Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Or, How Indian Cinema Loves Kashmir But Not Kashmiris

Posted on July 19, 2015 in Culture-Vulture

By Akhil Katyal:

Note: This article contains spoilers for Bajrangi Bhaijaan. 

Bajrangi Bhaijaan opens up a problem that should have been oddly unsurprising. That Kashmir will be the sitting duck not only in the stories of the India-Pakistan enmity, of course it will, but it will also be the forgotten wheel in the stories of India-Pakistan friendship. In fact, that friendship will be sealed precisely by forgetting Kashmir, by papering over its problems, by turning a blind eye to a catastrophe that lies in open view.

Image Source: Bajrangi Bhaijaan FB page
Image Source: Bajrangi Bhaijaan FB page

An Indian man rescues and safely returns a lost Pakistani girl back to her country. He enters Pakistan via the Rajasthan border. Once inside, he figures out that the girl belongs to a village in ‘Kashmir’. He says “…toh phir kya India wapas jaana padega” (“so then will I have to return to India?”). The good Samaritan moulvi he’s met in Pakistan – Om Puri in killer goggs – tells him, “nahin thoda hamare paas bhi hai” (“We also have a little bit of Kashmir”). It is all very lovely. Picturesque Kashmir, parceled into gift size packets between the two big brother states. No one’s interested in what’s behind the scenic, let alone ask a Kashmiri.

At the end of the film – after heroically depositing the girl to her parents – Bajrangi is shown coming back crossing the snow-laden border from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to Indian-controlled Kashmir, an elaborate climax, shot in the ecologically fragile Thajiwas glacier. Within the film-plot, the sympathetic awaam, population, of ‘Indians‘ and ‘Pakistanis‘ (read Kashmiris), after being struck by a persuasive viral video telling them of this hero, come from both sides in their thousands to allow his exit through the border despite the Pakistani state’s memo of capturing this man before he can do any such thing. The people – on both sides – form a human chain around him, even break open the border, and then very cutely and obediently step aside and give him the way.

This is frankly ridiculous. Anyone with a modicum of Kashmiri history will know this. Kashmiri families, friendships and histories are split between IoK and PoK for decades. If the border opens this easily, the Kashmiris will first help themselves to criss-cross the line, they won’t just open it to let in the ‘Indian’ fellow. They will let in also their own, or visit their own, those who have been sealed off ever since the clusterfuck border crisis of 1947. The director Kabir Khan – interested in amity between two big warring nations – has forgotten that the resounding self image of the locals is that of being Kashmiris, this or that side of the border, and they’ll act on that, not just sweetly stick to their ‘national’ sides.

The thing is, the Indo-Pak border has never opened or closed keeping in mind the Kashmiri vox populi. It never has. The Indo-Pak border is skirmish central. It is a venue for Indian and Pakistani sabre rattling with the Kashmiris always caught in the cross-fire. It witnesses on a regular basis, cease-fire violations, ‘foiled infiltrations‘, scores of slain civilians and ‘militants‘, recovery of rifles and radio-sets meant for quick nationalist broadcasts. In October last year, as the villagers prepared for the Eid al-Adha festival, cross-border firing in Sialkot and Arnia left nine civilians dead. Shells landed near bus-stands and houses. Either side blamed the other for ‘unprovoked firing‘ in nationalist media, as is wont. Villagers temporarily fled in the hundreds or were offered ‘safety‘ in underground bunkers and shelters. Even in the month that Bajrangi Bhaijaan has released, the border remains violent because of New Delhi and Islamabad and the two decade long phenomenon of scores of young men’s dead bodies lining it continues.

Kabir Khan, who’s evidently interested in a woolly Indo-Pak amity, has no room for all this. He was the director of the popular and nobly conceived Salman-starrer ‘Ek Tha Tiger‘ which was a love story between an Indian and a Pakistani spy. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, he has created a climax shot for the dyed-in-the-wool sentimentalist but one who can only be a mainland Indian or Pakistani since it offers balm to their long-standing hostility. But to the Kashmiri, he offers the same-old, same-old. He buses in a reported 7000 Kashmiri extras to the Thajiwas glacier for the monumental shot, but tells a story that completely elides their histories. He casts them as nice, little citizens who are not at all at odds with nations occupying them, let alone as sloganeers of freedom. Kabir Khan sells Kashmir by sanitizing the Kashmiris.

How long will Bollywood use Kashmiris to tell its own mainland stories, to exorcise its own violent ghosts? One in which Kashmiris look so misplaced and taken for a ride. But really, even those Kashmiri extras get their say one way or the other. If you look at them in the Bollywood films – they are usually there for lending ‘authenticity‘ and ethnic chic to the film landscape – if you notice them closely, they look damn uninterested and unconvincing on the camera. When asked to sing along Adnan Sami, an Urdu qawalli at the local Kashmiri shrine, or when asked to be variously useful props to the Indian hero, they go through the motions for the camera, perhaps slightly star-struck with folks like Salman or Shahrukh (who wouldn’t be), but they never really gulp down the story. Notice this next time you see it. Every time you catch some Kashmiri extra’s eyes, the Indian film is also a bit of a joke for them.

So Indian film folks, stop doing this. Don’t go to Kashmir for your films if this is what you have to do – showing Kashmiris respecting borders they actually hate, and living only a tra-la-la life amidst chinars. If you’re really not interested in the folks, in their difficult stories, in their everyday and politics, if you’re only there to prop up your own story, whether of amity or enmity, then stay mainland. And if you must go there, then read up, talk to folks, listen to the third Kashmiri story, not just the palatable Indian and Pakistani versions. Figure out the deal with militarization, local Kashmiri rebellions since the ’30s, its rituals and songs, its history of occupation, its presents of AFSPA and azadi, all of this. First deal with all of this, then bring your cameras.