Pre-militancy days, the event list of Pahalgam used to be lined up with which bollywood crew was coming for shooting of which movie, and when. For tourists, getting to see in real the actors and the crew was an added incentive. Well, the spirit seems to be coming back to the valley of shephards. Read about this narrative on shooting of Tahaan in Pahalgam penned by Muzamil Jaleel for the Sunday Express recently:
Last winter, when Bollywood returned to Kashmir, Santosh Sivan turned his famed lens to its “wounded beauty”. In the six weeks he spent with his crew, he found humour, courage and donkeys. We bring you the making of Tahaan, a story of a boy and his beloved pet.
Snowflakes lay scattered on the pine branches. A thick blanket of clouds hid the mountain peaks. It was early winter and in the chill, Pahalgam valley looked grim. On the banks of Lidder stream, a short man with a bushy goatee and sleepy eyes sat alone, watching. He was satisfied with what he saw. The landscape had just the blend of beauty and ache he needed for his story.
The story, which he shot in the Valley last December, is not the usual concoction of violence and politics. Tahaan, a film about an eight-year-old and his donkey, is a fable that only obliquely deals with Kashmir’s conflict. It is slated for an international release soon.
Sivan was one of many filmmakers who came to the Valley last year lured by the thaw in violence. “Kashmir is a treat for your eyes,’’ said the filmmaker known for his magical camerawork. “But I wanted to retain the emotion in the images—this penetrating beauty and the heart-rending gloom.”
Tahaan: A boy with a grenade does not dwell only on the gloom. It is a life-affirming tale of eight-year-old Tahaan, played by Mumbai lad Purav Bhandare, and his journey across the mountains with a grenade—a task he takes up only to reclaim his donkey, Birbal.
Finding Birbal was a story in itself. Sivan wanted two donkeys and that, too, look-alikes. There was a small problem. Kashmir has mules and not donkeys. But Sivan was adamant and even threatened to import donkeys from outside. He had done something similar while shooting Malli (1998) in Mudhumalai (Tamil Nadu), when he got a deer from a hundred miles away for his film based on a wildlife cause.
The task of casting the right donkey fell on Faisal Burza, owner of Hotel Senator Pine and Peak in Pahalgam. A young Kashmiri hotelier, Burza played both host and local logistic guide to Sivan’s crew. His friend, the film’s producer and lifeline of its operations, Mubina Rattonsey, accompanied Burza as he ploughed through the villages surrounding Pahalgam town looking for a donkey. Finally, a villager told Burza about Sirhama, a village high up in the mountains. Donkeys had been spotted there. The crew was ecstatic and Sivan decided to go along with executive producer Kamal Mohammad for the casting coup. “When we told the villagers why we were here, they were delighted. The memories of Bollywood crews in Pahalgam were still alive here,” said Burza. So they lined up their donkeys for what turned out to be a full “audition”. “The problem was not just to choose any donkey. We wanted donkeys that would match Sivan’s imagination. The first few looked a bit arrogant,’’ Kamal said wryly. “Then we saw this calm and composed donkey. He looked a bit melancholic as well. And we knew we had found our star. But we took a few of them along. We wanted to see which one among them would bond with Tahaan.’’
Sivan, Kamal and Burza then began a search for his look-alike. “We were very lucky. We found a donkey, who was not only his double but energetic as well,’’ said Kamal. When the donkeys shuffled on to the lawns of the Pahalgam hotel, the crew was amazed to see Purav bond with the chosen donkeys.
In many ways, Sivan’s film also steers clear of cinematic stereotypes of the Valley. Kashmir’s beauty was not always a metaphor for despair. In the 1960s, films like Junglee (1961), Kashmir Ki Kali (1964), Jaanwar (1965), Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965), Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon (1963), and Aarzoo (1965) made it the romance country—tall mountains and Shammi Kapoor, freshwater streams and dimply Sharmila Tagore. After 1989, the year militancy began, it vanished from the movies only to return in the late ’90s as a backdrop for nationalistic films like Mission Kashmir and LOC which provided a skewed Bollywood view of Kashmir and its conflict. Tahaan, however, turns the focus to the individual. It is neither propaganda nor an opinion. “The boy is looking for the purpose of his life. After his father goes missing and his grandfather dies, he is the only ‘man’ at home. His struggle also explains the tragic story of this beautiful land,’’ said Sivan.
