Bollywood Returns To Kashmir As Violence Falls

21 February 2009
Agence France-Presse

Srinagar: It had all the hustle and bustle of a typical Bollywood movie set but with one big difference - the flick was being made in Indian Kashmir, usually more in the news for shoot-outs than for film shoots. For onlookers, the rolling cameras were another sign violence is declining in Muslim-majority Kashmir, beset by a deadly separatist revolt since 1989. The film, 'Lamhaa,' or 'Moment,' has top Bollywood box office draws Sanjay Dutt and Bipasha Basu playing lead roles. 'Kashmir is a paradise on earth. It's wonderful to be here,' said Dutt, 49, after a scene on a bridge over the fast-flowing Jehlum river, the site of many clashes between soldiers and Islamist rebels. 'I've a special emotional attachment to the land and the people here as my father and mother both shot films in Kashmir,' said Dutt, whose parents were Bollywood legends. Before the revolt erupted, the picturesque Kashmir valley was often used by directors to shoot song-and dance-sequences against the backdrop of the shimmering Dal lake in the summer capital Srinagar. But as the insurgency gained momentum, film-makers shunned the region for security reasons, fearing attacks by militants. They turned to the Alps in Switzerland as a substitute romantic backdrop for the frothy musical numbers that are staple of the Hindi-language movie industry. However, violence has declined sharply since nuclear-armed India and Pakistan began a slow-moving peace process in January 2004 to settle their conflicting claims to the region. The talks were put on hold after the Mumbai attacks, which killed 165 people and which New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based Islamic militants but violence has remained low in Kashmir. In 2007, tourist officials launched a campaign appealing to film-makers to head to the valley, promising heavily-armed escorts and access to any site. There have been a few small-budget Bollywood movies shot here since, but 'Lamhaa' is the first featuring top actors. 'The place is beautiful. The people are beautiful. So anyone who wants to make films in Kashmir should go for it,' said director Rahul Dholakia, who declined to reveal details of the movie's plot. 'Our policy of promoting Kashmir seems to be working,' said the region's tourism chief Farooq Shah. 'As peace is fast returning, we hope more producers will return to their favourite haunts in Kashmir,' he said. And Shah said he hoped if Bollywood film-makers come back to Kashmir, tourists will follow. The number of visitors to Kashmir - once known as the Switzerland of the East because of its snow-capped mountain vistas - plunged after the outbreak of the revolt. 'I hope that where actors go, tourists will follow,' Shah said. The return of film crews was greeted with enthusiasm by war-weary Kashmiris. Young people came in droves to watch the crew scurry in different directions to erect sets. 'It's great to see the movie-makers back. This kind of 'peaceful shooting' will send a very positive signal to the outside world and boost tourism,' said tourist houseboat owner Habib Ullah.