Cinema Paradiso: What Kashmir Lived, Longed for and Whispered of

Before Kashmir was repression and violence, it was home for experiences and brushes with art. A filmmaker pens down some memories.

I don’t know if anyone ever asked Mr. Maniktala if it was alright for the whole neighbourhood to descend on his place to watch the film on Doordarshan every Sunday evening. In the early 70s, he was the bureau chief of the Press Trust of India in Srinagar, and also the proud owner of the only television set in the whole state owned housing colony of Pratap Park, Residency Road. 

Every Sunday at 6 pm, the entire neighbourhood, with the exception of some elderly gentlemen, would land up religiously at No. 2, Pratap Park. As the signature tune of Doordarshan filtered out onto the lanes, all the children would scurry down the streets, followed by their mothers, brothers, sisters, and, in my case, aunts and cousins too, to find the best seat in the house. The corridor outside their living room, a sea of footwear. 

Inside, the room would fill with anticipatory chatter, while the movie of the week was announced by probably the most well known face in the valley, a woman called Naseem Khan. The opening credits would be read aloud by all those who could. But as soon as the film started, the audience would be unable to take our eyes off the black and white images – each transported into our own dream world. Copious amounts of tears, hearty laughs at all the funny lines, and the rush of adrenaline as the bad guys got their due from the honest, upright hero – that was us.

The films screened on state-run television from the 1950s and 1960s were almost invariably about the protagonist’s struggle against poverty, and the effect it had on his relationships with his family or the love of his life. Inevitably, the hero triumphed against all odds. He did this by sticking to his principles to overcome the zamindar or the money lender or the factory owner. More often than not, the villains belonged to the rich upper class, whereas the hero was from a rural, lower-middle, or working class.

These were the stories from the glory days of Nehruvian socialism.

In 1976, my father bought our first TV set, a Telerad that came with its own wooden cabinet. The neighbourhood split into two audiences. If I remember correctly, nobody ever asked my parents either if it was alright to barge in and watch the weekly film and Chitrahaar, the show which featured film songs. And yet, they did barge in.

The quarters and apartment blocks on Residency Road housed mainly journalists and some bureaucrats. Some of these people were non-Kashmiris and this contributed to making this a vibrant place. We were exposed to a bigger culture of news and politics at a very young age.

The State Motor Garages was located here and housed all the government cars meant for VIPs, state officials and sundry dignitaries, At times, it became our playground. There were old open-top Cadillacs and Chevrolet Impalas and even a Volkswagen van that had a bed and a kitchenette inside. On quiet weekends, some of us would play chor-police, enacting mock car chases and shootouts or digging the dirt for treasure behind the staff quarters. Most of the time we came up with glass bottoms of alcohol bottles as booty. 

It was in this very neighbourhood that I got cast for the first time in a tele film for Doordarshan called Ek Kahani. I was four years old. Our home became a film set for a couple of days. All my scenes were shot there. I remember crying before every shot and it took a lot of cajoling on the part of the crew to calm me down with sweets.

Subconsciously the acting bug must have bitten me as lines between films and life blurred often, such as when I told off a relative who called me ‘Maaji gobur’ or ‘mama’s boy’ with, “Aap ko kya pata Ma ka pyar kya hota hai, mamta kya hoti hai?”

Subconsciously the acting bug must have bitten me as lines between films and life blurred often, such as when I told off a relative who called me ‘Maaji gobur’ or ‘mama’s boy’ with, “Aap ko kya pata Ma ka pyar kya hota hai, mamta kya hoti hai?”

Or when a frustrated policeman, during the agitation in the summer of 1985 against G.M. Shah’s government hit me with his lathi for no reason, only to be given an expletives riddled monologue in English, on police brutality. I still remember the flabbergasted look on our neighbour and senior journalist Sham Koul’s face as he pulled me away from further harm. Little did he know that I had watched Al Pacino’s And Justice For All on VHS from Oscar Video Library in Lal Chowk.

My uncle, Shamim Ahmed Shamim, published and edited an anti-establishment Urdu weekly called Aina (Mirror), from a three-room extension behind the house that I was born in. He had been elected a member of Parliament in 1971 as an independent and was considered a great orator in Urdu alongside the likes of A.B. Vajpayee in Hindi and Piloo Modi in English.

My uncle was the most well known person in our family, and his fame brought him in contact with other famous people. So not only did I see his photographs with great leaders of his time like the socialist dynamo Jai Prakash Narayan but also some big names from the film world.

The author’s uncle Shamim, with JP. Photo courtesy: Aamir Bashir

My mother had a framed photograph of her standing beside the great Dilip Kumar and his wife and actress Saira Bano, and it obviously occupied pride of place in our modest drawing room. She had met them thanks to her brother, when they were visiting the valley.

Seeing that picture, I too had a burning ambition to be photographed alongside a film star, and of course Amitabh Bachchan was my first preference. I came very close to fulfilling this ambition at a very young age.

