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War-torn romance rekindled

As separatist violence wanes in Kashmir, Bollywood directors - as well as tourists - are returning to the region's picturesque valleys.

When sweethearts Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia found themselves locked in a cabin in the Bollywood blockbuster Bobby, their coy singing did more than set thousands of hearts aflutter. It also launched a war of words among rival tourism chiefs in Kashmir desperate to cash in on the success of the 1973 film. The "Bobby hut", as it became known, was a guesthouse in Pahalgam, according to officials from the town, which featured in one shot.

No, insisted managers of the Highland Park hotel in Gulmarg, the Bobby hut was one of their log cabins. That was in the 1970s when film-makers such as Yash Chopra, Rajendra Kumar and Ramesh Sippy were queuing to shoot in the picturesque valley. Then came a different kind of battle, an insurgency by militants against India's control over the predominantly Muslim Kashmir. Between 70,000 and 100,000 people died in the violence and for the best part of two decades, directors and actors have largely given Kashmir's sylvan meadows, pine forests and snow-capped peaks a wide berth, taking their business to Switzerland instead.

But as the separatist violence wanes, Bollywood's finest are slowly creeping back to the nation's "paradise on earth". Villagers living near the breathtaking Betab valley, for example, thought they had been abandoned by the film crews after Amrita Singh and Sunny Deol's flirting in the 1983 hit Betaab, which gave the valley its name. But after a 26-year silence, the hills were once again alive with the sound of music this summer as Juhi Chawla and Gurdass Mann crooned love songs alongside mountain streams for the forthcoming release, Kamni.

With the stars came technicians, choreographers and make-up artists, filling the region's hotels and restaurants and reviving hopes of a much-needed boost to tourism. Kamni comes in the wake of Lamhaa, which wrapped up filming in the Kashmiri valley in April, and last year's release, Tahaan, starring the Srinagar-born Anupam Kher and Rahul Bose. In 12 months the three films have doubled the number made in the region featuring big-name actors and actresses since 1998 - and government officials, spearheaded by the tourism minister, Nawang Rigzin Zora, have launched a campaign to woo more filmmakers back.

"There has been a turnaround," declared Sujit Bannerjee, the secretary of tourism for the Indian government. He was making his first trip to Kashmir in nearly 40 years but the visit was marred by the alleged gang rape and murder in May of two young Muslim women in Shopian near Srinagar. With Indian security forces blamed for the incident, a string of violent protests resulted in more casualties. "Sporadic incidents take place all over the world but these things have a very negative effect," insisted Mr Bannerjee.

"Yes, there is a military and police presence in Kashmir but this is just a safeguard to make sure nothing like that happens again. "This is the Switzerland, the Christchurch and the Wellington of India. "You can see how enthusiastic people are and how much effort they have made to get things back on track. The hotels which were burnt down have all been resurrected. Hotels which had no business between 1990 and 2000 have now reopened.

"We at the ministry of tourism are now encouraging filmmakers to come. I want to break the jinx and bring in a feel-good factor." For Satinder Sethi, the manager of the Hotel Woodstock in Pahalgam for the past 40 years, the sight of film crews trailed by excited locals sparked memories of the golden era of Indian cinema on home turf. "I used to play golf with Raj Kumar and entertain Raj Kapoor in the 1970s," he recalled. "A lot of films were shot in the town and so many of the stars stayed here.

"There would be whole film units with the actors, directors and foreign technicians - it was just like a big family and good fun. "If we had one actor staying with us, we never had to worry about the rest of the rooms - they would fill up automatically with guests." He said 1988 was the last year they had had good business. "It would be wonderful to have more movies made here. This is such a beautiful valley but we have made it a mess. People will only come back when we have made it safe and sound."

Now it seems they are doing just that. Tourist numbers have rocketed from just 2,000 a year during the troubled 1990s to more than 570,000 last year. But it has not been an easy transition. Lamhaa claimed to confront issues of militancy and its impact on life in Kashmir, but the flagship project from the director Rahul Dholakia soon ran into trouble, when Kashmiris suspected they were being unfairly portrayed and interrupted filming.

In a further blow, Aasiya Andrabi, the leader of the radical women's group Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Faith) served the producers with a legal notice complaining she was being represented in the film by Basu - a Bollywood pin-up - and that such a portrayal was incompatible with her beliefs. Dholakia denied Basu's character was based on Ms Andrabi and the film has gone into post-production.

Tourism officials claim such glitches are mere hiccups in their campaign to lure the film industry and its fans back to the valley. Shamim Wani, the manager of Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation, said: "There are inroads towards bringing shoots to Srinagar and the surrounding area. "In the 1960s and 1970s, 90 per cent of Bollywood film production came here. Its major selling points were the great location and the best prices, which were much cheaper than going abroad.

"They started filming in Europe during the troubles though, and it was very rare to have films made here in the 1990s." In its heyday, the scenic valley nestling between the Himalayas and the Pir Panjal range was teeming with film crews. Shammi Kapoor danced on a gondola gliding across a lake to impress his lady-love in the 1964 film Kashmir Ki Kali. The locale's lush gardens and snowdrifts were just as much of a hit as Amitabh Bachchan, Raakhee Gulzar and Shashi Kapoor, the stars of Kabhi Kabhie. Yash Chopra, who directed the 1976 classic, recalled the film set being akin to a "honeymoon" as all the crew took along their families.

Bachchan returned to Kashmir in 1979 and 1981 for Mr Natwarlal and Lawaaris respectively. It was among nearly 100 films made in Kashmir pre-1989 before violence brought an abrupt end to Bollywood's love affair with the region. During the insurgency, film-makers substituted the Alps for the Himalayas and succeeded in making Switzerland one of the top tourist destinations for India's cinema-going audience of 15 million a day.

An estimated 80,000 Indians visit annually and about 20 productions are filmed there every year. The past few years, however, have seen movie producers returning to Kashmir. Yasin Zargar of IndusKashmir.com, which has been organising holidays to the valley for the past five years, said: "Kashmir's snow-clad peaks, verdant valleys and rippling streams have made it a hot spot for Bollywood from its birth.

"We now have a dynamic chief minister keen to bring tourism to life, develop infrastructure and improve road conditions, all exciting initiatives to woo Bollywood back." tyaqoob@thenational.ae

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