A Kashmiri Filmmaker Returns For the Love of Kashmir & Cinema
Ever since the rise of militancy in Kashmir during the 1990s, cinema lovers in the valley have been deprived of watching their favourite stars on the silver screen. It all began in the dreaded summer of 1989, when the militants started targeting anything and everything they deemed ‘un-Islamic’.
It wasn’t long before the cinema halls in Kashmir were shut down. Today, they are in ruins, some serving as camps for security forces, while the others have been converted into guest houses or shopping marts.
Danish Renzu, a Srinagar-born filmmaker, is keen on reigniting the Kashmiri passion for cinema. Interestingly, he quit his job at AT&T in 2015 to pursue his passion for storytelling. An alumnus of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Renzu studied Feature Film and Screenwriting under the prestigious UCLA Writers' Programme. Having made short films like In Search of America, Inshallah, The Virtual, and Sheikh Chilli and His Three Wives, Renzu is currently working on his second feature film The Illegal, starring Suraj Sharma and Adil Hussain.
Danish’s debut feature film Half Widow – the story of an illiterate Kashmiri woman named Neela, inspired by the life of activist Parveena Ahangar, in search of her husband who simply disappears one day, is set to premiere in October.
Returning to Kashmir after a decade, Renzu reveals in this interview, his experiences of filming in the valley, and what cinema means to him and his people.
Q: You left Kashmir in 2005 to pursue Engineering at UCLA. About ten years later, you’re back in the valley to shoot your debut feature Half Widow. How has Kashmir changed over the last decade?
Danish Renzu: Not much has changed as far as the infrastructure and day to day life are concerned. However, I do see the new generation very actively involved in art, music, movies, etc. The industry which barely existed a decade ago is finally coming back to life. And, I am hopeful it’s the current generation, comprising of dreamers, enthusiasts, scholars, etc. that will bring about change in the valley, Inshallah. One caveat however, which is quite tragic, is that a lot of youngsters have left the valley and are settled outside the state, due to the lack of technology, jobs, and unending curfews/shutdowns in the valley. They think there is no scope in the valley. This is also one of the reasons I have been unable to live here for a long time. However, I am hopeful things will change here soon.
Q: The situation in Kashmir is not conducive for movie lovers. What according to you is the way forward to restore peace and normalcy in the valley?
Danish Renzu: It’s up to the people to realise that there is a competitive world outside the valley and that the curfews are only taking us backwards. Kashmir is a leaderless state and once we find the right leader, who truly works for the betterment of the youth and focuses on progress, things will return to normal. Since the 90s we are seeing the same people running again and again in the elections and they haven’t been able to do much for the people in the larger scale. Reviving cinema in the valley is also up to its own people. I hope I will be able to release Half Widow locally since a majority of the cast and crew is Kashmiri. This will encourage more filmmakers here to make films and release them locally.
Q. Kashmir has such a rich tradition of art and music that even after two decades of chaos, it continues to produce talented artists. How can cinema help in promoting local talent?
Danish Renzu: Half Widow comprises largely of a local cast and crew and they are exceptionally talented. But we lack a good platform. Thanks to technology, we have so many platforms now to showcase our talent; be it Netflix, Amazon Prime, or social media sites, and so we are not only dependent on cinema to promote talent and our work. A filmmaker makes a movie so it’s shown in a theatre. I want people of Kashmir to see Half Widow on the big screen and in Kashmir itself. I had a private screening of Half Widow is LA and I was amazed by the response from people of different backgrounds and ethnicities, who could relate to the story. They also appreciated the local rabab music and were curious to hear more Kashmiri songs. For me, it was a great accomplishment to be able to show a locally made film on a big screen in LA, a truly proud moment. Kashmir has been open to filmmaking for the last few years. A lot of movies are being made in the valley and local talent is getting involved.
Many Kashmiris have joined Bollywood and are doing really well. I am very proud of Zaira Wasim, who was one of the daughters in Dangal, now playing the lead in Amir Khan’s Secret Superstar. Even Abrar Zahoor, who was marvelous in Neerja. My lead actress Neelofar Hamid, who is also based in Kashmir, is a super talent. So things are definitely changing as more and more people are getting interested in films. And then Mir Sarwar and Shahnawaz Bhat are doing great work. But we don’t have a platform. There are no cinemas. And that’s the biggest tragedy.
