ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

Kashmir Through the Cinematic lens

Though Kashmir is omnipresent in political discourse, very little is truly known of Kashmiri culture or the effects of territorial conflict on the Kashmiri way of life. A recent example of this is the communication lockdown in the days leading up to, and after, the abrogation of Article 370 by the current government. However, this discursive violence is perpetrated not only through official channels, but also through media, art, and films. 

In particular, the cinematic representation of Kashmir has been overly simplistic, either as a pristine paradise or as a breeding ground for terrorists. Although the region has been the setting for several Bollywood films like Junglee (1961), Mere Sanam (1965), and Mission Kashmir (2000)], it has been seen as the “other” world with a rigid and monochromatic identity. 

With films like Haider (2014), Hamid (2019) and No Fathers in Kashmir (2019), however, the dominant gaze was turned inwards and its rigidity was problematised through characters that slipped in and out of militant/non-militant categories with ease, betraying the flimsiness of these classifications. The absurdity of these tags was emphasised through the use of dark humour, the aim of which was not to invoke laughter but to otherise the viewer, turning the power dynamic on its head. In doing so, these identities were shown to have agency and a voice of their own, countering monolithic nationalist narratives.

In Haider, the breakdown of the militant and non-militant dichotomy is embodied by Ghazala, Haider’s mother. While on one hand, she threatens Haider by putting a gun to her own head in an attempt to get him to leave Kashmir, fearing his turn towards militancy; on the other, she conspires with Roohdaar (identified as a militant) and turns into a suicide bomber to save Haider. By opting in and out of these categorical identities, Ghazala renders moot the binaries in which Kashmiris are so often classified. 

This is further seen in Hamid which depicts the unlikely bond formed between the titular character, Hamid and a CRPF jawan, even though it is under a false pretext. Having dialed a wrong number (coincidentally, the jawan’s) in the hopes of finding his father, Hamid thinks he’s speaking to Allah, while the Indian soldier (longing for his own home) looks beyond Hamid’s identity as a Muslim boy in Kashmir and talks to him as a naive good-hearted child (who reminds him of his daughter). At the crucial juncture when the made-up identities collapse, the jawan snaps “I am not Allah. I am a CRPF soldier, I work for the Indian government. Do you know what this means?” Hamid retorts, “You are my enemy?!” The jawan responds, “Yes. And you mine.” In a manner of seconds, then, the revelation of their true identities determines their social relation to each other and overshadows their preceding relationship where they had sought comfort in each other. 

In the film, even the identity of the Indian army personnel is not merely defined in binaries of good and patriotic or bad and anti-national. Their dilemma is best articulated in No Fathers in Kashmir wherein the soldier bluntly states, “Give me a clean fight…Here, every villager is an enemy and a countryman … who do I protect? Who do I fight?”

The reason for mentioning these instances is two-fold. First, through the representation of these kaleidoscopic identities, the films opened space for an alternative vision of a Kashmiri. This meant that Kashmiris were no longer either militants or victims. They were individuals with agency, interacting with the conflict depending on their own diverse life trajectories. On-screen, they were able to transcend the dichotomies which the dominant discourse subjected them to. This is also true for the Indian army’s role in Kashmir. Second, by focusing on these periods of transition from one identity to another, the films were able to shift the dominant gaze back onto the audience. By showing the ease with which the characters were able to shift in and out of the nation’s unifying and rigid gaze, the films underscored its absurdity, creating a satire out of the prevailing discourse, hence questioning the audience’s stereotypes.
There are instances where the satire is more explicitly expressed. In the trailer for No Fathers in Kashmir, Noor asks Maji (the two children protagonists) if Maji knows any terrorist. In the next scene, Maji is shown wearing a piece of cloth over his mouth and nose, holding an AK-47 and posing for Noor, who happily clicks his picture and takes a selfie with him. In a matter of seconds, by simply wearing clothes a certain way or picking up a gun, Maji, a teenager, is able to pass off as a terrorist. Here, it’s not just that identities are literally detachable like pieces of clothing, but in viewing lightly something the state apparatus takes so seriously, there is a fleeting inversion of power dynamics, a “ritual rebellion” (Gluckman 1963).
Maji’s adorning of a terrorist identity is a subconscious act of ridiculing, and the aim of this humour is not to invoke laughter, but unease. This humour is an attempt to verbalise an uncomfortable liminality that exists between identities, yet is unarticulated. By using humour to shed light on the moral and social discrepancies between hegemonic narratives and individual experiences of the conflict, the experience of undoing the stereotypical Kashmiri identity is compounded into the undoing of the Kashmiri conflict discourse (See Kidron 2010, von Roekel 2016).
There are also moments in Haider when dark humour is deliberately employed to invoke “uncomfortable laughter,” and highlight the “us and them” conundrum with respect to the bigger players of the conflict (Roekel 2016). Contextualising Hamlet’s famed line, “To be or not to be” in the plural in Hindi, Haider’s monologue starts with “Hum hai bhi ki hum nahi?” The monologue itself only invites laughter from the group of people surrounding Haider. They laugh because it’s cathartic, that is, they can “laugh while looking at themselves falling into a mirror, [and] not being mesmerised by their wound, or scared and ashamed of their scars” (Sengul 2013). What they find humorous, however, alienates the viewer who is unable to partake in the social dynamics at play. This inability to share into the laughter otherises the viewer, making them reconsider their ideological standpoint.
This satire is also an important means of questioning Kashmir’s identity. Through the question “Do we exist or do we not?”, the state itself is opened up for interpretation. Here, the frustrations of a muzzled Kashmir raising slogans of “azadi” is not meant to signify secessionist demands. Rather, the call for freedom is in the sense of wanting to be left alone or to be heard. Kashmir, then, is also seen to transcend existing cages of being either Pakistan’s jugular vein, or India’s atoot ang, or a rogue secessionist state. In this way, demands for azadi itself are reimagined to hold different connotations.

Hence, with the construction of identity, or rather, deconstruction of previous identities, a fresh slate is created by these films. This fresh slate, achieved through stories focused on an inward gaze, allows relatability between the viewer and character, and by extension, between Kashmir and the rest of India. 


Gluckman, Max (1963): “Rituals of Rebellion in South-East Africa,” Order and Rebellion in Tribal Africa, London: Cohen & West.

Kidron, Carol A (2010), “Embracing the Lived Memory of Genocide: Holocaust Survivor and Descendant Renegade Memory Work at the House of Being,” American Ethnologist, Vol 37, No 3, pp 429–51.

Sengul, Serap Ruken (2013), “Qirix: An ‘Inverted Rhapsody’ of Kurdish National Struggle, Gender, and Everyday Life in Diyarbakir,” Everyday Occupations: Experiencing Militarism in South Asia and the Middle East, University of Pennsylvania Press, pp 29–59.

van Roekel, Eva (2016), “Uncomfortable Laughter: Reflections on Violence, Humour and Immorality in Argentina,” Stichting Etnofoor, Vol 28, No 1, pp. 55–74.


The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect the collective view from the journal.



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