad.
J&K has never had a film industry, unlike other states in India where regional cinema thrives. The scant efforts at film production have resulted in movies about Kashmir’s political history and social issues. The first Kashmiri movie was “Manziraat” (Henna ceremony) released in 1964 and screened at a theatre in the main city of Kashmir. It was well received by the general population and even won the President’s Award for the best regional film in Kashmir.
After Manziraat, there was “Shayar-e-Kashmir Mehjoor” (Poet of Kashmir Mehjoor), a joint venture of the Kashmir Department of Information and Bollywood filmmakers, shot in both the Urdu and the Kashmiri languages. Since the release of Mehjoor nearly 45 years ago, filmmaking in Kashmir has been stagnated. No feature film has been produced since then, except for the 2001 movie “Bub” (Father) directed by Jyoti Sarup, which won the National Film Award. Bub, though, was shown only in the theatres of Jammu, never screened in Kashmir.
The start of the insurgency in 1989 further set back the production of Kashmiri films. Even movie houses were closed down. A feature film titled “Inqilab” (Revolution) was produced in 1989 but could not be released due to the turbulent situation.
In the meantime, several TV mini-series filled the void brought about by the absence of theatres. The most popular among them were “Rasool Mir” (1974-1975), “Habba Khatoon”(1977-1978), and “Arnimaal” (1982-1983). All three were profiles of ancient poets of Kashmir. The first digital Kashmiri feature film was released as late as 2006. Titled “Akh Daleel Loolech” (A love story), the movie revolved around the social and political struggle of the people of Kashmir in the 19th century while focusing on a true love story. The film was directed by Aarshad Mushtaq and premiered in New Delhi.
Director Mushtaq views the lack of government support for the local film industry as a deliberate attempt by India to ‘control Kashmir’. “Local language films would popularise the local language and culture, which breed a feeling of being a different race,” and would thus lead to questioning of “India’s take over,” he said.
It is not just the film industry, but also film and media schools that are missing in Kashmir. There are no schools that provide training for filmmaking, acting or theatre. “Institutions like the cinema and theatre are the hubs from where questions are raised, and the questions, if raised in Kashmir, always put India in a fix and slippery situations. So there are no liberal arts and cinema or theatre schools for Kashmir, a matter of national policy by India,” Mushtaq said.
A local artist on conditions of anonymity said orthodox Kashmiri society does not understand the worth of intellectuals and artists, thus restricting the introduction of media schools. “Kashmiris look down upon filmmakers and the likes. Parents here want their children to be doctors and engineers so that they can earn good money, and that is how they groom their children too. Inborn talents have no worth.”
The state of Jammu and Kashmir does not have its own Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and comes under the purview of central government. All cultural and other media-related activities are pursued under the state’s cultural ministry largely through the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages (JKAACL).
While militancy had driven away Bollywood and tourists from Kashmir, in the past decade film crews have returned as have visitors in large numbers. While films like Haider and Bajrangi Bhaijan shot in Kashmir has received national viewership there are others like Ye Jawani Hai Deewani who portrayed Kashmir as Manali when the film released.
While Bollywood is once again turning to Kashmir for its natural beauty and snow-clad mountains, its important that the state sustains this new arrival, and the valley which has seen over two decades of bloodshed and violence once again reverberates in the music and larger than life narrative of cinema.