How to sell a conflict

A Bollywood style lesson in trivializing the Kashmir issue.


Asiya Syed, Writer

Illustration by Kranti Gagdekar Chhara

The Bollywood industry in the Indian cinema has a massive audience across the globe and in the subcontinent itself. Due to intellectual diversity, Indians often refer to it as a source of information without rechecking with other sources to validate claims. In India, Bollywood is a crucial factor in framing public opinion. Public opinion is produced by the Bollywood industry with multiple thematic coding of songs, visuals, linguistic frequency, etc., all of whose nature is directly related to mass culture. The ratio of product manufacturing is directly proportional to mass consumption, mostly when it comes to the selling of propaganda by Bollywood. Bollywood in India is personalized to a level that its consumers feel part of the performance. Part of it is the element escapism within its work, proving its eligibility to exist in the public sphere. With exaggerated commercialization and consumption of propaganda, Bollywood has toppled and dismantled the true Muslim identity and the Kashmir conflict. Thus making it a crucial means to promote Islamophobia and the reductionist binary view of Kashmir’s freedom struggle.

Kashmir being the only Muslim majority state and home to the oldest political conflict in India has been subject to mass misrepresentation in Bollywood. Since the Kashmir conflict is older than Independent India itself, the discourses of the Kashmir conflict in Bollywood have seen variation from an ideological point of view. Pre-1980s, Kashmir was presented as a place of beauty and romance. The image painted was of hospitable shikara men smoothly rowing boats in Dal Lake with a newly married Indian couple, enjoying their honeymoon. It was famed for the aesthetics of Wazwan and the arching snow-capped mountains. But the very unequal distribution of land, control on the education system and coercion on poor Kashmiris by the rich and powerful Kashmiri Pandits landlords were never brought into discourse, for it would not have been mass consumed by Indian Hindus, who form the mainstream audience of Bollywood. The portrayal of the Kashmiri Pandit issue, the issue undeniably tragic and wrong as it may be, is only used to divert attention from the Kashmiris who still call J&K home. It is rarely spoken of independently in the Indian media and general Indian political discourse but always used to counter an argument that sympathises with Kashmiris. Observing the consumption ratio of Bollywood’s audience, it seems that selling the Kashmir conflict in the binary of communal conflict works in their favour. It is because majoritarian Hindu consumers find personalized performance in saving their religious brethren, higher in the religious hierarchy, Kashmiri Pandits. Thus reducing Kashmir’s freedom struggle in the binary of Muslims and Pandits and boosting India’s ‘law and order problem’ in the picture. This resonates as an unapologetic humiliation to countless Kashmiris who have been held captive, who have been killed while fighting for the freedom of Kashmir.

PR for Bollywood films carried out in the name of national pride and advertisements are paraded at the cost of tarnishing the image of Kashmiri Muslims in the minds of Indian masses.

With the shift in Kashmir’s political conflict from a mere leadership struggle to a full-blown armed struggle, the discourse in Bollywood experienced drastic changes concerning narration and character. The change in the representation of Kashmir Conflict has worsened the turmoil and disfigured the stance of Kashmiris on India. PR for Bollywood films carried out in the name of national pride and advertisements are paraded at the cost of tarnishing the image of Kashmiri Muslims in the minds of Indian masses. This invariably results in the mass discrimination and accusation of terrorist activities of Kashmiri Muslims by common folk and security forces in India. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), (under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting) , Government of India itself seems to be selling nationalism and patriotism at the cost of Kashmir. Even the current Chairperson of the Board, Prasoon Joshi, has close ties with the incumbent government, having written slogans and lyrics for BJP campaigns.

Bollywood seems to be divided on political ideologies, but only in the Indian majoritarian perspective. Celebrities across the globe are seen as more than mere entertainers. Their opinion and action matters for their huge fan-following. For Kashmiris, Bollywood celebrities have had only one stance when it comes to the right to self-determination of Kashmir. The scrapping of Article 370, that gave ‘special status’ to Jammu and Kashmir, was welcomed by nearly all Bollywood celebrities. Approximately 50 titles were registered after the abrogation of Article 370, which gave ‘special status’ to Kashmir. According to film magazine editor, Atul Mohan, directors are mostly focussing on nationalist titles including ‘Article 370 Abolished’, ‘Kashmir Mein Tiranga’ and; Kashmir Hamara Hai’. However, Bollywood was divided only on how this ‘move’ should have happened. Some right-wing celebrities like Anupam Kher and Kangana Ranaut legitimised the inhumane lockdown by calling the scrapping of Article 370 “a historic step” and disrespected the multi-decade struggle of Kashmiris for their right to self-determination. The liberal and the left ideology lineated celebrities criticized only the ‘inhumane lockdown’, and most were fine with the scrapping of the article.

The gospel of Bollywood has successfully achieved its aim of defaming Kashmir’s struggle of the right to self-determination.

