Vidhu Vinod Chopra (right) directing Bansi Lal Mattoo on the sets of Shikara in Jammu, 2018
MY EARLIEST memories of Kashmir are the happiest memories of my life. I came from a modest background, but in those days one didn’t need much money to be happy. It was a much simpler life, where even the smallest of joys was cherished immensely. I remember a childhood that was full of laughter, a childhood filled with togetherness. My brothers and I were always laughing, playing in the beautiful, vast outdoors, without even a hint of fear. I remember my mother, Shanti Devi, always busy, packing bags for the innumerable family picnics we would go for. The places where we picnicked were like glimpses of paradise: Pahalgam, Gulmarg, Sonmarg. I’ve rarely been to places more serene and pristine, and I’ve travelled all over the world! In summers, all our extended family members from other parts of the country would come visit us, and the atmosphere would always be celebratory, everyone happy to spend time together and catch up with each other’s lives. It was in Kashmir, against the backdrop of those majestic mountains, that I stole my first kiss and fell in love.
My entire education, right up to the time I left for the Film and Television Institute in Pune, was spent in Kashmir, from DAV School in Amira Kadal to SP College, their alleys and corridors as familiar to me as the back of my hand. Kashmir was where home was.
But by the late-1980s, stories started trickling in that were very concerning. These stories did not bring news of the happy, innocent Kashmir I remembered having grown up in. At first, I thought it was just another brief episode in the tumultuous history of Kashmir and that soon all would become peaceful and I would go back and see my mother and the rest of the family. But work kept me busy in Mumbai.
In 1989, my film Parinda was to release. I still wasn’t making that much money, but I really wanted Ma to be there for the premiere, and so I sent her a plane ticket, something I could ill-afford at that time. That ticket became a one-way ticket, a status that stayed for almost a decade. A bloodied chapter in Kashmir had begun, and she could not return to the Valley. We had a beautiful house in Srinagar, 35-A Wazirbagh. It was looted and vandalised. My aunt’s son was attacked by militants and died a few days later in Delhi. Kashmir ceased to be the Kashmir I knew and grew up in.
It was only much later, in 2000, that Ma could visit her home again, made possible because of the security cover we were afforded by the state government for Mission Kashmir’s shooting. Ma went to her old home with her granddaughter, met her old friends of 40 years, visited the picnic spots in Gulmarg and Khilanmarg that she would so often pack food for. It was a very emotional journey for her when she went to our ancestral village Chak Charatram near Kunzar. Charatram was my great-grandfather’s name. The village was named after him.
When she visited our house in Srinagar, she kept walking from room to room, remembering how things were, how the family would assemble every day to eat together, her favourite sun spot, and her puja room, where she kept her Gods. She kept saying: sab theek hai. All is good. She seemed to have a certain pact with life that no matter what happens, one should not lose hope. That in the end everything was going to be alright. I think that sentiment also comes from the mitti of Kashmir. She never complained, never cursed anyone for the loss of her home. I hope I’ve inherited that quality from her.
Before she passed away in Mumbai in 2007, even when she wanted something, she would always say: agar ho sake toh. If possible. And she told me: agar ho sake toh, humare Kashmir par film banana. That was the reason when after she passed away, I started working on this film. It’s my tribute to her great spirit.
When I began working on Shikara, I wanted to incorporate a bit of that spirit in the story. It went through multiple drafts, but the spirit of the film remained the same. That, in the face of all adversities, a people who lost everything did not lose their grit and their resilience. For 30 years, the Kashmiri Pandits and us Hindus remained a background story. Nobody bothered about us. Governments came and went. Any kind of redress bypassed us. An acknowledgement of pain and justice eluded us.
Through Shikara, I have tried to correct this. I have brought this suffering on to the screen. While I was shooting the film, a woman, Daisy from Achhabal, who has led a difficult life in the refugee camps, told me that even Lord Ram’s exile lasted only 14 years, but our exile has lasted 30 and there is still no end in sight. I hope Shikara creates a conversation where people who remained oblivious to the suffering of Kashmiri Pandits, like that woman, will come forward and say: look, we are sorry. We are sorry that we did not talk about it, or even make attempts to find out more. In Kashmir, people should say: we are sorry that we did not do enough to stop you from leaving. The film should enable them to shed their denial of 30 years, of the fact that the Pandits left because in many cases their friends, neighbours and colleagues turned against them.
Governments will do what they will. But as long as a dialogue does not open up between people, I believe nothing can be achieved. I am eagerly waiting for things to change. I miss home. I want to go back and pack a picnic basket just like Ma and sit by the Lidder River in Pahalgam. That way I will always feel connected to her. There is an old Kashmiri saying: sheen galli, wand tczali te pat ayi bahaar. Translated, it means: the snow will melt, the winter will vanish and the spring will come again.