Jammu and Kashmir’s erstwhile assembly, once termed to be most empowered, played host to a Bollywood crew shooting Maharani, a political thriller surrounding Lalu Prasad Yadav and Rabri Devi governance in Bihar in the 1990s. Syed Shadab Ali Gillani reports the highs and lows of the controversy it triggered within Kashmir’s political class.
Hours after, the release of the teaser for Tinsel Town diva, Huma Qureshi’s Maharani (Season 3), the political elite of Jammu and Kashmir triggered a controversy much bigger than the masala web series plot. The sequences were shot in 2023 summer but the teaser made it public only in January 2024.
“The true face of ‘the mother of democracy,’ where once elected representatives of the people from all parties, religions, backgrounds, and parts of J and K legislated on matters of great importance, now actors and extras use it as a set for TV dramas,” Jammu and Kashmir former Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah wrote on X, the erstwhile Twitter. He shared photographs related to the web series shoot. “What a shame that the BJP-driven government in J&K has reduced the symbol of democracy, where they once sat & governed, to this sorry state of affairs. They even have a fake CM coming out of an office I was privileged to occupy for 6 years. What an absolute shame!!!!”
Jammu and Kashmir’s legislative assembly is closed since 2018 summer when the BJP pulled out of the BJPDP alliance on June 19, 2018, which led to the fall of the Mehbooba Mufti-led coalition government. There has been no activity in the once bicameral legislature that was considered the most empowered of all the state assemblies in India.
Later that year, there was an effort to form the government when Kashmir’s political parties approached the Raj Bahwan with adequate numbers. The then governor, Satya Pal Malik did not receive the formal letter and later said it could not happen because his fax machine was not functional. He dissolved the assembly sine die on November 21, 2018. He cited “horse trading” as the reason for dissolution termed illegal by most of the political class across India.
“Mehbooba had the majority but she faltered in the procedure to stake a claim for government formation. They are not made on Twitter. She called for no meeting, there was no proposal, and there was no formal support from Farooq Abdullah. Farooq was in Delhi and he said that they would take a call on the matter the following day. The support that her party had was not explicit and formalised. She did not follow the proper norms for staking claim to government formation,” Malik recently revealed justifying his decision, though admitting she had the majority numbers. “My own assessment is that they (BJP) wanted that I should invite Sajad Lone to form the government. I asked Lone. He didn’t have even six MLAs. But he said that if you let me take over, I can prove the majority in a week. I sensed there would be a major horse-trading if I allowed that. I told him, this is not my job and I will not do it”.
Since then, the assembly – having premises each at Srinagar and Jammu, is locked.
In June 2023, however, the Jammu and Kashmir administration opened its doors for the crew of the web series for the shooting of its Season 3, said to be a gripping political drama produced by Kangra Talkies. The first two seasons of the series were broadcast on SonyLIV. The series delves into the political and social landscape of Bihar during the 1990s, under the leadership of former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav. It navigates through the aftermath of the infamous fodder scam that led to Lalu’s resignation and the installation of his wife, Rabri Devi, as his successor.
In an Instagram post on October 26, 2023, Kangra Talkies posted a few pictures and wrote, “As we wrap up Maharani Season 3 in the serene mountains of Jammu and Srinagar, we are filled with gratitude for the amazing team that brought this story to life.”
The web series is an acclaimed political thriller, created and written by Subhash Kapoor and directed by Karan Sharma. Its Season 2 was shot across Bhopal, Hoshangabad, and Jammu and Kashmir. Reports appearing in the media suggest that Season 2 had a brief but crucial shoot in Jammu. To feature the Lalu family’s misgovernance, the government opened the doors of the assembly in Jammu and Kashmir to record the flick. Reports appearing in the media suggest that part of the assembly premises in Jammu was refurbished in anticipation of the shooting.
After Omar’s scathing criticism, Hansal Mehta, a Bollywood filmmaker, penned a long reply.
