Srinagar—On his return to Kashmir from New Delhi last year, Mudasir Farooq narrowly escaped a clash between stone-throwing youths and Indian forces.
The violence erupted in the Qazigund area of southern India-administered Kashmir following rumours that a local rebel fighting was killed by Indian forces in a gunfight in Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian state.
Farooq, 26, was returning from his studies abroad and looking to enter a career in video-journalism and multimedia editing – but the incident at Qazigund changed his life.
He feared for his life when the vehicle he was travelling in, along with six other passengers, was trapped between a group of stone-throwers and Indian forces.
“No one knew what will happen next. All of us thought either we are going to die from stones or bullets,” recalls Farooq, a postgraduate in Journalism and Mass Communication from Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar.
Stories like this are commonplace and are a daily concern for Kashmiris, who have witnessed brutal bouts of violence since 1989 when thousands of locals first took up arms to fight Indian rule over Jammu and Kashmir.
Though the violence reduced, mostly due to India's iron-fisted response, it has not been able to subdue the rebellion completely.
The violence has led to widespread mental distress in the region.
The violence has led to widespread mental distress in the region.
Cutting the tension
Cinemas used to thrive in Kashmir before 1989, but were forcefully closed by militants in the early 1990s and have either been occupied by Indian forces or have been retrofitted to accommodate other business ventures.
Farooq says he realised to what extent conflict, especially after 2016 when the killing of a young militant leader triggered a mass uprising, has affected Kashmiris psychologically.
He sensed the need to create a source of entertainment, local in its flavour, to give people a chance to vent.
“Any normal person would suffer from depression by witnessing everyday killings, pellets, bullets, cordon and search operations, and protests every day,” he says.
“The degree of our frustration can be gauged by observing everyday street quarrels that begin for unreasonable issues that were previously ignored by us.”
Trying to find a creative solution to people's misery, Farooq called several of his college friends for suggestions and support, but no one turned up. Instead, Farooq found in YouTube what he lacked in both human and physical resources and created a channel on the video-sharing platform called Koshur Kalakar, which means 'Kashmiri Innovators'.
Days later he assembled some of his neighbours and asked them to take part in his video.
The video, Fake doctors in Kashmir, had two aims: to make people laugh and at the same time make them realise how they swallow rumours too easily. The video went viral on social media in Kashmir.
The channel has managed to rack up more than 120,000 subscribers since its launch in March last year with just 35 videos posted.
Koshur Kalakar specialises in satire based on the region’s social and political issues.
“We try to keep all aspects and sensitivity of society in mind before shooting videos so that it may not hurt anyone’s sentiment,” says Junaid Shah, another member of the group.
“Our main aim is to wipe the tears of our people,” he continues.
Shah believes making people laugh in a conflict zone is no easy task. He says they hesitate to post videos whenever a civilian, militant or policeman is killed in any corner of the state.
"We are humans, and we understand what killing means," says Shah.
"In 2018, we did not post a single video the day killing took place but only after a gap of two or three days. The decision of not posting videos was taken collectively in order to respect the sentiments of the families of the deceased,” he adds.
Last year was one of the deadliest years in Kashmir as Indian forces heightened their offensive against militants with both sides suffering a significant amount of casualties.
In the 1990s when armed groups in Indian-administered Kashmir were at their peak, the fear of getting killed or disappeared haunted the residents of the state.
Life was interrupted continuously by curfews, bomb-blasts and 'encounters' (armed clashes between police and militants) almost everywhere. To divert their attention from the situation at the time people would either play carom or watch comedies broadcast by DD Kashmir, a state-controlled Kashmiri language channel.
That channel has since gone stale, and its only new content is mostly propaganda.
The introduction of cable and satellite channels came as a breath of fresh air for a little while, but as Bollywood bucked traditional values, many Kashmiris started to avoid watching a large number of non-family friendly productions.
As mobile technology penetrates the Kashmir valley, and 4G becomes cheaper, young Kashmiris have found some consolation on the internet as a source of much-needed entertainment.
At the same time, this form of media has helped Kashmiri youth showcase their talent and make a name for themselves.
It is not only young people, even many older Kashmiris now show interest in amateur comedy. They often ask the younger generations to share with them the videos uploaded by the young comedians.
“Cinemas were a major source of entertainment in Kashmir before the rebellion erupted in the valley. Many youths in those days used to flood cinema halls to watch legendary actors like Vinod Khanna, Dev Anand, Delip Kumar and several others but once cinemas closed, entertainment starting fading-away gradually,” says Nazir Ahmad, a resident.
