Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: Frame by Frame – Unveiling Kashmir’s Political and Legal Dynamics through the Lens of Hindi Cinema

Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: Frame by Frame – Unveiling Kashmir’s Political and Legal Dynamics through the Lens of Hindi Cinema

[Devina Srivastava is an international development practitioner and researcher, intrigued by the multifaceted interactions between humans, culture, society, and technology.]

Picture a pristine, ethereal landscape, where the serenity of the snow-capped mountains meets the hustle and bustle of bustling local markets, a place synonymous with an untouched, heavenly beauty – this was the Kashmir etched in the hearts and minds of audiences through the lens of Hindi cinema in the yesteryears. As the camera panned across the Dal Lake, reflecting the tranquillity of the skies, the audience was transported to a utopia, untouched by the ravages of political discord. But as the silver screen shimmered, the real world outside the cinema halls began to churn with the murmurings of discontent, brewing a storm that would soon engulf the paradise.

Fast forward to a few decades later, and the lens of Hindi cinema focused on a Kashmir that now echoed with thundering sounds, a place where love stories blossomed amidst the shadows of conflict. The narrative had shifted, and with it, the portrayal of a region ensnared in a complex web of political, social, and legal dilemmas. Kashmir was no longer just the serene backdrop of romantic sagas, but a protagonist, narrating tales of strife, survival, and the quest for justice.

The celluloid tapestry of Hindi cinema wove narratives that not only entertained but also informed, critiqued, and sometimes, conformed to the prevailing discourses of the times. It mirrored the changing face of a nation, the evolving ideologies, and the ever-complex interplay of domestic and international legal frameworks governing the fate of a region torn between two nuclear-armed neighbours.

As the reels rolled, the characters on screen began to voice the unspoken, question the unquestioned, and challenge the status quo, leading the audience on a journey through the labyrinth of international law, and its nuanced implications on the lives ensnared in the tangle of the Kashmir conflict. Hindi cinema, once a dream merchant selling tales of love and valour, had matured into a platform sparking dialogues on the intricate dance between politics, law, and the human cost of conflict.

This reflective piece embarks on a cinematic journey through time, retracing the evolution of Hindi cinema’s portrayal of Kashmir, and its mirror to the kaleidoscopic world of politics and international law. 

From Serene to Severe: The Cinematic Shift in the 1980s and 1990s 

In the bygone era of the 1980s, Hindi cinema often painted Kashmir with strokes of romanticism, encapsulating its breath-taking beauty and serene landscapes. Films from this time predominantly showcased the region as a peaceful haven, a poetic escape where love blossomed amidst the picturesque valleys and tranquil lakes. The political undertones and the burgeoning conflict were often obscured by the melodious tunes and the enamoured couples dancing in the meadows of Gulmarg. 

However, as the decade turned, and the 1990s dawned, the narrative started to shift. The onset of insurgency in Kashmir post-1989 started to cast long shadows on the silver screen as well. The once tranquil paradise began to be portrayed as a ground of strife, its serene skies now resonating with the echoes of gunfire and explosions. Films like “Roja” (1992), which explored a theme of patriotism and love against the backdrop of terrorism in Kashmir, focusing on a woman’s struggle to rescue her kidnapped husband, heralded a new narrative where the face of the ‘enemy’ was revealed amidst the beautiful valleys and serene waters of Kashmir. 

The political narrative began to become intertwined with the cinematic portrayal, aligning with India’s stance. The simplistic delineation between the heroes and villains started to mirror the broader political and social discourse of the time. The state, represented by its security forces, was often depicted as the righteous, while the insurgents were vilified, reflecting the national sentiment towards the conflict​​.

Moreover, the portrayal of the armed forces and the insurgency also shed a light, albeit dim, on the legal frameworks governing the conflict. However, the engagement with international law was limited at best, often overshadowed by the overpowering nationalistic narrative. The films seldom delved into the complexities of the Kashmir issue from a legal perspective, especially the international legal implications of the conflict, human rights issues, or the disputed territorial claims.

Reel Reflections: Unravelling Law and Life in Kashmir through the Early Millennium

As the new millennium dawned, the narrative palette of Hindi cinema began to diversify. This period saw filmmakers attempting to step beyond the black and white portrayal, exploring the human dimension. The films started shedding light on the intricacies of law, governance, and the individual’s quest for justice amidst the overarching political narrative.

