It was Vishal Bardawaj’s Haider that helped Kashmiri artists revive their lost connections with their homeland. Shams Irfan meets three Kashmiri actors who successfully traced their roots and lost memories after landing on the sets of Haider.
On a wintry afternoon, Bollywood actor Lalit Parimoo, who runs Abhinaya Yog acting academy in Mumbai, used his artistic instinct and childhood memories to locate his ancestral home in Balgarden, a Srinagar suburb, after 26 years. As Parimoo walked through the narrow streets of Srinagar, where he used to play as a child, a sense of homecoming set in.
Parimoo noticed that things have changed in last more than two decades in once posh Balgarden locality where he lived with his parents before migrating to Mumbai in 1987.
After walking through the streets for sometime like a lost child, he instinctively stopped outside a big palatial house. It was his father’s house. Undecided, Parimoo stopped outside its entrance for a while. He was not sure of the occupants. He thought what if they won’t let him in? What if the new occupants won’t care what this house meant for him?
But that was too small a risk compared to 26 years of yearning. Without giving any second thoughts he was quickly inside the main gate.
Zargar Sahib, an elderly person who perhaps saw Parimoo scanning the house, shouted from inside, “loal chueya amuth” (you missing this place).
It was an instance reaction from elderly Zargar who now lives in Parimoo’s ancestral house with his wife and children. Parimoo, already overwhelmed by the feel of being home, simply nodded his head in affirmation.
Finally Zargar welcomed Parimoo inside the house and showed him around. The same night Parimoo had dinner with Zargar’s family. And the date for second dinner was fixed immediately. It was homecoming for Parimoo who has come to Kashmir after 26 years of struggle in Mumbai’s film industry. “It was because of Vishal [Bhardwaj’s] film Haider that I can see my house again,” says 46 year old veteran actor who has appeared in forty stage plays, three hundred radio plays and fifty six television serials & films.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider is the first Bollywood film which is entirely shot in Kashmir. Based on Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet the film is set and shot entirely in Kashmir. Vishal who is known for successfully adapting Shakespeare’s famous plays Othello (Omkara) and Macbeth (Maqbool) for Bollywood, told media men during a limited gathering interaction that he has brought Kashmir actors from across India to make it a “complete Kashmiri film”.
“Apart from lead actors almost everybody else working with Haider is a Kashmiri,” says Parimoo.
Despite a gap of more than two decades Parimoo’s memories of his birthplace are still intact. “It feels like I have never been away.”
When he was contacted by a casting director for a role in Bardawaj’s Haider, which was to be shot in Kashmir entirely, Parimoo said yes immediately. “That very instant all my childhood memories flashed back in my head,” recalls Parimoo while sitting comfortably in his vanity van parked outside SKICC Srinagar where a sequence is shot for the movie. After Haider packs up, Parimoo promises to be back more often to Kashmir. “I want to work with Kashmiri youth who are enthusiast about acting. There is lot of raw talent in Kashmir. They just need a bit of polishing and they can work wonders,” feels Parimoo. As shooting wraps up in Kashmir, Parimoo will fly back to Mumbai with two things: fresh memories of his father’s house and lotus stems for his family.
He even has a place to stay in Kashmir: a rent free room offered by Zargar in his house.
It is a cold afternoon and valley’s lone international convention centre SKICC is buzzing with activity. People wearing fancy dresses move in an out of large makeup vans parked outside the facility.
In a corner, at the cafeteria located near the spacious parking lot, bear and tiger, with their artificial heads placed casually on the table, are sipping hot tea together.
Near the venue of shot, Sumit Kaul, is sitting all alone trying to keep himself warm under the weak winter sun. Sumit smiles as people approach him. He greets everybody with a smile. Almost all Kashmiris present on the set seem to know him. He chats with all of them.
Wearing a red sweater, Sumit occasionally runs his hand in his hair to keep them from falling on his forehead, as he remembers his lines for the shot on the banks of Dal Lake. It was a call from casting director Mukesh Chabaria for a role in Vishal Bhardawaj’s Haider, that helped Sumit revive his lost connection with Kashmir. “Vishal was looking for someone who could speak Kashmiri as well,” says Sumit while shaking hands with locals on the sets.
Thirty-five-year old Sumit’s parents migrated to Mumbai in 1975. Sumit was born in Mumbai.
Sumit was excited to shot in Kashmir as he wanted to see his father’s house in Jawahar Nagar. Before coming to Kashmir with team Haider his memory of the place was limited to what he has heard from his grandparents and parents. “I was here when I was just 10. I remember playing outside our house with kids. We used to spend our summer vacations here before things turned ugly in Kashmir. It was so beautiful.”
Sumit is overwhelmed by the way he is treated by locals who are associated with Haider, after they learned about his Kashmiri roots. “My driver (Shabir) treated me like his brother after I told him that I am a Kashmiri. He even got Haakh (Knol-Knol) specially cooked for me.”
Despite never visiting Kashmir in last 25 years Sumit speaks Kashmiri fluently. Besides playing a major role in Haider he also helps actors with their Kashmiri accent on the sets. “I have learned Kashmiri from my grandfather. He was very particular that I learn language of my forefathers,” says Sumit. “I love being here as it feels like home.”
Sumit, who was part of Lagi Tujhse Lagan (Colors TV) for two years, always knew that he wants to be an actor.
In 2004, after completing his Masters in international business Sumit joined Nadira Babar’s theater group Ek Jhut. But doing theater was not enough to sustain in a place like Mumbai. Sumit finally joined his father’s export business and kept acting as a hobby only. But he could not keep himself away from acting for long and dedicated himself fully to his dream since 2007.
Another Kashmiri face in Haider is Ashwin Dhar, who left valley when armed militancy challenging India’s rule in Kashmir erupted in 1989.
After completing his graduation from SP College, Ashwin started working as a medical representative, while being part of Sangam Theatre based in Gawkadal, Srinagar. It was 1988 and the situation on ground was changing fast.
Within a year, Ashwin, who wanted to remain associated with theatre in Srinagar, was on his way to Jammu with his mom. “It changed everything in my life,” recalls Ashwin. Once in Jammu Ashwin was forced to take odd jobs to keep his passion for theater alive. After his mother’s death he moved permanently to Mumbai in 1991. “I struggled a lot to reach where I am today,” says Ashwin. His first major break came when he assisted Kamal Hassan in his directorial debut film Chachi 420 (1997). “I even played a small role (Om Puri’s manager) in that film.” That was the start of Ashwin’s Bollywood journey. Since then he has worked in films like Kabul Express, Hijack and D Day.
But it was a phone call from casting director of Haider that Ashwin likes to cherish for a long time. It took Ashwin less than a minute to accept a role in Haider after he learned that the film will be shot in Kashmir. “I feel connected to this place. I am very attached to Kashmir,” says Ashwin.
It pains Ashwin to see theater in Kashmir remain neglected in last two and half decades of conflict. “I am planning to come back permanently and work for its (theater’s) revival in Kashmir,” says Ashwin hopefully.
With around 200 small and big Kashmiri artists present on the sets of Haider it is homecoming for a few. As Sumit puts it aptly, shooting locations of Haider look like one big canvas showcasing different shades of Kashmir.