“Why is it a shame? How is the filming of a drama demeaning democracy or the ‘mother of democracy’? Everybody on a film set including actors, and background actors (called ‘extras’ by you) are all citizens of this country and have every right to work with dignity and deserve respect and understanding- at least from somebody as educated as yourself,” Mehta reacted. “In countries around the world, we are given use of public places, government buildings, council halls and the like for shooting. It is because of this unwelcoming attitude that India is considered an unfriendly shooting location and we often prefer shooting abroad. I have great respect for you, but this feels very disrespectful, regressive and myopic.”
The Official Response
Much later, the Jammu and Kashmir government responded to the controversy insisting permitting Maharani to enter the assembly was not illegal. “It’s not illegal,” a senior officer was quoted saying in Greater Kashmir. “Permission for the same was granted as per the procedure prescribed for shooting by the Information Department.”
Encouraging the filmmakers to shoot in Kashmir is a high priority for the administration in Jammu and Kashmir. On August 5, 2021, Lt Governor Manoj Sinha, in the presence of Bollywood actor Aamir Khan and filmmaker Raj Kumar Hirani, unveiled the film policy, aimed at “fostering a vibrant film ecosystem”. The policy established a Single Window Cell to expedite film shooting permissions, with a commitment to grant approvals within 2 to 4 weeks. Besides, the filmmakers get attractive financial support under the policy.
Open-source information suggests that the Jammu and Kashmir administration has permitted the shooting of 400 films after adopting the film policy. Of these films about 250 have already been completed as of 2023, reports said. As many as 700 film producers are believed to have applied for the permissions.
The statements made by the filmmaker and the Jammu and Kashmir government did not help the controversy die down. Mohit Bhan, spokesperson of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) termed the shoot “highly insensitive”.
“I had raised the objection towards this insensitivity when this shooting began back in 2023 through a post on Twitter,” Bhan said. “To showcase Naya Kashmir & appease Delhi somewhere the administration has touched a new low by allowing a bunch of drama actors to perform their drama at a place which is constitutionally Sacrosanct and emotionally attached to the people of Jammu and Kashmir.” Bhan sees the shooting as an attempt at “belittling” a “sacrosanct space”.
“J&K’s democratic legacy tarnished by the BJP-led government,” former PDP lawmaker, Firdous Tak wrote on X. “What was once a hub for diverse governance is now a stage for political theatrics. A shameful state of affairs.”
Regardless of Mehta’s assertion that cinema is being facilitated in shooting films of importance in public institutions, India lacks precedence. No legislative body in India has ever permitted a filmmaker to get into the legislative assembly space to shoot a film.
There are two precedents, however. Ram Gopal Varma’s 1999 action crime film Shool which deals with politician-criminal nexus and the criminalisation of politics in Bihar was shot in Motihari, Bihar but its climax was entirely shot at the abandoned state Legislative Assembly in Bhopal.
In 2019, the Kerala government permitted Malayalam megastar Mammootty to shoot some sequences of his political drama, One in the old complex of the Kerala Legislative Assembly. That was the first time when the government opened the old complex for film shooting. The assembly moved to Niyamasabha Mandiram in May 1998.
Media reports suggest that Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut has, requested permission to shoot her upcoming film Emergency within Parliament premises but was denied permission.
So Jammu and Kashmir assembly holds the record for becoming the film legislative assembly that played host to a crew shooting a political drama about Bihar.
A Possible Reopening
If everything goes as per the script, then the Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly will open again later this year, after the assembly elections as directed by the Supreme Court. The house, however, will be a hugely altered one. It will not be a state assembly but an assembly of a Union Territory. It will not be a twin-house legislature as the legislative council does not exist anymore. It will have nobody from Ladakh as the arid desert region is a separate UT without an assembly.
Even its numbers will be higher, unlike in 2018, when it operated for the last time. After delimitation, the total seats in the assembly rose to 114 seats, out of which 24 seats are designated for areas that fall on the other side of the Line of Control. Out of the remaining 90 seats, 43 seats are in the Jammu division and 47 seats are for 10 Kashmir districts. In between the transition, between 2018 and 2024, it was the tinsel Maharani, who remained the only visitor to Kashmir’s assembly.