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The prodigal sons of Bollywood: Understanding the Kashmir conflict through Hindi cinema

By Julia Szivak

The issue of Kashmir never ceases to be salient in South Asia. Even the year 2016 was marked by a flare up of popular discontent in the Indian administered Kashmir and border clashes between India and Pakistan. Almost 70 years have passed since the Partition and formation of the two states, but the Kashmir issue is still far from being settled. On the contrary, matters only got more complicated with the outbreak of the insurgency. The disputed territory of Kashmir still forms an integral part of both Indian and Pakistani national consciousness but just like politicians, the public is still grappling with the understanding of the problem. Many interpretations are offered from various fields of academia and public life, and a very remarkable framework is proposed by Hindi cinema as well. The aim of this paper is to examine the way Bollywood cinema tries to approach this intricate subject matter having deep political and social implications.

Hindi cinema disentangles the complexities by using a narrative, which de-politicizes and domesticates the issue in multiple ways. Even though Kashmir-themed films fashion themselves as political texts about the conflict, the characters of the films are not representative of the Kashmiri population, the political content is only secondary to the unfolding family drama and the conflict is represented as a fight between good and evil. The only way these movies make substantial political statements is quite different from the intentions of the filmmakers: the films can be considered an example of the tendency of the public opinion to patronize and exoticize the Kashmiris, while overgeneralizing the Kashmir conflict.

The representation of Kashmir in cinema: A journey from ‘Heaven’ to ‘Hell’

As a symbolic space, the metaphor of romantic ‘Heaven on Earth’ and the exotic ‘other’, Kashmir has played an important role in the cinematographic landscapes of Hindi cinema since the 1960s, but the 1990s saw a drastic change in the filmic representation of Kashmir. The eruption of violent separatist movements led to the reshaping of the popular image of Kashmir in Hindi films, too. The series of films concentrating on the Kashmir insurgency, such as Roja (Mani Ratnam, 1992), Mission Kashmir (Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 2000), Yahaan… (Shoojit Sircar, 2005), Fanaa (Kunal Kohli, 2006), Lamhaa (Rahul Dholakia, 2010), and Haider (Vishal Bharadwaj, 2014) are still building on the centuries-old ‘Heaven on Earth’-trope, but have started to address the contrast between the current infernal political and security situation to the striking heavenly natural beauty of the region. The enchanted, urban lovers of olden times were replaced by new characters: representatives of the Indian and Pakistani states, such as policemen, soldiers and politicians; dissidents from the Kashmir valley, like insurgents and terrorists appeared, while the ordinary residents of the region also came to some prominence. Most of the films told similar stories about the triad of the state, civilians, and separatists in Kashmir, trying to interpret the question by focusing on the micro-level explanation of the conflict and explain the wider political and social implications based on individual perspectives.

Introducing the desperate youth, who is also a Kashmiri

The most iconic and popular film among the afore-mentioned movies, Mission Kashmir is a good example of this tendency. The narrative focuses on the tribulations and emotional processes of a central character, Altaf and tries to make sense of the conflict through his story, in which the young boy joins a terrorist outfit to take revenge on his stepfather, Inayat Khan, who had accidentally killed Altaf’s entire family. The film aims to tie into the greater political context by making Altaf Kashmiri, Inayat Khan a police officer of the Indian administered Kashmir, and the terrorist group a jihadi outfit sponsored by mysterious foreign secret services. This contextualization delivers to the audiences the figure of the young Kashmiri Muslim terrorist, whom the viewers can understand and relate to. His Kashmiri identity is nevertheless only skin-deep, being mostly confined to his preference for Kashmiri folk costumes, appreciation of the landscape, and readiness to sing folk tunes. He is motivated to join an insurgent group not by ideology or political goals but rather for personal reasons. Since he wants to take revenge on a person intricately connected to the establishment of the Indian state, he sees violent resistance against the Indian state – and his embedded enemy within it – as the best means to pursue his personal agenda. Therefore, he ends up joining Hilal Kohistani, the leader of a terrorist outfit with unclear goals, shady, pseudo-religious motivations, who uses the innocence of Altaf to achieve his own aims.

The prodigal son and his family

The matter is further complicated – or in my opinion, simplified – by the fact that Inayat Khan is Altaf’s stepfather, who was first loved and trusted, then despised and detested by the protagonist. When this aspect is considered, we are tempted to view Altaf’s fight against the Indian state as the revolt of a resentful son against his own figure of authority. He does not have grievances against the Indian state, only against his own stepfather and as Altaf is represented as the best and most determined among the chosen fighters of the highly professional terrorist outfit, there is the implication that the lack of political motivations could be true for the other terrorists as well. Tracing the reasons behind the struggle into the framework of the family has the effect of transposing the interpretation of the Kashmir insurgency from the political level to the realm of a family drama. This is further reinforced by the portrayal of the household trouble caused by the protagonist joining the terrorist outfit. No matter how hard his loving stepmother is trying to convince Altaf to put his revenge aside, return to the fold of the family and accept Inayat Khan’s fatherly love, misunderstandings, deceit, and youthful revolt keep the family from reuniting. Because of Altaf’s blind rage, an uncontrollable spiral of violence ends in claiming the lives of innocent family members.

Love solves it all?

During the movie, the protagonist does not only struggle with the external forces of the state and his own insurgent group, but in fact he is wrestling his own conscience and is caught up in a mental and emotional battle between the drive for revenge and his longing for love, acceptance, and peace. Due to the tragic events, Altaf recognizes his fault and finds in himself the power to forgive and let go of his revenge. He destroys the terrorist group, denounces violence and his own separatist aspirations. He reconciles with Inayat Khan, repents his sins and thus the unity of the family gets restored with the hope of a better future. This is very similar to the way the conflict is presented, sustained, and resolved in the other Kashmir-themed films, most notably in Yahaan… and Haider as well.

We can thus assess that Hindi cinema often solves the question of representing a highly political and volatile struggle by transposing it onto the level of the individual. No doubt, viewers can relate to the issues of the Kashmiri people on screen better, if these are easily identifiable and tangible problems, rather than fairly abstract political and social grievances. We could argue that this sensitizes the wider, non-Kashmiri audiences to the problems of the Kashmiris and hence works towards a more peaceful future.

I believe that this is not at all the case. These films fashion themselves as political texts providing a narrative for understanding the Kashmir insurgency by engaging with the character of the terrorist and other agents involved, with the driving force and possible solutions of the conflict. Moreover, the films aim to talk about Kashmir embedded in a greater narrative about overlapping loyalties, interfaith relations, and national unity and therefore try to deliver a poignant political message. Nevertheless, by emphasizing the personal aspects of the conflict, these narratives wrest the insurgency of its valid political motivations and trivialize it by tracing its origins to the domestic sphere. Therefore, instead of reading these films as political texts as suggested, they should rather be viewed as family dramas using some aspects of a complicated and troubled political conflict as their backdrop.

The only political message these films transmit is in fact different from the intention of the filmmakers and very symbolic in nature. A possible reading of these texts could take the depiction of the filmic families as a metaphor for the trope of the national family and try to make sense of the political message in this way. As the prodigal son does not understand the love of his overly strict father in the film’s text, the prodigal Kashmiri insurgents do not understand the reasons behind the protective and loving strictness of the patriarchal Indian state. This misunderstanding causes a rupture in the texture of the nation-family, just as it tore the filmic Kashmiri family apart. The question of whether love can resolve this issue remains open.

Julia Szivák
is research assistant at the Modern East Asia Research Group at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Budapest, Hungary. She can be reached at


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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