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Kashmiris are turning to films to find their creative voice as actors, directors and dancers.
For 18 years, Gulzar Ahmad Bhat's world revolved around the Dal Lake in Srinagar, around the shikara he plied every day on the lake for a livelihood. His family of eight — mother, brother and five sisters — were dependent on his sole income and every year Bhat thought of leaving Kashmir for a better life. This year, though, the 34-year-old was more relaxed. After all, he was busy walking the red carpet at the Sundance Film Festival in Hamburg, Germany, rubbing shoulders with the cognoscenti of the cine world. Bhat has played the lead in a romantic movie, Valley of Saints, directed by Kashmir-born American filmmaker Musa Sayeed, which won the World Dramatic Audience award at the Sundance this September.
Kashmir, with its enduring beauty, was a favoured locale for filmmakers till militancy in the '90s put a stop to it. The cinemas and theatres in the Valley, which closed down after militant threats, morphed into hospitals and shopping malls with the passage of time, and the connection between Bollywood and Kashmir became dormant. The past two decades have only seen sparse shoots for Bollywood.
But with the slow return of peace, directors from Bollywood and beyond seem keen to revisit. Nazir Bakshi, a Kashmiri businessman who motivated his friend of 40 years, Yash Chopra, to shoot his last film Jab Tak Hai Jaan in Kashmir, recalls the deceased director's delight when he got there. "'Ghar wapas aa gaya (I have returned home),' he said," recalls Bakshi.
Chopra has had a long relationship with Kashmir, having shot parts of his film Kabhi Kabhie there, and his shoots always involved a number of local artistes. Abid Hussain Matta, a resident of Natipora in Srinagar, debuted as a dancer in a Tamil film five years ago, going against his parents to take up a career in performing arts. A commerce graduate from Islamia College of Science and Technology in Srinagar, Matta has always been a passionate dancer and runs the dance troupe K-Virus. When Chopra shot for songs like Jiya re, featuring Shah Rukh Khan and Anushka Sharma, members of K-virus were invited to be background dancers. It was a memorable moment for Matta, who had earlier featured in Onir's 2009 film I Am, with Manisha Koirala and Juhi Chawla in the lead. "We had not expected to get such a big break so early. It was a dream come true," says Matta.