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Not your Kashmir Ki Kali! – The Portrayal of Kashmiri Women in Indian Cinema

By Sabahat Ali Wani

In the first and the second article of this series, the primary aspects of the political and social domains were explained in relation to  Kashmiri Feminism. This, the final article, contends against the representation of Kashmiri women in popular films by underlining the reductive and colonial gaze of the Indian Cinema.

Cinematic representations of marginalized communities have always received backlash and considerable public scrutiny. The capitalisation, exploitation, and misrepresentation of ethnic communities — their language, dialect, clothing, and even their skin colour — showcases the privileged and willful ignorance present in Indian cinema. From using countless branded bronzers on fair-skinned actors to allow them to play the role of a brown woman to finding the most snow-white like actress to pose as a fair Kashmiri woman with red cheeks, the deeply embedded stereotypes and racism in Indian Cinema need more investigation. 

This article aims at aiding such investigation by examining the portrayal of Kashmiri women in Indian Cinema. Before jumping into the main content of the analysis, it’s crucial to understand the depiction of ‘Kashmir’ and a ‘Kashmiri’ in pre-1989 and post-1989 Indian films.

  1. Pre-1989 and Post-1989 representations 

In pre-1989 Indian films like Shakti Samanta’s ‘Kashmir Ki Kali’ (1964), Suraj Prakash’s ‘Jab Jab Phool Khile’ (1965) and Manmohan Krishna’s ‘Noorie’ (1979), there was a “diminutive” representation of a ‘Kashmiri’ in comparison to the earlier films that didn’t “represent any constituent of Kashmiri identity be it culture, dress, cuisine, music, or language” (Bhat 2015). In 1979, Bollywood tried to imitate a Kashmiri body by using pheran and a headscarf in the movie, Roti and failed miserably. Concerning the same, Fokiya writes that the filmmakers mixed up the Kashmiri culture and dress with that of Himachal Pradesh and further distorted the essence of real Kashmiri characters” (as cited in; Bhat, 2015).

In post-1989 Bollywood movies, the representation of Kashmir and Kashmiris changed drastically. From houseboat owners to militant or militant sympathizers, Indian cinema positioned Kashmiris in these reductive boxes and constructed an image of a ‘Kashmiri being’ to the outside world. Kabir (2005) states that Kashmir became the experimental land where “cine-patriotism” was to be tried and tested. Further, she comments, 

“Bollywood should be seen as a fantasy machine, which has fed on, and fed further, the nation’s collective desires, drawing on the libidinal economies of dominant and dominated groups within the nation’s self‐professedly secular, pluralist framework.” 

  1. Kashmir Ki Kali: Kashmiri Women and the Colonial Gaze of Bollywood

Bollywood keeps nibbling upon the idea of Kashmiri women’s fair skin and red cheeks by creating an image of a simple beautiful naïve valley girl, easily misguided by the valley’s militant Muslim males. This is how an Indian colonial gaze views Kashmiri women and Bollywood suffers from the same. While reviewing the essay collection titled, Women and the Colonial Gaze by Tamara L. Hunt and Micheline R. Lessard, Keskin (2004) writes about the prominent themes of this collection by saying, 

“First, colonized women were depicted either as morally corrupt, ignorant, promiscuous individuals who needed the colonizer’s guidance, or as noble savages who embodied desirable virtues such as chastity, modesty, and purity. Second, colonizers utilized these images both to legitimize their colonial administration and to control the women in the metropolis. Third, women from colonizing societies usually approached their colonized sisters differently than the male colonizers. Fourth, women in the colonies were “doubly colonized” because of their nationality and gender. Fifth, the images of colonized women served as invaluable symbols for anti-colonial movements.” 

Now, how is this colonial gaze present in the Indian Cinema’s representation of Kashmiri women? In the 1964 film, Kashmir Ki Kali (Bud of Kashmir), the story revolved around a ‘rich urban boy’, who visits the countryside and falls in love with a ‘poor local girl’. This girl is the epitome of ‘simplicity and sensuality of nature’ and also, ‘the coded ethnicity of the peripheral and minority-dominated provinces’ (Lutgendorf; as cited in Kabir, 2005). This is the premise of almost all pre-1989 Bollywood movies’ attempts to present a picture of a Kashmiri woman to Indians, not how Kashmiri women truly are but in a way that fulfils the agenda of the Indian Nation and pats its so-called secular back. In the first article of this series, I have given adequate ink to explain the position of Kashmiri women in the imagination of the Indian nation and broadly, Indian nationalism. 

In her article in The Wire, Debashree Mukherjee (2019) contends that the voyeuristic representations of Kashmir in popular Indian cinema give us an idea about the “violent and surreal disconnect of the mainland” from the reality of Kashmir. She states that Kashmir is present in the Indian imaginations as a “fantasy space”, a place which is not real and does not have “a history or lived memories, but a cinematic wish. It is a picturesque postcard, a backdrop against which we can take our selfies and thereby exercise our rights of free and full citizenship.”

In the Indian imagination, the fabricated image of Kashmiri women is dissociated from reality where the Kashmiri women are the active agents of carrying the resistance against the colonial and patriarchal institutions occupying the valley. Indian women also form a vital part of this colonial gaze and this brings us to the question, how does Imperial Brown Feminism view cinematic representations of Kashmiri women? If it’s different from a typical colonial male gaze then how so? Commenting on the skin of Kashmiri women is an exemplar of the casual racism that is deeply embedded in both Indian and Kashmiri societies. Kaul (2018) writes that these flawed representations result in the “perception of Kashmiri women as objects of desire” and position “Kashmiri men as potential terrorists”. These cinematic tropes also add up to “the wider global image of Islam as an inherently regressive religion with a unique propensity for encouraging violence among its adherents”. 

Conversely, another movie, Haider is to date the closest if not an accurate depiction of Kashmir and undoubtedly, the most contested one too. Bhat (2015) states that the movie showcases the “inside” of Kashmir and the contestations are mostly because, 

“… the first, it attempted to ‘feed’ the viewer with new (real) senses about Kashmir, which many viewers treat unusual and non-intersecting with their understanding vis-a-vis Kashmir… some self-styled hyper nationalists assume it might ‘corrupt’ the minds of many less informed Indian masses, thereby exposing the ‘real’ picture of Kashmir and Kashmiris.”

This movie tried to highlight the aspect of ‘half-widows’ and sought to address the “exact political question” (which I have stressed in the previous articles) revolving the lives of Kashmiri women and has been so far one of few attempts of Indian cinema to put an effort and represent Kashmir in an accurate manner. However, the trope of using Kashmir to try, test and showcase their cine-patriotism appears prominently in recent adventures of Indian cinema as it tries to feed the Indian imagination by exploiting Kashmir and Kashmiris.

As we have come to the last article of this series, one must understand that Kashmiri women form an important part of any dialogue, debate or discourse concerning Kashmir. They are the recipients of the violence and abuse in the valley but Kashmiri resistance or any ‘research’ on Kashmir is empty without their narratives, participation and accurate representation. 

Sabahat Ali Wani is the Young India Fellow at Ashoka University. 

This is the final article of the three-part series on Kashmiri Feminism.

 Image credits: Mir Suhail

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