Asia Life

Bollywood and India’s Evolving Representation of Kashmir

Bollywood depictions of Kashmir intersect with both popular opinion and the government’s foreign policy outlook.

By Alexandra Delaney-Bhattacharya for
Bollywood and India’s Evolving Representation of Kashmir
Credit: Junglee Pictures

Less than a week after the Indian government repealed Article 370, the legislation which had conferred special status on the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Bollywood producers were reportedly registering film titles relating to Kashmir. Over 50 titles have been registered so far and according to film magazine editor Atul Mohan directors are keen on nationalist titles including Article 370 Abolished, Kashmir Mein Tiranga (Kashmir in Tricolor), and Kashmir Hamara Hai (Kashmir Is Ours). If these film titles are realized it will signal an interesting turn in the evolution in Bollywood’s representation of Kashmir and Kashmiri people.

To date, representation of Kashmir has been demarcated by a significant shift before and after the militant insurgency that gripped the disputed Kashmir Valley from the late 1980s onwards. Disagreement over a disputed state election in 1987 boiled over into attacks, demonstrations, and strikes. The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) led this pro-independence insurgency and there is disagreement between India and Pakistan as to the character of these insurgents. Some in India claim these insurgents are Pakistan-sponsored terrorists and that Pakistan has despatched fighters across the Line of Control, while some in Pakistan claim they are native Kashmiri freedom fighters.

The insurgency remains one of India’s highest security concerns and commenced at a time when Hindutva ideology was on the increase. To be Indian, within the Hindutva ideology, is to be Hindu; anything that threatens the Hindu status quo must be questioned within this discourse. India’s fractious relationship with Pakistan, numerous domestic terrorist attacks, and the wider threat of global terror has further fuelled fear of the other and heightened state security concerns. These anxieties seep out into Bollywood films.

Pre-insurgency, Kashmir was used as a location of romance and escapism, the perfect setting for the Bollywood hero to romance his love. Films in the 1960s and 1970s including Kashmir Ki Kali (The Bud of Kashmir, 1964), Jab Jab Phool Khile (Whenever the Flowers Bloomed, 1965) and Noorie (1979) focused on the romantic, serene, and escapist nature of Kashmir. Key scenes featured verdant rolling hills and lush meadows, gently flowing streams, and nature in all its glory. It was a land of escapism, removed from the conflict and curiously depoliticized. Kashmiri characters were presented in a generalized and nonreligious way, as houseboat owners, or generic tribal characters, or simply passive inhabitants engulfed by their beautiful surroundings.

From the 1990s, Kashmir moved from scenic backdrop to spotlight of the story. The generalized nature of the gentle Kashmiri was redrawn as potential terrorist and threat to India’s security, and the beauty of the landscape tempered by danger. 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 replace tribal women in a politicized narrative twist. Kashmir’s pure white snow now drips with blood.

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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, a pro-independence organization inspired by the JKLF.

Director Vishal Bhardwaj extends the trope of tragic avenging young man in Haider (2014), his critically acclaimed adaption 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 realist 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.

The male protagonists in these films are Kashmiri Muslims and by their very nature, and perceived cultural proximity to Pakistan, are a dangerous cultural threat to India. These narratives demonstrate how Bollywood’s representation of Kashmir is co-opted and foreshadowed by anxieties over Pakistan and Islam, which play out on screen via the representation of Kashmir, Pakistan, and Islam as dangerous and enemies of the state. The framing of Muslims as a dangerous other is an established trope in Bollywood. Muslims are repeatedly linked to violence and the threat of terror, as we’ve seen in Kurbaan (Sacrifice, 2009), My Name is Khan (2010), Raees (Rich, 2017).

Bollywood has long history of perfectly articulating binaries. Since the earliest films of the silent era, there has been an othering of any group who does not fit (or cannot be subsumed into) the Hindu patriarchal mould. This includes vampish or overly modern characters juxtaposed against an idealized interpretation of femininity, Hindus against Muslims, and West against East. The need to articulate a strong and stable Indian nation stems from Indian independence and plays out in Bollywood through the rampant nationalism we see on screen.

Raazi (2018) was one of last year’s highest earning releases in India and one of the highest-grossing Bollywood films featuring a female protagonist, securing a flurry of awards for Director Meghna Gulzar and celebrated young actress Alia Bhatt. The narrative, based on Harinder Sikka’s novel Calling Sehmat, is set in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 and 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. As part of her mission with India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Sehmat undergoes an arranged marriage into the family of Pakistani Army Brigadier Syed. The film marked a significant shift in how Kashmir, and Kashmiris, are represented in big-budget Bollywood.

Narendra Modi’s government has received accusations of stoking communal tensions and inciting violence against Muslims. For Muslims in India, as the Hindutva wave sweeps politics, it has never been more important to pledge allegiance to the state. Raazi demonstrates this perfectly, with Sehmat, a Kashmiri Muslim woman, placing her love for her country above all else — including her Pakistani husband, whom she shoots dead in the latter scenes of the film for her country’s security. The message is clear: you can be Muslim, but not too Muslim. To be Indian and Muslim means putting your love for the state first and proving your loyalty above Pakistan.

It will be interesting to see how the representation of Kashmir evolves in the post-Article 370 context. It will likely involve justification of the repeal, a nationalist hero, and will perhaps involve a transition from the violence we’ve seen in insurgency films to positioning Kashmir as a safe space, somewhere non-Kashmiris will want to settle. As Modi proclaims, he is keen to restore Kashmir’s past glory and Bollywood will most likely have a role to play in supporting this.

Alexandra Delaney-Bhattacharya is undertaking Ph.D. research at Birmingham City University on the representation of white femininity in Bollywood.