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Hindi Film Teaches Us More About Kashmir than New Delhi’s School Syllabus

Haider, Fanaa and Mission Kashmir, all major star vehicles, speak of listening to what both ‘nationalists’ and ‘terrorists’ have to say

When Narendra Modi ran for prime minister in 2014, his Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto promised that Article 370, which spelt out the special conditions under which the province joined the Indian Union at the time of Independence, would be removed. For a populace that was, like me, mostly unaware of its content, it was easy to latch on to simplified nuggets such as the fact that Kashmir does not allow land to be sold to Indians from other states. It sounds like a concession made to a Muslim-majority state but this land restriction exists in several states in India, and is important to prevent heedless development in ecologically sensitive areas.

Strange as it may sound, it is the Hindi film industry that has taught me the little I understand about the anger in Kashmir, about the “special” powers of the armed forces stationed there and the “special” consequences they inflicted. Three Bollywood films in particular have left an impact – Haider (2014), Fanaa (2006) and Mission Kashmir (2000). There have been several indie films, extremely well-regarded, but I choose to focus on the big-budget, big star projects of the film industry because these arguably had the widest release and reach.

Haider is a reworking of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, set in the “rotten state” of Kashmir in place of Denmark. The setting is much more central to the drama here than it is in Hamlet where the rottenness of Denmark was expressed only in the suspicious death of the king. Here, politics is central to Haider’s father’s disappearance from Kashmir. We never know for certain if he is alive or dead, and this, as we see in the film, is the situation that many Kashmiri families find themselves in.

The evocative term half-widow has arisen from this waiting without end – this is the status of Haider’s mother and many other wives who don’t know what has become of their husbands. In the uncertainty about his father (and the many fathers and brothers and sons who have been taken into custody by the forces in Kashmir and never returned), Haider (and Kashmir) is going mad. Gravediggers sing songs, they are so inured to death. Citizens hesitate to enter their own homes without a pat-down security check, they are so conditioned to being checked. Mothers beg that their sons are sent away from them because they are so afraid of losing them to the insurgency or to the limitless powers of the Indian army.

Most of all, the film articulates the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that the Indian government has imposed on the Valley, how terrifying it is when men with guns have boundless power and no one to question them. Rapes and disappearances ensue, and there is no need to answer what happened because Afspa gives you “special powers”. “Do we exist or do we not”, the film asks in a haunting choral crescendo reminding us of that original line in Hamlet, “to be or not to be”.

In Fanaa (2006), a blind Kashmiri woman and a terrorist fall in love with each other during India’s Independence Day celebrations in Delhi. He is there to carry out a blast and she to dance at the national celebration: classical opposites, the nationalist and the revolutionary. After the blast, the terrorist disappears because he comes to the realisation that he would put the woman in danger because of his work. The nationalist’s blindness means she cannot locate him. Years later, fate returns him to her doorstep in Kashmir and the two reconcile briefly before she hands him over to the Indian national forces. Fanaa is nowhere near as compelling or thought-provoking as Haider, it is simply a star-crossed romance set in Kashmir. But it ends on a pointedly ambiguous note. When the couple’s son asks the mother why his father was a terrorist, she replies that he did what he thought was right. The film clearly argues that the terrorist is misguided by malevolent forces yet it refrains from making a moral call on the terrorist’s actions.

Mission Kashmir (2000) is about a powerful policeman whose son dies when militants forbid doctors from treating the child. In an episode of poetic justice, the policeman kills a boy’s family in an encounter and adopts the traumatised boy. This encounter is likely carried out with the vast powers granted to Indian forces under the Afspa, certainly no questions are asked of the policeman after the encounter. But the man himself is hollowed by remorse, especially at the sight of the boy who lived. He becomes a terrorist, determined to avenge his family’s gruesome end. That classic divide is set up again, terrorist against dutiful nationalist in a land where loyalties are sharply divided. Eventually, the terrorist comes around to the Indian nation’s view, that Islamist groups are provoking young men like him to divide India.

Like Haider, Mission Kashmir questions the actions of Indian forces in Kashmir, though the conclusions the two films come to are different. The policeman’s remorse suggests that the Indian state has a lot to think about and apologise for, that the unchecked power that it has granted its forces leads to human rights violation that feeds the insurgency in the Valley. Haider on the other indicts the Indian state for unleashing this unapologetic, shameless military strength on the Valley. Incidentally, Mission Kashmir is made by a director who is from Kashmir himself. Haider, similarly, is written by Basharat Peer who is also a Kashmiri and has written a highly-acclaimed book on Kashmir called Curfewed Night. Both films are informed by a lived perspective of Kashmir.

On August 8, 2019, when Prime Minister Modi addressed Indian citizens on Kashmir, he mentioned the prospects for films. “I urge the Hindi, Telugu and Tamil film industry to come to J&K for shooting their projects,” said Modi. The Hindi film industry has long indicated that Kashmir has a special place by marketing movies filmed in the Valley, naming films using Kashmir in the title and using iconography identified as Kashmiri like the houseboat and the chinar leaf. No other Indian state has been marked as “special” like this by the Hindi film industry. There are films named after big cities like Kolkata and Mumbai and Delhi, but nothing after an entire cultural identity. Until Mission Kashmir, however, these films only did lip service to Kashmir, promoting a tourist’s view of the state, a natural “paradise” where hero and heroine fell in love. These films were not rooted in Kashmir, disengaged from its problems. Mission Kashmir naturally is a product of its times, born out of a decade-plus of the insurgency that flared in the Valley in the late 1980s. Thereafter, as the unrest never subsided, there have been several films which offer an insider’s view of Kashmir.

I’ll end with one of the opening sequences of Haider, where his (Hamlet’s) mother, a schoolteacher, is teaching the children of her class the meaning of home. “It is brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers. It is unselfish acts and kindly sharing and showing your loved ones you are always caring.” It is an obvious metaphor for the Indian nation and its fraught relationship with Kashmir, the parents and the estranged child. The filial bond is often invoked for India and Pakistan – brothers separated in a bloodied moment.

The poster sourced from the website Bollywood Hungama, solely for the purpose of using on my personal website. No commercial intentions

But there is also another metaphor here: the Indian state teaching us the history of our “home”, and our duties as citizens and how we should live like brothers and sisters at home, “unselfish acts and kindly sharing”. It brings me back to where I started, what we are taught about our home and what we are not. Every nation controls its citizenry through education and so does India. We never learned the conditions in which Kashmir joined the Indian Union, and the circumstances we created to keep it at any cost. Perhaps it is not so strange then that I learned what little I did about Kashmir from our biggest film industry. For all its commercial inclinations, its lessons feel less biased than that of the Indian state’s.

Originally published in The South China Morning Post

Reposted in Business Insider