Kashmir is back on the map of mainstream Bollywood. The valley’s residents and tourists are agog with excitement. They are reportedly heading in large numbers to the cordoned off spots where Yash Chopra’s yet-to-be-titled romantic film starring Shahrukh Khan is being shot.
The buzz is understandable. The last film that 79-year-old Chopra shot in Kashmir was Silsila way back in the early 1980s, while this is SRK’s first-ever professional assignment in a part of India that has been in the grip of militancy since 1989.
A series of political upheavals and militant strikes in the state had pushed Kashmir off the radar of popular Hindi cinema. Leading Mumbai filmmakers were compelled to shift their focus to locations in Europe, especially Switzerland, as the setting for their love songs and romantic scenes.
The return of Yash Chopra to Kashmir obviously augurs well for the tourism industry in the state. Relative calm has prevailed in the valley for two years. The state government is, however, taking no chances. It has provided the 150-strong film crew a three-tier security cover to ensure that everything goes off smoothly. A great deal rides on the success of the Yash Chopra shoot in Pahalgam, Gulmarg and parts of Srinagar.
The Jammu & Kashmir government has been trying to woo Bollywood filmmakers back to the valley. It is believed that the Mumbai movie industry spends upwards of Rs 1000 crore a year on location shoots. Until the early 1980s, Kashmir had a lion’s share of that pie.
Two years ago, Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah had assured a Bollywood delegation led by veteran producer-director Ramesh Sippy and movie industry entrepreneur Manmohan Shetty that the state had put its dark days behind and was ready to host film units from Mumbai all over again.
But it wasn’t easy for the administration to allay the deep-seated fears of movie producers. Yash Chopra, known as Bollywood’s eternal romantic, is directing a film after an eight-year hiatus. His last directorial vehicle was the SRK-Preity Zinta-Rani Mukherji starrer Veer-Zaara (2004). The new film has SRK in the role of an army bomb disposal expert opposite Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma.
Chopra’s return to the valley after a gap of over three decades could open the doors to the state’s numerous picturesque locations for other players in the Mumbai movie industry who have stayed away despite the new climate of peace that prevails.
Tour operators and hotel owners are understandably thrilled that Bollywood is back in their midst. Kashmir valley is currently a land without cinema halls – they were closed down in the early 1990s following threats from separatist groups – but the people have kept track of Hindi movies on television and home video. Needless to say, Shahrukh Khan is a hugely popular icon in this neck of the woods. He is being seen as a great ambassador for Kashmir as a destination for movie shoots.
Before violence engulfed Kashmir and its people were trapped in the crossfire between militants and security forces, the valley was the Mumbai film industry’s favoured destination. Many big Hindi films – Junglee (1961), Kashmir Ki Kali (1964) and Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965), to name only a few – were shot here.
The valley’s appeal waned sharply in the 1990s under the shadow of militancy and army reprisals although some intrepid filmmakers continued to shoot there despite the obvious risks. Portions of Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Mission Kashmir (2000) were shot in and around Srinagar’s famed Dal Lake. In 1992, Mani Ratnam filmed Roja in Kashmir.
Since then several off-mainstream filmmakers have travelled to the Kashmir valley to capture its unparalleled natural beauty through tales that focused squarely on the human cost of the unrest there. Among these films were Santosh Sivan’s Tahaan, Rahul Dholakia’s Lamha, Shoojit Sircar’s Yahaan and Piyush Jha’s Sikandar. While these films were critically lauded none of them managed to make much headway at the box office.
The shoot of Lamhaa (2010), starring Bipasha Basu, ran into some trouble with militant groups in Kashmir that felt that the filmmaker was out to project the government’s official line on the situation in the valley.
Dholakia, a National Award-winning director, was hard-pressed to explain that his film was about the travails of common Kashmiris and had nothing to do with the point of view of the government. The filming could be wrapped up only after the Omar Abdullah government intervened.
The woes of Kashmir are far from over and the after-effects of over two decades of militancy have left scars that are still fresh on the minds of the people. Could the advent of SRK prove to be a balm for a state that has lived under the shadow of fear and distrust for so long? There is no Bollywood banner bigger than Yash Raj Films and no contemporary star as all-encompassing in his charisma as SRK. Together, they can indeed rekindle the romance of Kashmir on the silver screen.