Mumbai: Amid escalating protests in Kashmir, Bollywood is set to step into highly sensitive territory with a promise to tell the story of violence in the region “as never seen before” on the big screen.
Lamhaa (The Moment), which arrives in cinemas on 16 July, has already fallen foul of censors and Kashmiri people and its release comes as anti-Indian feelings in the volatile Muslim-majority region run high.
Six people have been killed in the last three days and eleven in less than three weeks during demonstrations against the killing of Kashmiris by Indian forces, which began with the death of a schoolboy on 11 June .
India’s censor board took issue with promotional trailers for the thriller and reportedly objected to its description of Kashmir as “the most dangerous place in the world”, forcing director Rahul Dholakia to make cuts.
During shooting, locals even forced the film crew to re-shoot a scene, angry at its depiction of the Himalayan region often referred to as “Paradise on Earth” but which has been wracked by fighting and protests for decades.
Dholakia, whose previous film Parzania tackled Hindu-Muslim riots in western Gujarat state in 2002, said he expected action by the censor but hoped the film would help foster dialogue.
“There is a tremendous trust deficit and we need to bridge that by talking and keeping our past prejudices aside,” he told reporters.
The action-packed trailer now running in cinemas pledges to show “the breathtaking story of Kashmir as never seen before in the history of cinema.”
The film offers lead actor Sanjay Dutt, famed for his tough guy roles and off-screen troubles, a chance to secure his return to superstardom as he plays a military intelligence expert sent to Kashmir to root out a web of corruption.
Dutt deflected questions about potential solutions that could bring peace in the state, which is administered jointly by India and Pakistan but claimed in full by both.
“I am too small a personality to talk about this issue. I am not a politician,” said Dutt.
“All I know is that the people of Kashmir want peace in their day-to-day life and they don’t want violence.”
Conflict in Kashmir is a legacy of the partition of the Indian subcontinent after the end of British rule in 1947, and has been the trigger for two of three wars between the South Asian rivals.
Separatists and insurgents want the region to be independent or part of Pakistan but New Delhi considers it an integral part of its territory.
Dutt said he was happy to return to the region’s spectacular mountains and valleys, which were a popular location for Bollywood films in the 1970s and 1980s until an upsurge in deadly violence against Indian rule.
“Kashmir is a very beautiful place and it is like heaven. I love it more because 29 years ago I debuted in my film Rocky for which shooting had taken place over there,” he said.
“I still have very fond memories of Kashmir.”
Dutt also featured in Mission Kashmir in 2000, a tale of revenge set against the backdrop of relations between India and Pakistan and shot in part in the state’s summer capital Srinagar.
Controversy over Lamhaa raises Dutt’s profile at a time when his star had been fading.
The actor’s popularity was at its height in the mid-1980s to 1990s after a string of action movies in which he performed his own stunts, earning him the nickname “Deadly Dutt”.
But he has battled to regain his on-screen profile since a conviction for buying illegal weapons from the plotters of the 1993 bombings in India’s financial and entertainment capital, Mumbai, which left 257 people dead.
Dutt -- once a heavy drug user -- spent more than 18 months of a six-year prison sentence behind bars before being given bail in November 2007 pending an appeal.
Now 50, Dutt has starred in dozens of films since then, including the popular Munnabhai series, Shootout At Lokhandwala in 2007 and last year’s underwater odyssey, Blue, defying a trend for casting younger male leads.