The film has a big star cast. For Anupam Kher, it was an emotional homecoming of sorts and Sivan had convinced him that it was safe to come to Kashmir. Rahul Bose, Victor Banerjee and Rahul Khanna, too, had doubts about security but once they were in Pahalgam, their fears were allayed. Several characters were played by local inhabitants. Burza’s sister-in-law Sana Sheikh has a role as do two employees of Hotel Pine and Peak Sajad and Abdul Majeed Shah. CRPF commandant in Pahalgam, Sandeep Gokul, plays the part of a civilian while two television artists from Srinagar are also part of the film.
There were also ordinary people who acted themselves into the script. In one of the film’s sequences, Kher, who plays Kashmiri shepherd Subhan Kakh, gets into a conversation with a few village elders in a barber’s shop. “We requested a few villagers to pose for us. One of them had assisted as a labourer in a Bollywood film in 1970s. But they had never watched a movie,’’ Kamal said. “When Kher sahib delivered his dialogue, the villagers started a conversation, oblivious that a script had to be followed. Kher tried to stop them but they didn’t understand. We continued shooting and it came out very nicely’’.
Not just the local people, the moody landscape and its surprises added to the film. In a scene, Tahaan was to be idling by a pond when another character would throw a stone into the water to attract his attention. “We found the pond completely frozen. We didn’t know what to do but Santosh (Sivan) asked us to carry on. And once the stone fell on the frozen surface of the pond, it made a different sound,’’ Kamal remembered. “Nature was playing magic with our script.’’
There were a few scares for the crew—Kher’s car skidded off a snow-laden stretch in Chandanwari where the road to Amarnath cave ends—but in all, they had a good time and predictably fell in love with the beauty around.
Sivan, though, said he found the grandeur of Kashmir’s landscape predictable. He wanted to look beyond. “When I looked through my camera, it was strange, unsettling. There was no violence while we were shooting but I could feel that strange mist of conflict. Kashmir’s beauty looked wounded,’’ he said. “The most amazing aspect was the people, ordinary people. Little kids would flock around whenever we were shooting. I have never seen so many children. And I saw a lot of hope in their eyes.’’
This film, Sivan emphasised, is a simple human story. “It is about the life of a boy, his family and a Kashmiri village,’’ he said. “It is also a prayer. A prayer that this beautiful land comes out of its tragedy and one day when the Tahaans of Kashmir grow up, they live with dignity, honour and peace.”
The last film shot in Kashmir before militancy began was Elan-e-Jung starring Dharmendra in 1988-89
May 1998: Mere Apnay, starring Amrish Puri, Mukul Dev and Mayuri Kango and written, directed and produced by Rattan Irani was shot in Gulmarg
March, 1999: Boney Kapoor shot several scenes of his film Pukaar, starring Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit under tight security
April 9, 1999: Ashok Thakeria’s Mann, starring Aamir Khan and Manisha Koirala, had a song and few sequences shot on the snowy slopes of Kongdori in the upper reaches of Gulmarg. The security provided by the J-K government was unprecedented
Nov, 1999: Mani Ratnam shot several song sequences for his Tamil film Allipadi (Breaking The Waves) at the Dachigam National Park
2000: Mission Kashmir by Vidhu Vinod Chopra
2005: Yahaan by director Shoojit Sircar
2008: Director Raj Kanwar’s film Sadiyaan is based on the return of peace in Kashmir and was recently shot in the Valley especially in the colourful tulip garden. The film has a glittering star-cast of veterans including Rekha, Hema Malini, Rishi Kapoor and newcomer Shatrugun Sinha’s son Luv. Director Rahul Dholakia is currently in Srinagar, working on a Sanjay Dutt-starrer based in Kashmir