Cinema is a diverse cultural practice that reflects a plethora of social, economic, and cultural phenomena in modern societies. Bollywood is a global face of Indian cinema, and it shares a unique relationship with Kashmir. Kashmir has been the leading filming destination for the Bombay cinema industry. Bollywood filmmakers have found different ways of telling stories about Kashmir and its people that have become part of the national experience. Though Kashmir is omnipresent in political discourse, very little is truly known of Kashmiri culture or the effects of territorial conflict on the Kashmiri way of life. Voyeuristic representations of Kashmir in popular cinema help us partially understand mainland India's surreal and violent disconnect.
During the 1960s, Bollywood used the scenic beauty of Kashmir for its location to portray it as heaven on earth. Pre-insurgency, Kashmir was used as a location of romance and escapism, the perfect setting for the Bollywood hero to romance his love. Key scenes featured verdant rolling hills and lush meadows, gently flowing streams, and nature in to all its glory. It was a land of escapism, removed from the conflict and curiously depoliticized. However, with the political changes, the image of the valley in mainstream movies also underwent dramatic change. 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. The films of pre-conflict era include Kashmir Ki Kali (Bud of Kashmir, 1964), Jab Jab Phool Khile (Whenever the Flowers Bloomed, 1965), and Junglee (Crazy, 1961), while the post-conflict days, when war and terrorism became the prominent aspect of the state, produced such timely films as Roja (Red, 1992), Mission Kashmir (2000), Maa Tujhe Salaam [Mother, I Salute You, 2002), and LOC Kargil (2003).
In particular, the cinematic representation of Kashmir has been overly simplistic, either as a pristine paradise or as a breeding ground for terrorists. Although the region has been the setting for several Bollywood films like Junglee (1961), Mere Sanam (1965), and Mission Kashmir (2000)], it has been seen as the “other” world with a rigid and monochromatic identity. With films like Haider (2014), Hamid (2019) and No Fathers in Kashmir (2019), however, the dominant gaze was turned inwards and its rigidity was problematised through characters that slipped in and out of militant/non-militant categories with ease, betraying the flimsiness of these classifications. The absurdity of these tags was emphasised through the use of dark humour, the aim of which was not to invoke laughter but to otherise the viewer, turning the power dynamic on its head. In doing so, these identities were shown to have agency and a voice of their own, countering monolithic nationalist narratives.
In Roja(1992), the distance between India and Kashmir shows up in sharp relief. Today Kashmir is once again under curfew. And most Indians, despite their exultant tweets, are quite distanced from its trauma. Deserted streets are being declared “peaceful” and crowded protests are being dubbed “fake news”. Raazi (2018), based on Harinder Sikka’s novel Calling Sehmat, features Bhatt as Sehmat Khan, a young Kashmiri woman who leaves university to follow in her dying father’s footsteps and train as a spy. The film marked a significant shift in how Kashmir, and Kashmiris, are represented in big-budget Bollywood. Stereotyping is another area that plays an essential role in twisting the character portrayal of Kashmiris as naïve and easily excited or impressed by small things.
The stereotypes incite the emotional and patriotic sentiments of the Indian audience so that they see a miscreant, a militant and a terrorist in every Kashmiri. The stories have to rise above the politics of the nation and convey a viewpoint of ordinary Kashmiri so that the problems and aspirations of day-to-day life are communicated through unbiased narratives. Hence, with the construction of identity, or rather, deconstruction of previous identities, a fresh slate is created by these films. This fresh slate, achieved through stories focused on an inward gaze, is expected allow relatability between the viewer and character, and by extension, between Kashmir and the rest of India.