Like everyone in Kashmir, Bilal’s family and friends waited for the pirated DVD of the film to arrive and then watched it on the 14-inch screen of a laptop. Twenty-five of them watched it together but had to stop, as the quality of the print was very bad. “As soon as I can lay my hands on a High Definition print of the movie, I plan to set up a projector in the village and show the film to everyone,” says Bilal.
Bollywood’s fascination with the natural beauty of the Kashmir valley is not new. It was the favourite destination of many directors since the 1960s in search of that perfect location where each inch of the land exuded breathtaking natural beauty. Things changed with the political turmoil faced by the state and the advent of militancy in the late 1980s, filmmakers turned their gaze outwards to the likes of Switzerland and New Zealand to replace the magnificence of Kashmir. However, with the decline of militancy, Bollywood returned to Kashmir in 2010, with films like Rockstar and Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani having certain parts shot in the valley. Following this, Kashmir has seen a spate of directors shooting parts of their film using the landscape of the valley as background of their films.
Last year’s Eid offering by Salman Khan, Bajrangi Bhaijan, was shot extensively in the picturesque locales of the Kashmir valley. Bilal Bhagat, a third year BA student at the Amar Singh College in Srinagar is seen playing the tabla in the song ‘Bhar do jholi meri’ from Bajrangi Bhaijan. Bilal who has been passionate about performing arts all his life was getting such an opportunity for the first time.
“It was a dream come true. I was ecstatic with joy when I was told that my audition had been successful and that I had bagged the role,” says Bilal with a sense of delight. His sequence was shot over four days in Pahalgam and he confesses that he was nervous during the first few takes. “I was performing in front of the camera for the first time and that too in such a big movie, so I was a little nervous,” he recounts. “But, the atmosphere at the set helped me overcome the initial nervousness. Everyone was very friendly, caring and there was a sense of togetherness. We were having a lot of fun. It was surreal to be working with the stars of Bollywood and I tried to learn as much as I could.”
Bilal hails from Wathora, a small village on the outskirts of Srinagar with a population of 5000. It is a village known for its rich cultural heritage, epitomized by the traditional folk theatre of Kashmir, ‘Bhand Pather’. Bilal explains proudly, “It is the rich tradition of Kashmiri folk theatre that our village is famous for. Artists from our village used to perform in the courts of kings and emperors. They were given a privileged status”. The people of Wathora, who are passionate about the art and are committed to preserving the art form, have carried the legacy forward. One can imagine the sense of excitement and accomplishment that the village and Bilal’s family would have felt when he was to appear on the big screen in the same movie as Salman Khan. The performing community of Wathora lives in the nostalgia of their legacy, a time when their performances were witnessed by kings, emperors and an audience of thousands. Bilal’s appearance on the big screen dusted the memories of that era. “No one from my village had appeared in a movie before this and everyone was very excited to watch me perform on the big screen in the same movie as Salman Khan,” says Bilal.
However, Bilal’s performance was enjoyed everywhere but in the valley. There are no big screens in the valley. So, at home all he could do is watch a poor print on a laptop. The closest cinema hall is in Jammu, a journey that takes 8-9 hours from Srinagar by road.
“I happened to be in Jammu at the time of release of Bajrangi Bhaijan and watched the film,” says Bilal. “It was the first time I watched a film in a cinema hall, and it happened to be the one I acted in. But, I missed my family and wished that they too could watch it with me. Making that journey to Jammu with my family was never an option because of our financial situation.”
Prior to the late 1980s, the Kashmir valley had as many as 15 operational cinema halls with a very ardent following of Hindi cinema. These cinemas were among the first casualties of the armed rebellion that engulfed the valley in 1989. Militant organizations issued a diktat for the closure of all cinema halls and liquor stores in the valley characterizing them as un-Islamic and hence, detrimental to the cause of the ‘freedom struggle’. Thereafter, the vacant cinema halls were handed deaths by different methods; some were taken over by the security forces and used as lodging and interrogations centres, some were converted into hospitals, some were demolished and some were burnt to the ground.
A couple of cinema halls, Neelam and Broadway, fluctuated in and out of their seemingly comatose stage for some years. Several attempts were made by the state government to revive them but all of them failed due to the disapproval of militant and secessionist groups.
“The problem was that the government propagated the return of cinemas as a symbol of normalcy. This irked the militants who wanted to bust the normalcy claims of the government,” says Shahnawaz Khan a young journalist from the valley who has researched extensively on cinemas in Kashmir. Neelam cinema was located in Shaheed Gunj area of Srinagar, about a kilometer away from downtown Srinagar. It was reopened in 1999 and functioned till 2010 amidst heavy security deployment and was surrounded by visibly ominous circles of concertina wire.
Shahnawaz explains the impact, “The vibe one got was not very welcoming, infact it was hostile. Forget about going there to watch a movie, people used to avoid the route altogether.” The structures of many of these cinema halls remain to this day, but their soul has long since departed.
The Kashmir of today is very different from the Kashmir of the 60s and 70s, which had a thriving culture of cinemagoers. “People would flock in large numbers to watch films. There were long queues outside the iconic Palladium cinema in Lal Chowk, downtown Srinagar, and getting a ticket was very difficult,” says Bhawani Bashir Yasir, a veteran theatre personality from the valley.
Bashir Manzar, editor of Daily Kashmir Images, sitting in his Residency road office cannot help but reminisce those days while pointing in the direction of the structure that used to be Palladium theatre. “You wouldn’t believe it, but we would walk up to the Palladium for a late night show, and there would be tea vendors who would line up outside the theatre after the show was over. We would have a cup of tea, discuss the movie and it would be safe to walk back home even at 1 am,” Manzar recalls. The theatre, a ten-minute walk from his office, today lies in ruins.
For Bilal’s generation, these stories remain mythical tales of a time they can hardly imagine. “We wish that those days return to the valley and that we too are able to enjoy that kind of atmosphere,” he says, before adding, “But the atmosphere that we have lived in all our lives makes it difficult for us to comprehend those stories. My younger sister who is 13 does not even know what a cinema hall is.”
For his generation, it is baffling that Kashmir that is today the site of frequent shutdowns, civilian killings, curfews and crackdowns was once a place where cinema halls thrived. For them, Kashmir is in a state of perpetual conflict and has been for the entirety of their lives. There is no escaping the fact that they live in one of the most militarized regions in the world, that their lives are defined by the politics of their region that they have little control over and that they are hostages to a conflict which is the result of a land dispute that has stretched on for over 68 years. The wrecked and dilapidated cinema halls serve as daily reminders of the times that they live in. Perhaps one of the world’s most coveted cinematic locales is no place for cinema anymore.