How Bollywood Failed Kashmir

Hindi cinema has long viewed Kashmir through a glossy lens, erasing its people, their agency, and their political histories.

Meher Manda

July 27, 2021

How Bollywood Failed Kashmir
Sharmila Tagore in "Kashmir Ki Kali" (1964)

“Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast / Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.” If there is a paradise on Earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.

This popular Farsi couplet, often attributed to the 13th-century Indo-Persian poet Amir Khusrau, is taken to be an ode to Kashmir’s beauty. The region is called “Paradise on Earth,” with its verdant plains scaling to snow-capped mountains lost in the mist, boats that swirl upon its tranquil waters, and beautiful people. 

Amir Khusrau may have never penned these lines, or even have been referring to Kashmir, seeing as Khusrau had never visited the region. That hasn’t stopped Bollywood from using Kashmir in its movies and in its depiction of the valley as a decorative backdrop to love and family conflict. For years now, Hindi cinema has simplified and depoliticized the region of Kashmir, using its landscape for song sequences, its people as cultural props, and its political turmoil as broad stereotypes for the region.

When the Indian government scrapped Article 370 on August 5, 2019, effectively ridding the state of Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy, Bollywood producers were first in line to register a slate of nationalistic titles — Kashmir Humara Hai (Kashmir is Ours), Article 370 Abolished, and Kashmir Mein Tiranga (referencing India’s tricolor flag in Kashmir) — effectively reinforcing Bollywood’s role in India’s settler colonial project

Bollywood’s characterization of Kashmir can be split into two time periods: pre-insurgency and post-insurgency. The insurgency of the late 1980s was a grassroots Kashmiri armed resistance movement against Indian institutions that plunged the valley into violence and also led to the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in 1990. For Bollywood, pre-insurgency Kashmir was the picture of spring loveliness, full of Kashmiri belles waiting for their heroes in Junglee (1961), Kashmir Ki Kali (1964), and Noorie (1979) as well as shikharas floating in the backdrop. Shammi Kapoor singing “Taarif karu kya uski, jisne tumhe banaya” (“How should I praise the one that made you”) in Kashmir Ki Kali may have been an ode to both the woman and the valley, where every leaf, petal, plain, and mountain seemed carefully etched to perfection.