Q: Your film Half Widow tackles a very sensitive subject, that has been touched upon by non-fiction films like Iffat Fatima’s Khoon Diy Baarav and Ashvin Kumar’s Inshallah, Kashmir. Vishal Bhardwaj’s drama film Haider, based on a screenplay by Basharat Peer too touches upon the issue. How is your film different?
Danish Renzu: The film is about a common Kashmiri woman and her plight while living the life of a half widow. The whole story is being told through her point of view —the choices she must make, the suffering, the pain and finally how she finds happiness again.
We haven’t dealt with anything political; conflict is always shows as a backdrop in the film. Our film focuses on our protagonist Neela’s plight and depicts how her life changes after her husband is taken away by force. The film is a family drama consisting of music, poetry and ends on a positive note. Even though Neela goes through hell, she still finds paradise in her soul and realizes that her life is important and she must make a difference by looking outside of herself. I think most of the other movies you mentioned were heavily focused on the conflict and the politics around it.
Q: A lot of filmmakers have chosen to stay away from Kashmir on grounds of safety. What kind of challenges did you face while shooting in the valley?
Danish Renzu: Since mostly locals were involved in the film, it was very easy to go to unexplored locations and shoot. We got a lot of support from the locals, which helped us to complete our shooting schedule. However, the last schedule was very challenging, especially because of the gruelling political situation in the valley last summer. The project got delayed because of it.
Q: Your second feature film The Illegal deals with immigrants in the US. How did the film come together? Also, how would you compare the issue of illegal immigrants in the US to the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits?
Danish Renzu: I went to the United States as an immigrant around 13 years ago and realized how hard it is to make it in America, especially as an immigrant. I met so many other dreamers from various countries, all chasing their dreams and working very hard to make them come true. So, the script came into picture from my own personal experience. However, the film is a very simple narrative of an Indian student and his plight as an immigrant, while he chases his dream of becoming a filmmaker. It’s a character driven narrative and focuses on my protagonist’s journey as an immigrant in the United States and the hurdles he must face. But, irrespective of the circumstances, his passion to fulfill his dream never fades always and that’s why he is our hero.
I guess identity crisis is the common thread that Kashmiri Pandits and illegal immigrants in America face… especially children of illegal immigrants in America (referring to the recent news on DACA) who will always associate themselves as Americans, irrespective of their status. Even Kashmiri Pandits, who have been forced to live in the other states in India, will always go through an identity crisis since Kashmir is their real home. As Kashmiri Muslims, keeping aside politics, from a humanitarian level it’s our responsibility to acknowledge this and understand their plight; how difficult it must be to live a life of a refugee in their own country.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your experiences of working with Suraj Sharma and Adil Hussain?
Danish Renzu: I had been wanting to work with Suraj Sharma for a while and we were initially going to do a project in Kashmir, but ended up filming The Illegal together. I have appreciated his work in Life of Pi, Homeland, Million Dollar Arm, and even loved him in Umrika. He is supremely talented and disciplined. I already miss working with him and have already roped him in for my next film in Kashmir. For emotional scenes, he doesn’t even need lines, but can express everything through his eyes.
Q: You have developed a reputation of being a filmmaker driven by realism. Are you open to working in Bollywood on mainstream projects, if an opportunity comes by?
Danish Renzu: My next film is titled Pashmina, which is also set in Kashmir and it mostly stars a mix of international and mainstream actors. The film is again driven by realism and has a character driven narrative. I am quite enjoying this space at the moment. It’s nothing like mainstream Bollywood. For me, it’s always the screenplay which is the most important factor. In the past, it was all about big stars and big budget movies. However, now the trend is changing. Small films without any big stars are doing well and being recognised globally. However, I am certain that I want to tell stories for a worldwide audience.
(Murtaza Ali Khan is an independent film critic based out of Delhi, India. He is the editor-in-chief of 'A Potpourri of Vestiges')