Kashmir's YouTubers Put a Smile on the Face of an Injured Society

Two YouTube channels in the Valley are using subtle humour to try and distract people from the pains of conflict.

Srinagar: Abdul Hameed, 45, was on his way home in Panzinara village in north Kashmir, when he was called aside for questioning at a security check-point. He doesn’t know Hindi, and struggled to understand and then articulate an answer to what the men were asking – and they allegedly ended up thrashing him on the street.

A couple of years have passed, but still, in the middle of some nights, Abdul wakes up with a wrenching pain in his back, a reminder about that painful day. More than him, the episode has taken a heavy toll on his family, particularly his son Parvaiz.

Parvaiz has always searched for ways to distract his father’s mind from the memory, and to find what “might provide a bit of solace to others as well”.

One day, as they were lounging by a shop in their village, Parvaiz’s friend Showkat asked the shopkeeper to let him deal with the customers. The others secretly videotaped the prank, as Showkat bargained with the customers.

After selling chewing gum to a teenager, Showkat asked him, “Bring the residue of the gum back; you know, we make ropes out of it.”

Another customer asks for change for a Rs 500 note, and Showkat pulled open the drawer, and started counting one rupee coins.

On Facebook, the video was an instant hit. “In three days only, it got three lakh views – people laughed and asked for more.” Today, it has well over a million views.

Parvaiz discovered how much he enjoyed making people in Kashmir smile. For the past three decades, the relentless conflict in Kashmir has taken an emotional toll on people there. A study by Medicine Sans Frontiers, from May 2016, revealed nearly 1.8 million adults (45% of the population) in Kashmir show symptoms of significant mental distress. One in five (19%) of them may be living with symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) – representing 7,71,000 individuals, with nearly a quarter million meeting the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.

Parvaiz decided to start a YouTube comedy channel for his own society.

It was called Kashmiri Kalkharab (KK), which loosely translates as ‘Kashmiri head-case’. Since January 2018, the channel has accumulated more than 3.55 lakh subscribers.

In its description, it says the aim of the channel is to spread a smile across Kashmir. To Parvaiz, a smile is the “most expensive commodity” in Kashmir. He is surrounded by thousands of things available to make people sad, but very few to make them smile.

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“Almost every morning in Kashmir, when we log in to our social media, there is nothing to see apart from disturbing information, like an encounter taking place somewhere, a house razed to the ground, a funeral of some militant, some civilian being beaten up by security forces,” said Parvaiz. “When your day starts like that, it remains in your subconscious mind, and disturbs your quality of life.”

KK wanted to use the same social media to make people forget their distress for a little while. The team, of seven members now, makes about seven videos in a month, each close to 15 minutes long. The channel has been monetised now, but Parvaiz said, “our motive was and will remain to provide free entertainment to our own people.”

Their themes range from daily habits in Kashmiri homes to current events and politics – although they try to tone down the latter.

One KK video is a visual skit about the frequent internet shutdowns in Kashmir. In it, a young man is on the phone with his friend, when he learns that the internet has been restored. “I have some very urgent work – I need to go immediately,” he says – then hangs up, and starts checking his Facebook, Whatsapp and email. The moment he opens his Facebook – after four months – the internet is snapped off again.

He calls his friends in different parts of the Valley to find out if the network has been snapped there as well. Knowing it is still working in Kupwara district, he drives there – and it is barred as soon as he arrives. And he has just spent all the money his father had given him to buy vegetables.

Among their most popular videos, about the craze among Kashmiris around India-Pakistan cricket matches, has got 1.3 million views. In it, two boys are glued to a match instead of turning up at their paddy fields to help to their elderly father with the harvest. There are predictable, but entertaining, consequences when the father gets home.

The KK group has an enormous fan base. A few weeks ago, Parvaiz said, a little boy from another district had demanded a meeting with KK from his father. When they finally met, the KK team learned that their videos had given the boy’s mother a whole-hearted laugh after months. “In the 2016 mass protests in the Valley, her brother was one among more than 100 civilians killed.”

They have a letter from a doctor, Sharafat Ahmad, telling them that “because of our videos, he has seen a smile on faces, bed-ridden in his hospital.”

In Kashmir, means of entertainment have always been sparse, especially because of the conflict. LadiShah and BandPather, types of folk theatre, used to be the popular indigenous forms in the Valley, but their relevance has dwindled – and artists were “too afraid to continue”.

“The main themes of both genres was political satire, but today any such attempt brings the artist in confrontation with the rulers,” said Syeda Afshana, who teaches journalism at the University of Kashmir. “That is why you don’t see the art anymore.”

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Afshana believes the gap is filled, to some extent, by these young YouTubers. Although their content is mostly domestic, she said, “they incorporate coping with conflict in a very subtle way.”

The tagline ‘Asiv te Lasiv (Smile and Prosper)’ provides a bit of an introduction to the Kashmiri Rounders (KR), another comedy YouTube channel from the Valley which has nearly three lakh subscribers today. Maahi Aamir, the administrator and lead performer, launched the channel in October 2017.

One of their videos is ostensibly about winter in the Valley. A father steps into his son’s room to wake him up, but he can’t find him beneath layers of blankets. He dials the police for help but gets a cold response. As he is about to break into tears, his son emerges from the other side of the bedding.

Given the uncertainty in Kashmir, “the father’s anxiety in the video could mean two things, either his son has been picked up by the forces in the middle of the night or has left home to join the militants,” said Shams Irfan, a working journalist in Kashmir. But the way the video proceeds makes you laugh at the father’s situation. “Actually it makes you laugh at your own misery of living in a conflict zone.”

This comedy is a kind of catharsis for the performers as well. “These young boys have pent up emotions, which need an outlet,” he said. “What they can’t say in a normal way, they can say with a smile.”