Roja: How Bollywood portrays the Valley through a rose-tainted lens

In 1994, a new Kashmir film for changed times appeared: Roja (The rose), directed by Tamil filmmaker Mani Ratnam. Its portrayal of a South Indian middle-class couple caught in Kashmiri separatism offered an allusion to loss, evoking previous Hindi films set in Kashmir; and indicating to the middle-class tourists from other parts of India that they can no longer visit Kashmir, a place of ravishing natural beauty—as the camera insistently points out—that should be rightfully ‘ours’ but has now been made inaccessible.

Lacing this feel-good narrative is a heady obeisance to the dominant values of 1990s India: resurgent Hindu nationalism and a glitzy, post-liberalization consumerism. Fittingly, its catchy soundtrack circulated through the new private television channels, bringing the film nationwide attention. This unexpected, pan-Indian success laid bare the collusion between “the secret politics of our desires” and Roja’s flamboyant connection of Hindutva-style public culture to an inherited imagining of Kashmir.

Through Roja and the intellectual debate it provoked, violence and geopolitics finally intervened within Kashmir’s cinematic performance. But critics and apologists alike failed to note the film’s melancholic undercurrent. Political violence had made filming in the Valley impossible, and Mani Ratnam simulated its topography by turning to the adjoining Himalayan foothills.

A new Kashmiri character appears: the terrorist, whose ability to solicit from an audience an ambivalent fascination is dissipated by splitting him into “good” and “bad” versions. Thus, the terrorist Liaqat Khan is redeemed as he lets Rishi go, but his compatriot Wasim Khan remains a threat to the nation and the narrative. Roja’s return to this fantasy is thus a masked realization of the impossibility of return. A contemporaneous response to the violence in Jammu and Kashmir, it also marks cinema’s attempt to reclaim what was in the process of being lost to the national imaginary through Kashmiri rejection of the nation.

Additionally significant is that cinema’s renewed interest in Kashmir was catalyzed by a product of a regional film industry, whose competition with Bollywood parallels political contestations between Northern and Southern India. Mani Ratnam’s successful penetration of the national market with Roja—a first for a Tamil film—points not only to his timely capture of an older territory of desire hitherto dominated by Bollywood; it also revives the power of this cinematic Kashmir to forge a national identity.

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