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Bollywood film roils tensions in Kashmir

It is hoped that film production will be the first step to reviving tourism but crews face an anxious time.

A journalist gave the Indian movie star Sanjay Dutt the kaffiyeh, meant to show solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza.
A journalist gave the Indian movie star Sanjay Dutt the kaffiyeh, meant to show solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza.

SRINAGAR, INDIA // The Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt appeared during the outdoor shooting of Lamha on Srinagar's landmark Zero Bridge wearing a black-and-white kaffiyeh, given to him by a local photojournalist as a sign of his solidarity with the Palestinian people. When pictures showing him in the traditional Palestinian headdress appeared in the next day's local newspapers, Mr Dutt's act was acclaimed throughout the Kashmir valley, where kaffiyeh-wearing Muslim youths have been holding regular protests over the Israeli assault on Gaza.

It also gave a badly needed boost to the Lamha crew, who have been having trouble filming in the valley amid rumours that the place and its people are being negatively portrayed. Kashmir's tourism officials, hoping the presence of Bollywood will boost the region's ailing economy, have looked on anxiously. In October, following the violent agitation over the local government's decision to transfer 100 acres of forest to a Hindu consortium, the Bollywood actress Bipasha Basu stormed off the shoot citing a threat made on her life.

Production has been repeatedly disrupted by angry crowds over their perceived misrepresentation of the Kashmiri cause in the film, including one scene during which Kashmiri youths burn used car tyres and chant anti-India slogans. On another occasion, Kashmiri fruit traders, suspecting they were being depicted unfairly, forced the film crew to stop shooting a scene on the premises of the Srinagar Fruit Mandi (market). The film deals with militancy and its consequences for life in Kashmir. The film's producer strongly denied allegations that Kashmiris were being depicted unfairly and the crew, along with Ms Basu and Mr Dutt, returned to the Valley this month to resume work, albeit under tight police protection.

But now, Sayeda Aasiya Andrabi, chief of the radical all-women Dukhtaran-e-Millat (daughters of the faith), has served legal notice to Rahul Dholakia, the film's director, following reports that Ms Basu is playing her in the film. Ms Aasiya alleges Mr Dholakia violated an agreement that the script would be shown to her before shooting began. The notice says the DeM leader is a "political leader and firm believer of Islam" and remains "always veiled" and that her portrayal is incompatible with "her virtues and teachings". It accused the studio, GS Entertainment, of putting her reputation, honour and dignity at stake, which "is irreparable and could not be compensated". GS Entertainment has been given three days to reply to the notice and alter the script. Mr Dholakia came out and said Ms Basu's role in his film "is not even remotely connected with the life of Aasiya Andrabi". "I've made the script even more fictitious so that it doesn't hurt anyone's sentiments." Reports had also suggested that Ali Shah Geelani, the hardline Kashmiri separatist leader, was angered at being portrayed in the film. Mr Dholakia said changing the characters from real to fictitious was a "gruelling task". He also said that in light of heightened sensitivities following the Mumbai terror attacks, he does want to take risks. "Making and releasing the film is more important," he told a newspaper. The furore over Lamha has also worried the state government, particularly its tourism department officials, who fear it could harm their efforts to revive Kashmir's ailing tourism industry. They hold that the shooting of Bollywood movies could help revive the local economy, hard hit by the 19-year insurgency. "Kashmir is as beautiful as before," said Yash Chopra, a film director who headed a delegation of Bollywood filmmakers and actors to Kashmir a few years ago. "We'll again come to shoot in Kashmir." Those in the delegation agreed that Kashmir offered natural beauty and cheaper rates for shooting than other locations. Farooq Ahmed Shah, Kashmir's director tourism, said: "Regardless of irritants, Bollywood teams will continue to head to Kashmir for outdoor shooting." The government wants to remove the perception of danger from the minds of moviemakers and has pledged security and even the provision of helicopters at low rates to take them to locations for shooting. During the past few years, successive state governments have sent out ministers and other senior functionaries and tour operators to various parts of India to spread the message that Kashmir was ready to receive tourists. Nazir A Bakshi, the chairman of the Kashmir Chapter of the Travel Association of India, has had detailed discussions with Mr Chopra, the filmmaker, and his comrades, as well as prominent tour operators in Indian cities. "Luckily, I could convince them how important it was to return to Kashmir," he said. Mr Bakshi said the trips have inspired hope that Bollywood filmmakers will return to Kashmir in large numbers, giving much needed impetus to economic activity in the region. For their part, Kashmiri officials and tour operators are prepared to support filmmakers in every way they can, even if that means protecting them from angry locals. yjameel@thenational.ae