Some say the policy will give local artists a new lease of life; others see it as the unofficial propaganda arm of the Indian government meant to push New Delhi's hunky-dory narrative on Kashmir.

On August 5, Bollywood actor Amir Khan attended a government-sponsored event at the banks of Dal Lake in India-administered Kashmir's Srinagar district to launch the new "Jammu and Kashmir Film Policy".

Several prominent Indian filmmakers, industrialists as well as senior officials of the government were present on the occasion. 

While addressing the audience, Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Manoj Sinha, invited filmmakers from across the world to explore the beauty of the troubled region.

The government repeatedly projected the film policy as a measure that would benefit "local artists including dancers, fashion designers, actors, choreographers, cinematographers, sound recordists, set designers, and others".

But merely 24 hours later, some 40 kilometres away from the heavily decorated venue, a Kashmiri journalist named Irfan Amin Malik was summoned to the local police station.

The 29-year-old Malik had purportedly tweeted against the policy, which had a strong endorsement of Bollywood superstar Khan, who became another addition to the list of famous film actors visiting the disputed territory in the past few months. 

Journalists subjected to police summons is not a new phenomenon in India-administered Kashmir. India is ranked 142 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

The latest incident however showed how sensitive authorities in Kashmir are towards comments or discussion on the new film policy, which some global experts and Kashmir observers say is a rather important tool to perpetuate the notion of normalcy returning to the region after the Narendra Modi government stripped it of its semi-autonomous status in August 2019. 

“I had tweeted against J&K film policy on Saturday night and I had deleted the tweet within two minutes. On Sunday morning I was called by the police and asked to appear at the police station. For five hours my phone was taken, I was questioned and kept inside the police station. Later on, following the media intervention I was released,” read the Kashmir Press Club statement quoting Malik. Director-General of Police Dilbag Singh did not respond to calls or messages sent by TRT World.

While there hasn't been any official word as to why Malik was detained, government insiders acknowledge that authorities cannot afford to attract negative comments or publicity especially after Bollywood A-listers have endorsed it.

Any criticism of the policy and highlighting situations that might run contrary to Bollywood's narratives, some area experts point out, also threaten to undermine the larger discourse of the government of India vis-a-vis Kashmir, in which the film policy might play a crucial role.

Senior government officials privy to the framing of the policy said discussions to develop it had started as early as December 2019, just four months after the Modi government revoked the region's special status making the policy a high priority move. Multiple meetings with top-notch filmmakers and producers, classified as stakeholder meetings, were held to collate varied opinions and suggestions during the drafting stage. 

In the past three decades of the Kashmir conflict, Bollywood's misrepresentation of Kashmiris changed from projecting them in the 70s as innocent and gullible people who lacked exposure to the Westernized lifestyle, to modern day AK-47-wielding militants brainwashed by religious fundamentalists.
In the past three decades of the Kashmir conflict, Bollywood's misrepresentation of Kashmiris changed from projecting them in the 70s as innocent and gullible people who lacked exposure to the Westernized lifestyle, to modern day AK-47-wielding militants brainwashed by religious fundamentalists. (TMDB)

What's in the policy?

The draft of the strategy was prepared by a British company that has a history of providing similar services to multiple states of India. This underlines how important authorities consider the policy and perhaps also points out how a single tweet by a scribe might have been seen as a major problem.

The objectives of the policy listed by Indian authorities include developing "Jammu & Kashmir as an important destination for film production", to provide means to attract tourists, to provide employment to the local population and to disseminate information about "art, culture, history, heritage, livelihood and glorious traditions of the Jammu & Kashmir".

According to the policy, the government is willing to offer massive subsidies and tax breaks to film producers who chose to shoot their films in Kashmir. Films that employ locals will also be offered subsidies which are essentially being seen as the main attraction tool for filmmakers to shoot in the region.

The administration has also specified that it will encourage and incentivise owners to reopen cinema halls that were closed during the insurgency in Kashmir and provide incentives to those looking to build multiplexes in the region. One senior official described the developments in Kashmir as "unprecedented". "It will change Kashmir's image completely, attract tourists and revenue like never before," the government official said requesting anonymity.

However, it is not that Kashmir is new to the culture of films. The region has for long been a favourite destination for Indian filmmakers. Scores of Indian films starring superstars like Shammi and Shashi Kapoor have featured Kashmir as a venue heavily even though very few films were made to address the conflict itself. Kashmir has also served as host to shoot dozens of Bollywood song sequences.