The early 2000s brought films like “Fanaa” (2006), which, while still entrenched in romantic narratives, began to touch upon the underlying conflict. However, it was “Haider” (2014), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” set in the conflict-ridden backdrop of 1995 Kashmir, exploring themes of family, revenge, and the political turmoil in the region. The film took a bold step towards confronting the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a legislation often critiqued for its human rights implications​. “Haider” highlighted the legal and human rights issues faced by the citizens of Kashmir, portraying the struggle between state control and individual rights. While it didn’t delve deeply into international law, it opened a dialogue around the legal frameworks governing the lives of common people in conflict-ridden regions. This was a significant shift towards a more nuanced portrayal, moving away from the overarching nationalistic narrative to understanding the complex dynamics of insurgency, politics, and the impact on civilians.

In the late 2010s, films and digital narratives began exploring the multi-faceted nature of the conflict in Kashmir, but the exploration of international law remained peripheral. One film that stands out from this period is “Hamid” (2018), directed by Aijaz Khan. Set against the backdrop of modern-day Kashmir amidst stone-pelting and gunfire, the film narrates the story of a young boy, Hamid, who in his quest to find God, befriends a Centre Reserve Police Force jawaan named Abhay. Their interactions showcase the harsh realities of life in conflict-ridden Kashmir, albeit without explicitly delving into the international legal aspects of the conflict​​. In this time, the narratives began to reflect a more humanistic approach, portraying individuals’ quests for justice and the struggle for human rights amidst a complex political scenario. However, the portrayal of international law remained largely implicit, overshadowed by broader political or personal narratives. The cinematic narratives seldom ventured into the realm of international legal frameworks governing the Kashmir conflict, such as the Geneva Conventions or other international humanitarian and human rights laws.

Digital Dialogues: Unfurling Kashmir’s Tapestry in a Global Theatre

The digital age heralded a novel era of storytelling, enabling a more nuanced exploration of socio-political themes. Streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ began to host narratives that transcended the traditional Hindi cinema approach, reaching a global audience including the Indian diaspora. This broadened horizon fostered a space where the intricate interplay between the Kashmir conflict, international law, and global perceptions could be explored with more depth and nuance.

The digital platforms ushered in narratives that could delve into the complexities of international law concerning the Kashmir conflict. For instance, series like “The Forgotten Army” delved into historical narratives, providing a contextual background to the challenges in the Kashmir valley. Although not directly addressing the modern legal frameworks, such narratives set a foundation for a deeper understanding of the region’s political and legal quagmire.

The global reach of these platforms meant that the Indian diaspora, often residing in countries with different stances on international law and human rights, became a significant audience. This diaspora engagement facilitated a more diversified discourse around the Kashmir conflict, promoting a dialogue that could bridge the understanding between local realities and global legal frameworks.

Additionally, the long-form storytelling allowed by these platforms enabled a more detailed examination of the legal, political, and social dynamics in Kashmir. Unlike the time-bound narratives of traditional cinema, digital series could afford to delve into the intricacies of international law, such as the application of humanitarian laws, the rights of civilians during conflict, and the international obligations of state actors.

Furthermore, the involvement of the Indian diaspora introduced a global perspective, often bringing in international legal norms and comparisons into the discourse. The diaspora, with its diverse experiences and understanding of international law, contributed to a richer, more informed dialogue around the Kashmir conflict, both on-screen and off-screen. The digital age, thus, marks a significant stride towards a more nuanced and global discussion on Kashmir, opening avenues for a more thorough engagement with international law and its implications on the region.

Final Cut: The Evolving Representation

The journey of Hindi cinema over the decades reveals a lot about how the conflict in Kashmir has been perceived and presented to audiences both in India and globally. As Hindi cinema transitioned from portraying Kashmir as a romantic haven to showcasing the region’s complex socio-political reality, it opened conversations around the deeper issues at play.

The narrative shift not only reflects a growing awareness but also nudges the viewers towards understanding the broader political and legal implications. The films and digital narratives act as a mirror, reflecting the evolving public discourse and at times, catalysing discussions on crucial issues like human rights and international law. Moreover, the global reach of digital platforms has broadened the discourse, engaging the Indian diaspora and international audiences, thus adding diverse perspectives to the conversation.

Hindi cinema has played a significant role in shaping public perception around the Kashmir conflict. Through its evolving narrative, it has invited viewers to look beyond the surface, fostering a more informed and nuanced discussion on a topic that holds national and international relevance. The cinematic lens, though at times dramatised, provides an avenue for reflecting on the Kashmir conflict, thus contributing to the larger dialogue surrounding this enduring issue.

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