The author’s mother on the left with Dilip Kumar and Saira Bano. Photo courtesy: Aamir Bashir

Film shoots were a common occurrence in the valley and one could easily become a spectator. But I had a trump card. Amitabh’s then personal assistant, Ravi Sharma was my neighbour. Ravi Bhaiyya was a thorough gentleman and also in my pre- adolescent eyes, the most glamorous person in the neighbourhood. He used to visit his parents and younger brother occasionally and whenever he did, my cousins and I would land up at his place to ask him about Amitabh and the various locations around the world he had been to, on film shoots with him. I remember clearly, that my first ever piece of Swiss chocolate was given to me by Ravi Bhaiyya. 

During one of his visits home, Amitabh too was in town, to shoot another of his blockbusters, Satte Pe Satta, (which was a copy of  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers). We pestered Ravi for days to set up an audience with the star. Finally a date and time was set. It was around 7 in the evening when about eight or nine kids from the neighbourhood squeezed into my father’s old rickety Fiat and rode to the Oberoi Palace Hotel, where filming was taking place. I vividly recall that our car was stopped by guards at some distance from the film set. My father asked them about Ravi and we were asked to wait. While we waited for Ravi to come and escort us for our private audience with Amitabh, we caught a glimpse of him contemplatively pacing up and down, wearing a brown leather jacket and cream-coloured trousers, which were tucked into his cowboy boots. The excitement levels inside the car were naturally through the roof. 

As Ravi Bhaiyya went to inform Amitabh Bachchan of our arrival, we were almost ready to jump out of the car and race up to him. I wanted to be the first to shake his hand. The two minutes that Ravi Bhaiyya took to come back to us seemed like a lifetime. He did return, only to sheepishly tell us that a meeting would not be possible as the actor was tired. I could almost hear the several young hearts shatter in my father’s car. Why Amitabh Bachchan did not hear them, god only knows, for some of us were howling loud enough. I was eight then. Undeterred, I remained an Amitabh fan through most of my teens. The ‘angry young man’ phase of films that made him a star left a deep impression on me, and an even deeper suspicion of the powerful and power structures as a whole.

In Bombay film parlance, “cut to” some 25 years later. I was acting in my first big budget Bollywood film with several big name stars, including the “Big B” as he was now popularly known. A lot of water had flowed under the proverbial bridge since that night at the Oberoi Palace.

I was no longer a Bollywood fan.

A still from ‘Bicycle Thieves’.

Watching Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves at the Shakuntalam Theater in Pragati Maidan in Delhi was a turning point. Through the theft of a humble bicycle, De Sica wove the tale of socio-economic conditions in post war Italy. I realised that cinema could be a time capsule and films could be timeless. I made it a point to devour as many foreign films as I could during the International Film Festival at Siri Fort in Delhi. I had seen films by such great masters as De Sica, Fellini, Antonioni, Godard and Truffaut, Szabo, Kurosawa and of course the greats – Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and others of our own “parallel cinema” movement.

I was now a professional actor. And yet, as I stood in front of the Big B, for my introductory scene, it all came crumbling down. 

We were on the sets of Armaan in Mussoorie and this was my one and only scene with Amitabh Bachchan. As we rehearsed for the master shot, I forgot one of my lines, but it did not seem to affect Amitabh. He was very thorough and rigorous in his preparation. I myself was in my own world, sliding down the slippery slope of paranoia. We rehearsed the short scene several times and after each rehearsal, I believed that I was sounding more and more like Amitabh. Here I was, a young actor, getting his big break in Bollywood and I was going to blow it! I was going to be exposed as an actor. I would be known as nothing more than a mimic. In the end it was Amitabh himself who came to my rescue. Just before the shot was to roll, he reminded me of having forgotten my line during one of the rehearsals. I felt a chill in my spine and went completely numb and don’t have much recollection of what happened after that. 

Srinagar in those days had around 7-8 cinemas. Regal and Palladium were walking distance from my house. Then there was Khayyam, Naaz, Shiraz, Neelam, Firdaus and Broadway. The first film I ever saw in a cinema hall was Sholay with our domestic help at the time, Mohiuddin, a movie buff. Funnily enough I already knew the story of the film and even remembered some dialogues thanks to Mohiuddin who had seen it several times, and narrated the story, scene-by-scene, while preparing dinner one late afternoon. With my parents working and me and my brother in school, Mohiuddin used to often catch an afternoon show. He would then narrate the entire film in his baritone voice to me in the kitchen while preparing the evening meal.

Also read: Three Decades After Militancy Closed Cinemas in Kashmir, Srinagar Readies for its First Multiplex

The other privilege I had thanks to my uncle’s newspaper is that I got press passes to watch films in the local cinemas. Otherwise I would’ve been deprived of all the films that came into town. There was no culture of queuing up to buy tickets in those days. You either had to risk serious bodily harm or buy the tickets in black from a “blacker”, a tout. Young men climbed up a human pyramid with nothing to hold on to except a bare wall, and then make their way down to a pigeon hole in the wall – that was the box office window. This, to buy a ticket worth Rs 2.50. That, plus bruised and bloodied wrists and forearms is what it cost to watch a ‘khel’ or ‘filim’ from the front rows of the stalls or “third” as it was called in Kashmir.