Ahmad, 55, like several others in his age-group, often asks his children to show them the satirical videos produced by Kashmiri YouTubers.
“For nearly three decades we haven’t had entertainment and now today when such channels have come up people of my age enjoy them and love to share with our friend with the help of our children,” he says.
“I appreciate their effort to make us laugh after a very long time especially during our bad times,” Ahmad adds.
YouTube as a job
Among the Kashmiri YouTubers is another group of six who call themselves Kashmiri Kalkharabs.
Kashmiri Kalkharabs or 'Crazy Kashmiris' was the first 'alternative channel' from Kashmir.
“I had created the channel back in 2017 but had not posted any video till January 2018,” says Parvaiz Ahmad Bhat, the founder of the channel.
It was only after 2018 when the anti-militant operations intensified that Bhat, along with his childhood friend and the most popular YouTuber of Kashmir, Showkat Ahmad Mir, created a video of a notorious shopkeeper.
In June last year, Kashmiri Kalkharabs achieved the rare feat of becoming the first ever YouTube channel from Kashmir to receive a silver button from YouTube by crossing the 100K subscriber mark.
Bhat attributes the success of Kashmiri Kalkharabs to Mir’s vocalisation and unscripted dialogues in Kashmiri.
“We had never imagined that our initiative of making people laugh would fetch us name and fame across Kashmir,” Bhat continues, “Today we have nearly 320,000 subscribers, and some of our videos have crossed one million views.”
This number speaks volumes in Kashmir, which has a population of just seven million. Some of the YouTubers have even started to earn money from their videos.
A recent survey conducted by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) in collaboration with the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) found Jammu and Kashmir has the highest unemployment rate, at 12.13 percent.
Mir says that the plan to create a YouTube channel has started bearing fruit for him and his team by generating income as well as employment.
During the initial phase of the channel, Mir claims, they earned nothing until they hit 20,000 subscribers.
“We did not know that entertaining people will bear fruit for us by generating employment opportunities,” Mir reveals.
The two-man team of Bhat and Mir later expanded Kashmir Kalkharabs by involving four other unemployed friends from surrounding areas once the YouTube advertisements started flooding in.
He says that all members of the team now earn $115 per month.
“I used to run a small grocery shop while others were searching for employment,” Mir says.
Previously filming everything on mobile phones, the income has allowed them to purchase equipment to improve their production resources.
Honing their craft
Mushtaaque Ali Ahmad Khan, a filmmaker, cultural director and festival director, believes YouTube channels provide people in the conflict-torn state an alternative source of entertainment in the absence of cinemas.
The memories of the time spent in cinemas remain alive in the hearts and the minds of many middle-aged people. Around 15 cinema halls were fully functional before 1990, nine of those in Srinagar.
Khan believes the content is vibrant, however, says the channels lack a professional edge as they don’t have the photography and editing expertise.
“I have seen a few videos, and I must appreciate the content they produce. However, they lack professionalism, and I believe they will do wonderfully in coming days,” he adds.
Kashmiri filmmakers compare the arrival of YouTube channels in the Kashmir valley with the early years of Indian cinema in the early 1990s. Indian cinema, during its infancy, used male actors to portray female roles because no woman would agree to work in movies.
“If we see it in that context, I see YouTube channels of Kashmir are evolving similarly,” Khan said.
Mahi Aamir, another YouTuber who runs a similar kind of channel known as Kashmiri Rounders, says that when he introduced a non-local female character in one of his videos, he faced criticism.
“People criticised us for introducing her saying that they don’t want to see females and are fine with males dressing as females,” he says.
Kashmiri Kalkharabs, Koshur Kalakar and Kashmiri Rounders say that several young women have expressed the desire to work with them, but they are hesitant to introduce females in their upcoming videos because of the taboo associated with it in traditional social norms.
“Almost all of us have received several calls from females who desire to work in our videos, but the criticism we faced for introducing a non-local charter is stopping me from doing so,” Aamir reveals.
Last month Kashmiri Kalkharabs sought suggestions from followers about whether they would like to see a real female character through a Facebook post.
They once again faced criticism.
“A month later we posted another suggestion asking them about introducing a female character whose face will be covered. The response was 60 percent in denial and 40 percent in favour,” Bhat says.