Kashmir in Mainstream Indian Cinema – a Tale of Deception, Dehumanization and Desensitization

When Fitoor – an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations – hit cinema halls on 12th February 2016, I went into the theatre expecting more than just a love story set in modern day Kashmir. The trailers had done a great job of showcasing some scintillating scenes of snow and spring in the Valley. However, they also significantly featured the political turmoil of the Valley. ‘Doodh doge to kheer denge… Kashmir maangoge to cheer denge’ said the fervent Noor (the protagonist of Fitoor) in the trailers. Although the movie may not have been a blockbuster, the slogan has become well known in the popular culture of India.

After watching Fitoor – I was horrified. Its treatment of the Kashmir conflict was alarming to say the least. The movie could have been set anywhere in the world and it would not have obstructed the narration the least bit. Setting the story in Kashmir (and later Delhi, London, and where not before winding up in Kashmir again) made no sense to me. The manner in which the sorry state of human rights in the Valley is ignored in the movie is appalling. However, what scared me the most was the subtle messages of desensitization and dehumanization that the characters send towards the audience.

An ex-militant says he ‘wasted’ his youth and his family for a pointless cause. The hero uses a political slogan merely as a cover up for a reckless act of passion. A side-character speaks about building Pakistani-Kashmiri cooperation on a talk show. Young Noor loses is sister to a terrorist act and leaves early from her funeral in an attempt to meet his newfound love. The callousness of the characters towards the Valley is a gross misrepresentation (if not absolute burial) of reality.

To put it bluntly, Fitoor used the turmoil of the Valley in its trailers to drive audiences to the theatres and, once there, conveyed a completely different picture. The broken heart and longing of an entire people was reduced to a marketing gimmick and cheap political propaganda. On further reflection, I could not help but notice a growing trend among Bollywood movies to find ways to link their story to the Valley.

Take, for example, Wazir. A thriller set within the political turmoil of Kashmir, Wazir had several blatant depictions of insurgency, militancy, and massacres in Kashmir – all propagated by thoroughly unpatriotic, evil militants obviously supported by Pakistan. There is barely any hint of the innumerable, unchecked, gross human rights violations by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) or the Indian Border Security Force (BSF).

Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Maachis, Fanaah, Mission Kashmir, Tahaan, Yahaan, Sikandar – so many films, all linked to Kashmir one way or another. Most of these films focused on militancy and the impact it has on the Kashmiri populace. The CRPF and BSF are almost always glorified and the proverbial ‘other side of the coin’ is seldom explored. There is no mention of Gawkadal, Bijbehara, the Shopian rape and murder case, or the 2010 Kashmiri uprising.  Is the subject of the misdeeds of our army and government too touchy? Would we be ‘anti-national’ is we saw and acknowledged that India’s treatment of Kashmir has been questionable from the start? Would it be unpatriotic to question our nation at all?

And then there is the beautifully harrowing Haider – an exception. It was not just an adaptation of Shakespear’s Hamlet – it was a documentary of dramatized real life events. Unfortunately, audiences could not distinguish where the adaptation ended and the documentary began. Who would believe that a man in a mask behind the wheels of the jeep would simply have to blare the horn to choose which of those Kashmiris being paraded before him gets picked for indefinite detention? Or the severe torture those detained go through in military camps with truly strange names. Things like these do not happen in ‘sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republics’.

I took the liberty of arranging a second viewing of the movie for my friends and explaining – the adaptation as well as dramatization – of every scene. The half widows, the man in the mask, the true stories I had heard about – of 10 year old children being picked up by the CRPF as suspected militants and the twisted methods of rape and torture employed on them – about the thousands missing for decades but not presumed dead by their mothers and wives. Haider’s impact was now manifold. But then again, this exceptional Bollywood movie made sure to mutilate the context of the insurgency in Kashmir by depicting its roots in vengeance and not in the political deceit that Kashmiris have faced. I wonder how much this had to do with the need of producers to ensure the release of a movie without incidents of violence and being labeled anti-national.

While Haider may have boldly ventured into dangerous terrain, the other motion pictures have been telling an oft repeated, oft tailored tale of misguided calls for independence, feverish heights of patriotism towards India among the right kind of Kashmiris, brave army personnel, innocent civilians – girls still dressed like Sharmila Tagore in Kashmir ki Kali – living in eternal fear of militant attacks, Kashmiris living in gross poverty, Kashmiris being misled by corrupt, power hungry, religious fanatic Kashmiri politicians – the list of stereotypes is endless. Basically, there is a lot of fiction about Kashmir and Kashmiris being churned by people who are too disconnected from reality and/or have an agenda to propagate. And this fiction is lapped up by an audience that takes the word of the movies instead of seeking out the truth themselves.

This seems to be a contradiction of sorts – and I am not contradicting myself here. It is the audience behavior that is contradictory. Why are the events portrayed in Haider less believable than those portrayed in, let’s say, Wazir, Fanaah, Yahaan or Hero – The Love Story of a Spy? Why is it so hard to believe that Indian army personnel could simply pick up, kill and rape a civilian in the valley without question or even notice by the rest of the nation? Is the possibility of a one off, covert government operation to save the people more believable than the possibility of day to day atrocities committed towards the same people by government after government? Or is the former simply easier to digest for us as a people looking for a reason for national pride? Is Indian cinema just an extension of what most of the Prime Time Shows about Kashmir are – the concocted version of truth that suits the ‘democratic republic of India’?

Images Courtesy Faizan Altaf (Instagram: faizanaltaf15)

Afshan Shaikh

Afshan Shaikh is Marcom Head at www.youngbiztimes.com. A brand management and public relations consultant by profession, she actively defends human rights and works towards positive social change in India. Her work has been featured on The New Indian Express, YoungBizTimes.com, IndiaCurrents.com, and The-NRI.com.

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