So almost every week I would go either to Regal or Palladium cinema, which were walking distance from my house. But very rarely did I go with my parents to watch movies anymore. The days of watching black and white films with my family and the entire neighbourhood were over; , cinema now became a more private and intimate experience. And it was in colour! Mohiuddin would inform me of the latest film running in the neighbourhood and I’d ask my mother to arrange a pass from the Aina. 

Years later, in a cinematic twist of fate, while filming my second feature film Maagh in a small village below Gulmarg, I bumped into Mohiuddin! Now in his 70s with a white beard and missing teeth, I wanted to tell him that I had not only met but also acted in a film with the great Amitabh Bachchan. I also wanted to tell him that when I was in a state of panic, face to face with the Big B, it did not occur to me that I may have sounded like him – Mohuiddin – and not the star. But Mohiuddin had no interest in films anymore.

But Mohiuddin had no interest in films anymore. It had been decades since he last watched a film. Providing for his family and survival had taken precedence. I invited him to be in front of the camera in a short scene in a bus. He hated it. The fact that it took a couple of hours to can a couple of shots was too much for him. He politely took his leave as it was time for his evening prayer.

The author, Aamir Bashir, with Mohiuddin. Photo: Shanker Raman.

For the most part, the audience in Kashmir related to the Hindi films as a reference for the latest trends in fashion and music. Although a great number of films were shot in Kashmir, these were not about Kashmiri lives. Invariably the stories were about people from one of the big cities who were on vacation on a hill station or for song sequences. There were hardly any Kashmiri characters, other than the marginal shikarawala or a ghodawala. We could identify the locations instantly… Pahalgam, Gulmarg, Sonamrag, Yusmarg and of course the Dal lake. In essence, Kashmiris were watching the fictional lives of tourists in their own backyard.

A still from the film ‘Junglee’.

In early 1990 militant groups ordered the closure of cinemas in Kashmir. They were soon taken over by paramilitary forces and some, like Firdaus, were even used as detention or interrogation centres. With the rising levels of violence and insecurity, films or entertainment was the last thing on people’s minds. Getting home before dark became imperative. Soon Kashmir became a subject of interest for the Indian film industry rather than just a location for film shoots.

Starting with Roja, films now had Kashmiri characters (still played by non-Kashmiri actors), but they lacked nuance or agency. Young men misled by sinister anti-national elements from across the border, to be brought back into the mainstream by the Indian hero, or simply evil jihadists and corrupt opportunists who were to be vanquished by a man in uniform. The tourists now came on national security /intelligence missions. The idyllic views were now foregrounded by vehicles being blown up and bullets whizzing around. A paradise with some locals who had gone astray, now needed saving, like a damsel in distress. All this while serenading or frolicking on the Dal lake or Mughal gardens because, hey, that’s how we roll. After the great silencing of 2019 came the last word via a film backed by the state, which portrayed the entire Kashmiri Muslim population as terrorists responsible for the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits.

Also read: Through the Lens of Bollywood: Kashmir as an Image, Kashmir as a Place

The chasm between India and Kashmir shows up in Hindi cinema in sharp relief. Even though the films now had Kashmiri characters, they remained primarily about territory seen through the coloniser’s gaze. There was no room for any nuance or subtlety, and God forbid any discussion of political aspirations of the people without the prism of religious fanaticism and Islamophobia. Kashmiris however, still consume Bollywood films with great gusto. You will still hear songs from Hindi films at weddings or Instagram reels. Young men showing off their Salman leather jackets or Shahrukh haircuts. There is also the realisation that film shoots are good for the local economy. At the same time there is cynicism about the way they are represented in films and don’t take the medium seriously. Fully aware, that when their representation in Indian news media could be spun and distorted, why would one expect to see realistic Kashmiri characters in films. Haider is perhaps the only notable exception in a series of such mainstream films on Kashmir.

My memory keeps getting in the way of your history…
… If only somehow you could have been mine,
what would not have been possible in the world.

                                                                      — Agha Shahid Ali

Having survived in Mumbai as a reluctant actor for over a decade, I decided to literally put my money where my mouth is, and wrote and directed my first film Harud (Autumn) in 2010. I did it partly to mitigate the frustrations I felt as an actor, but primarily to give voice and reclaim our own narrative, and in turn restore some dignity to the people of Kashmir. I wanted to go beyond what one saw in the news, to explore the psychological state of a people living under violence and oppression:the dysphoria, the disassociation, the humiliation, and the indignities suffered. And to do so in a manner far removed from the language and aesthetic of mainstream Indian cinema. The film went on to win the National Award for the best film in Urdu and was screened by Doordarshan several times.

Such a scenario is unthinkable with my second feature film, released in 2022. Maagh (The Winter Within), is about resilience and the commitment women have towards the ideals of freedom and justice. Though it has won several awards at international film festivals, it has no takers in India. I see this as a reflection of the shrinking space for any freedom of expression when it comes to Kashmir and democracy at large in India. But Kashmiris will continue to draw sustenance by telling our stories for posterity, over kitchen fires preparing an evening meal, even if in whispers.”

Aamir Bashir is a filmmaker and actor.