New Delhi: A new Bollywood film set in Kashmir depicts life in the troubled region through the story of a boy’s search for his beloved donkey, a departure from the industry’s conflict-based, nationalist approach.
Tahaan opens in cinemas on Friday, at a time when Kashmir is beset by some of the biggest protests in two decades against India’s rule in the Himalayan region.
But when director Santosh Sivan filmed its idyllic vistas in December, Kashmir was enjoying a period of relative calm.
“People joked—any time it will snow now, just like peace. They compare it with that,” Sivan said.
In the past, Bollywood’s offerings on Kashmir have generally been populist, patriotic fare which cast neighbouring Pakistan and menacing Muslim extremists as the villains, and the Indian security forces as heroes.
In contrast, Tahaan does not directly depict militancy or violence in the region, dealing with these issues from the point of view of its eight-year-old protagonist, Tahaan, who embarks on a quest to bring back his donkey, Birbal, after it is sold to repay a loan.
The boy’s journey across the snowy landscape is fraught with danger, including an encounter with a teenager who promises to help him get the donkey—but only if Tahaan carries a grenade and a package to the other side of the mountains.
“You are really not trying to glorify violence or graphically show it for a thrill. It is seen through this kid’s viewpoint,” Sivan said.
Sivan has fond memories of the shoot in Kashmir and the local villagers who were eager to be part of the film—working for the crew or acting as extras.
Many Kashmiris, weary of fighting and bombs, were happy to see cameras rolling again in the region.
“All the women and children would come and look at what’s happening—smiling, cheering, pointing out, discovering things,” Sivan said.
“The ambience was pretty much there, at the same time we also had very good security.”
Perhaps the biggest worry was not of a bomb attack—but where to find a donkey for the role of Birbal.
The crew found it hard to procure a donkey in a region where mules are plentiful. They did find one eventually, but only after a trek to a distant village.
For now, Sivan has no plans to shoot another film in Kashmir and is gearing up for a project with Hollywood actor John Malkovich.
But he does not see this year’s troubles as a reason to shun the region.
“I don’t think I’ll be afraid to go there. I feel I can go back any time. I have lots of people who are friends there.”