Bollywood has biases with regards to the Kashmir conflict. The gospel of Bollywood has successfully achieved its aim of defaming Kashmir’s struggle of the right to self-determination. Kashmiris are seen as people with dubious character and the instances of such representation are subtle yet troubling. A landlord in India is shown as thinking twice before renting a room to a Kashmiri. Kashmir in almost all Bollywood movies post-1980s is shown as the land of militants, where common people are seen as anti-Hindus. These Kashmiris are seen to be chanting ‘Allah O Akbar’ habitually, with designated and ever-present guns inside their Pheran. Bollywood does not seem to evaluate history and politics, rather it knows well how to capitalise on the sufferings of marginalised Kashmiris, In the Bollywood movie ‘Sheen’, Kashmiri burqa-clad Muslim woman are shown as violent women, who supply arms with burqa as an escape. It not only tarnishes the Muslim burqa culture but also tries to reduce the acceptance of burqa. Millennials in India are likely to sympathise with the Chinese occupation in Tibet, but they would never accept the occupation of India in Kashmir since Bollywood has never given the space to legitimise the struggle of Kashmiris for their right to self-determination.

Bollywood paints a picture of Indian security personnel, saving a baby in the midst of an encounter with armed rebels, like in the movie Mission Kashmir, but fails to show the reality of the massacres of babies by the Indian army. Bollywood loves to talk about militant violence, how the armed struggle is all only because of religious elements and the cross border insurgency. But what they’ll never paint is the picture of reality - the reality of mass rape of women in the two villages of Kupwara district that happened on February 23, 1991, at the hands of the Indian army; the reality of how Indian forces murdered thousands of innocent people, blinded hundreds of people, including an 18 –month old baby, Hiba Nisar of Shopian district. It will romanticize the ‘bravery’ of an Indian soldier, trying to save humanity.Kashmiris are yet to witness this on the ground, with thematic songs like ‘Ae Watan, Teri Mitti’ etc.

Bollywood celebrities may seem to champion women and child rights in movies. Widely celebrated Indian actress, Priyanka Chopra, who is also Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF goes to a war-torn Middle East, visits various Asian and African countries like Ethiopia and speaks passionately about issues pertaining to these areas, but stands silent when women and children are killed in Kashmir. Kashmiri children have been denied the right to education since the august of 2019. The lockdown and internet ban has only added to the educational crisis. Kashmiri women are constantly abused by Indian forces. Women in Kashmir have always been at the receiving end of the military gaze but Priyanka Chopra’s pseudo activism never stood with Kashmiri women and children.

Bollywood has also created the gap between Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits, by narrating only one side of the story in movies. It can be seen in the movie, Sheen, directed by Ashok Pandit, who himself is a Kashmiri Pandit. The movie shows the sufferings that Kashmiri Pandits saw during the birth of armed struggle, but the movie doesn’t show the sufferings and empathy of Kashmiri Muslims. The movie shows Muslim youth of Kashmir as a violent population and it fetishizes violence, while Pandit youth are portrayed as extremely humane full of love and romance. The Urdu language is shown as foreign and imperialist. Such advancements destabilize the social equilibrium among the newer generations of both the communities. Post-August 2019 lockdown, the movie ‘Shikara’, based on Kashmiri Pandits, released in January, made an entry into discourse again. This entry was not coincidental. The strategic reentry during the lockdown period was only to legitimise and normalise the sufferings of Kashmiris, to curb the questions on inhumane lockdown. With such bias, the state reduces the legitimate political and religious struggle of Kashmiris to a communal conflict, with the help of Bollywood.

Bollywood has not only defamed the Kashmiri struggle for the right to self- determination, but also Islam. Almost in all Kashmir related movies, a militant can be seen offering a Namaz and kissing the Holy Quran before a violent act. Then there are the greetings like ‘Assalamu Alaikum’, or words like ‘shaheed’, ’70 Virgins’ etc. The etymology of these words has been misinterpreted and misrepresented by Bollywood. I find it hard to believe that researchers on their team are so ill-informed. This representation is not due to a lack of information. It is a planned assault on a community, making it difficult for Muslims to practice their religion freely. Yet, no one seems to question such characters. The case would be different if there was any kind of activity in the movie which doesn’t go well with the majoritarian faith in India, as we have seen clashes and mini riots during the releases of movies like Padmaavat and PK.

Bollywood may be of bad taste but is inarguably renowned world-over. This keeps India at a good standing with many foreign countries. Bollywood is undeniably a tool of soft power for the Indian government. With the introduction of settler colonial laws like Domicile Law in the Valley, we’ll have to see if there would be any change in the Kashmir discourse within Bollywood. Would directors like Mahesh Bhatt and Anurag Kashyap, who seem to be associated with left ideology, come up with the projects that aim to show settler colonialism in Kashmir and the annexation of public-owned resources like rivers and larger streams by the businessmen from India? Kashmir is waiting.


Asiya is a Kashmiri student at St. Xavier's College, Mumbai. She is a writer and poet. She is interested in gender issues, political conflicts and inter-religious studies.