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

Voyeuristic representations of Kashmir in popular cinema help us partially understand mainland India's surreal and violent disconnect.

When I was growing up, Kashmir was synonymous with the images evoked in Mani Ratnam’s blockbuster Roja (1992): “Yeh haseen vadiyan, yeh khula aasmaan.” These beautiful valleys, these open skies. This was Kashmir as a land of beauty and infinite possibility.

Roja encapsulates the Kashmir of mainstream cinema. And this is the Kashmir that most Indians fantasise about. This cinematic Kashmir is an imagined quasi-place.

As the song unfolds, you realise that this is meant to be a montage of the newly-wed couple’s gradual erotic awakening. Rishi is a cryptologist working with RAW and recently married to a beautiful village belle, Roja. A reluctant bride, it is in Kashmir that Roja learns to trust and love Rishi. Kashmir provides a lush backdrop to their romantic discovery of each other, a passive setting for flirtations such as snuggling in shared blankets and lovemaking by campfires.

There is something wrong with this picture of idyllic Kashmir. Something seems to hover over these images but remains absent from the frame.

For one thing, where are the Kashmiris?

Since the 19th century, with the proliferation of technologies for the mass reproduction of images, Kashmir started to circulate as a fantasy space to be desired but not to be understood.

Samuel Bourne, one of the most prolific professional photographers of the time, spent nine months in Kashmir in the 1860s. His photographs are serene but inanimate, featuring mountains, lakes, and the legendary chinar trees. Humans, when present, are mere blips in the distance, indicating the monumentality of the landscape rather than its lived, everyday meanings.

Also read: There is No Wisdom in Turning All Kashmiris Into Antagonists

Bourne also photographed buildings, gardens, and bridges – signs of human endeavour and ingenuity which are treated as aesthetic containers of absence. To be sure, there are photographic studies of Kashmiris in an ethnological mode, but they render the photographed subjects into “types” rather than individuals with complexity.

Of course, you might say that Bourne was British and he deployed the gaze of a coloniser. However, there is a distinct resonance in the way that iconic Bollywood blockbusters have represented Kashmir over the decades.

The coloniser’s gaze persists.

Flash forward to the 1960s – Kashmir ki Kali is released just a few months after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru and becomes one of the highest grossing films of 1964. The opening credits play out over a series of painted landscape views of Kashmir: snow-capped peaks, coniferous trees, placid lakes. The plot revolves around a wealthy young hero, played by Shammi Kapoor, who must identify a suitable bride most urgently.

It is in Kashmir that he finds the woman of his dreams, a virginal innocent bud of a woman, Champa, played by Sharmila Tagore to charming effect. This is the classic trope of the mainlander falling for the exotic belle, where the woman represents a land that is ripe for exploration and appropriation. Woman as territory and territory as woman is a sexualised metaphor that has historically fed the imaginations of both colonialism and tourism.

In the 1960s, Kashmir was the preferred location for what can be called “hill station” films. This was the era of LTC travel leaves and national integration messages that positioned the citizen as tourist. Eastmancolor portrayed Kashmir as a candy-tinted wonderland of artificial greens and pinks, a faded postcard that was saturated in nostalgia even as it was being photographed. As Shammi Kapoor, Joy Mukherjee, or Shashi Kapoor romanced against this static idea of Kashmir, the Bollywood hero exercised his freedom of mobility and peripatetic citizenship.

By the time of Roja, much had changed. Kashmir was in the throes of militancy. The hero could no longer simply be a romantic citizen – he had to be a patriotic ally of the state, pitted against terrifying terrorists.

In Roja, the distance between India and Kashmir shows up in sharp relief. The couple from mainland India enjoy their honeymoon against a landscape denuded of people. Srinagar is under curfew. The peaceful atmosphere, so conducive to romance, has been achieved through heavy militarisation and a pervasive atmosphere of terrorised silence.

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”.

Voyeuristic representations of Kashmir in popular cinema help us partially understand this surreal and violent disconnect. Kashmir has become fixed in our imaginations as a scenic view and a fantasy space where we might find personal fulfilment through the consumption of landscape. This Kashmir is not a real place with a history or lived memories, but a cinematic wish. It is a picturesque postcard, a backdrop against which we can take our selfies and thereby exercise our rights of free and full citizenship.

Also read: With Its Photo Albums, Kashmir Resists and Remembers

By continually representing Kashmir as a feminised landscape and territory to be appropriated, most commercial cinema participates in the colonial imaginary of the Indian state. In this context, one wonders if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent appeals to the Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu film industries to shoot in Kashmir comes with the guarantee of armed security by paramilitary forces.

If you think about it, the use of Kashmir for location shooting is similar to classic representations of Kashmir – practice meets representation when film producers see what they want to see. Location shooting might bring revenue to hotels and shikaaras but it also depends on police deployment and curfews that invisibilise oppression and expose the power relations between Kashmir and mainland India. 

From Kashmir ki Kali to Roja to Mission Kashmir, Bollywood’s biggest Kashmir-based hits have steadily become more politically attuned. Nevertheless, despite their differences of context and history, all three iconic films are ideologically united in the belief that Kashmir is an integral part of India, an idea that has been contested since the very birth of the Indian nation.

Kashmir ki Kali ends with the happy discovery that Champa is actually the daughter of mainland Indian and she returns to her “original” family. Mission Kashmir attempts to understand the genesis of militant fundamentalism but resolves the question by creating an alternative vision of family – the terrorist learns to accept a policeman who killed his biological parents as his new father.

These films are unable to imagine a Kashmir that has a right to self-determination, repeatedly circling back to ideas of a benevolent but tough patriarchal state.

Also read: From Kashmir and 370 to Partition, BJP’s Hatred of Nehru is Fuelled by Falsehoods

Kashmiris themselves have been more forgiving of Bollywood’s epistemic violations. Many welcome Bollywood’s presence as a source of income and pride. Others have a more embodied relation to cinema. They miss watching films at Firdous theatre in Hawal, which was forced to shut down at the height of militancy in the ‘90s. But a place carries many meanings.

Firdous is no longer considered a place of cinematic escape, for many Kashmiris it is a site of bloody capture. It was taken over by the Indian army and became notorious as a place for illegal confinement, torture, and execution. A place for dreaming and desiring thus becomes a place that defeats dreams.

And this is the crux of the matter. Any place is a kaleidoscope of histories and memories, signs and signification, actions and emotions. The represented place and the real place are fundamentally intertwined. Dominant images of Kashmir in popular cinema present only one facet of the kaleidoscope. Yet they can have a powerful effect on the way we relate to a land and its peoples, its views and its women.

Debashree Mukherjee is a professor of film and media in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS), at Columbia University in New York. She has a forthcoming book on the emergence of the Bombay film industry, titled Bombay Hustle.