If there is paradise on earth, it is not here

Enough of romancing the chinars, the Dal Lake, the snowcapped peaks. Kashmiris are turning to film-making to tell the story of the Valley as they know it.  Sonia Sarkar talks to some of them 

By Sonia Sarkar
  • Published 5.11.17
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DIFFERENT TAKE: On the sets of Half Widow; (below) a still from Partav

Ovais, pursuing a degree in Psychology from Kashmir University, says, "I thought of the film when I was frustrated at being confined... It was the only way I could have expressed my anguish."

While Memoirs is Ovais's first film, Dilnawaz Muntazir, a dentist based in Srinagar, is a couple of films old. Kashmir's first digital feature film, Akh Daleel Looluch (A Story of Love), was released in 2006, but the digital film that got everyone's attention was Dilnawaz's Partav or Influence (2013). It bagged the Award of Excellence at the Canada International Film festival that year. Currently, Dilnawaz, who runs his own production company, is working on Ek Pal Zindagi Ka, a film about children orphaned by the ongoing conflict.

Electrical engineer-turned-filmmaker Danish Renzu says, "Being a Kashmiri, I feel an obligation to tell stories from my world and the place I grew up in. There are so many untold stories and they need attention and platform." Danish, who has directed the 2017 film, Half Widow, is speaking for himself, but what he says is true of Ovais and Dilnawaz and a lot of young Kashmiris today.

"I have deliberately avoided showing the clichés associated with Kashmir, such as gorgeous landscapes and snowcapped mountains," says Hussein Khan, whose 2017 film Kashmir Daily tells the story of drug abuse and unemployment.

They must be driven by some compulsion for all of these people are going out of their way to find the time and make the effort to craft this emergent narrative. Danish quit his job with a firm in the US and returned home to Kashmir two years ago. Since then he has made one film - Half Widow; two others are in the making.

Half Widow, as is evident from the title, revolves around a woman who has lost her husband in the web of unrest that has had Kashmir in its stranglehold for decades. One night, in the middle of dinner, he was picked up by some armed men, never to be traced again. Minus her husband and minus any intimation about whether he is dead or alive, the woman finds herself living the unenviable life of a person who is not quite wife, not quite widow. Estimates say there are over 20,000 such half widows in Kashmir. "I believe it's a very important story and must reach audiences worldwide," says Danish, whose forthcoming film projects are Pashmina, the tale of the common people of Kashmir caught in the crossfire between militants and the state, and Winters of Kashmir, which is about a young woman who chooses to fight for her right to be educated.

Kashmir had its own film industry till the late 1980s. The first Kashmiri film, Mainz Raat or Mehendi Raat, from 1964 was a typical formula film, girl-meet-boy and the inevitable. But director Jagi Rampaul was given the President's medal for bringing before the rest of India a slice of Kashmiri life.

It was not a thriving industry by any stretch, but some films of note did come out of it. There were nine cinema halls in Srinagar alone and old-timers recall long queues in front of the ticketing counters of Palladium in Lal Chowk; many of those would have been for Hindi movies. But in the late 1980s, when militancy picked up, many terrorist organisations started a campaign against all forms of entertainment in the Valley. They called such activity "un-Islamic" and forcibly shut down cinema halls.

The feature film, Inqalaab, was made in 1989, but it was never released. Ten years later, the then chief minister Farooq Abdullah encouraged screening of films in Kashmir. The theatres, Broadway, Neelam and Regal, were reopened amidst tight security. But Regal was shut down again after militants aimed a grenade at it, killing one civilian and injuring 12 others. In 2005, following an encounter, Neelam too was shut down.

The current trend is therefore no less than a renaissance.

Shot in Kashmiri, Urdu, Hindi and even English, filmmakers try to involve as much local talent as is possible, but it's not been easy. Says Hussein, "Traditionally, filmmaking was never encouraged in the Valley. It was mostly theatre and television where a large number of local artistes - scriptwriters, directors and actors - showcased their talent."

The other hurdle is finance. Hussein took three years to complete his film. "My family makes sacrifices to ensure I pursue my dream. My children have stopped taking the school bus, they take the local bus to save Rs 3,000 per month," says Hussein, whose Kashmir Daily was screened for 7,000 viewers at the Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre in Srinagar this March. There was no big bang commercial release as there are no cinema halls in Kashmir.

Among the other problems are poor shooting infrastructure and lack of post-production facilities. Some, like Muntazir, have opened their own studios to help the filmmakers.

Of late, many Kashmiri actors - Rufy Khan from Yuvvraaj and Dhara 302; Zaira Wasim from Dangal, Mir Sarwar from Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Jolly LLB 2 - have been making waves in Bollywood. Will their success help the cause of filmmakers and films from the Valley? Perhaps. Mir is trying to collaborate with Bollywood for the upcoming Bed No. 17, a film on the healthcare scam that he will be directing. "It will be the first such collaboration," he says.

In the meantime, those who cannot manage enough investment for feature films are making documentaries that are comparatively low-budget. Bilal A. Jan's documentary, The Ocean of Tears (2012), raises the issue of alleged mass rape at Kunan and Poshpora in 1991. The film was funded by the home ministry, but was stopped from being screened at Kashmir University in 2014. Ovais's Memoirs was released on YouTube.

A song from Danish's Half Widow comes to mind. The track, in Hindi, goes: Kuchh baaqi hai... The singer is insistent, repeating the words again and again. Against the background of what is happening, the plaintive cry seems representative, emanating from the heart of Kashmir's youth, who seem to have made it their mission to tell the world their full story.