Such was the craze that popular tourist destinations were named after Bollywood films such as  Betaab Valley which takes its name from the Bollywood blockbuster Betaab. In the same area, a Salman Khan starrer Bajrangi Baijan film has inspired some to call a particular patch of land where the film was shot as "Bajrangi Spot". In fact, after an anti-India armed insurgency erupted in the region in 1989, that brought film shootings in the region to a halt, Kashmir began to witness a flow of Indian producers in early 2000.

However, representation of Kashmir in the films has always been a controversial subject for Kashmiris who believe the representations as a mix of appropriation, gross generalisations and Islamophobic.

"In earlier films, the focus was on geography and stereotypical representations. The focus was not on the agency. Actors who represented Kashmir were presented as dupes with no politics but this larger idea that Kashmir was a  place of desire with actors singing on boats was there in the movies. Then the violence was introduced into this territory and who did the violence was important. These characters came wrapped with uncivilised tropes and themes of fundamentalist Islam," said Kashmir based political expert Ibrahim Wani.

The space of desire 

Ananya Jahanara Kabir, professor of English literature at King’s College London is the author of Territory of Desire: Representing the Valley of Kashmir (2009) which among other things explores representations of Kashmir as a "space of desire" in contemporary films more elaborately.

The professor divided Indian films made about or in Kashmir into three phases and said "we had entered phase three" which coincided with the change of status of Kashmir in August 2019 when the region's nominal autonomy was revoked. Thousands including top politicians, activists from both pro-India, pro-Independence and pro-Pakistani camps were detained amid an unprecedented communications blackout.

"The first phase was from the 60s to late 80s which showed Kashmir as this beautiful geographic space to have a fun holiday and maybe fall in love with locals. During this phase, India fought wars with Pakistan and China and inside Kashmir, there was political unrest. But the politics of the place was largely missing in the majority of films made.  During phase two, which came after militancy had erupted, there was the acknowledgement of trouble in Kashmir because the industry could no longer ignore it. Now we are in phase three," she said, adding that the Indian film industry plays an important role in strengthening the government narratives on Kashmir.

Top Bollywood actors and actresses have visited the Kashmir Valley on government invitations and attended official functions, some even donning uniforms of Indian security forces.

In fact, according to the policy, "films produced, to patronize the feeling of “One Nation, Best Nation” (Ek Bharat Shresth Bharat)" will be offered subsidies by the authorities.

"There is a mainstream establishment (in India) that consists of anybody who is a culture producer who doesn't want to offend the government, this linkage is being mobilised to exert representative control over Kashmir. The machine of the apparatus of representation must be ready to control whatever may come out of Kashmir as a protest. I see any kind of inane comments made by these so-called big names as part of a machine trying to pre-empt what comes out of Kashmir," Ananya told TRT World during a telephonic interview.

Rohit Kansal Principal Secretary to Government, Information Department did not respond to calls or messages sent to him seeking his comments.

Among those who cautiously welcomed the film policy is Kashmiri actor and filmmaker Mushtaaque Ali Khan who also heads the Kashmir film festival. Khan said the policy does have the potential to develop the film industry in Kashmir in a massive way but bureaucratic challenges remain. He said close to 300 artists were in "pathetic conditions" after Doordarshan, the public service broadcaster founded by the Government of India, discontinued their services a few years ago. Until then these artists were allocated funds to produce various programmes for the channel.

"I am not sure to what extent the policy will provide employment opportunities but if it does so, it will really be akin to providing a new lease of life to artists of Kashmir," said Khan.

Many Kashmiris however believe that the logistical and security challenge apart, India's film industry will also have to navigate the tense environment that prevails in the region by earning the goodwill of the locals. And this can be achieved by an honest and positive approach by the people of Kashmir as well as the filmmakers, according to Bollywood actor from Kashmir Bhawani Bashir Yasir,  who is also one of the most senior theatre directors of the region and alumni of India's prestigious National School of Drama.

Besides believing that the film policy may serve as an opportunity to develop the art form in Kashmir,  Yasir also thinks that with the advent of social media it won't be easy for the film industry to project anything other than facts.

"We have been hearing this for a long time that shooting films in Kashmir is part of a project of showing normalcy in Kashmir. This is not really accurate. We must try to keep the politics and the art form separate from each other. Haven't films been shot here during militancy or protests? We also have to look towards genuine aspirations of artists who want to be in films or theatre and if the new film policy addresses their concerns, it must be given a shot. Besides, there is social media now. What happens here is not hidden from anyone," said Yasir.

Source: TRT World