A journalist from India-administered Kashmir is taking one of Bollywood’s biggest production companies to court, claiming one of its recent blockbusters has put his life in danger.
Faraz Ashraf, 22, says the action movie Shershah, poses security risks for him and his family in India’s only Muslim-majority region, where 12 million people have lived under military restrictions and periodic clampdowns for decades.
Shershah, which one Indian film reviewer called a nationalistic war film, dramatises the real-life exploits of Indian army officer Captain Vikram Batra, who died in 1999 in an intense armed conflict between India and Pakistan to gain control of the border town Kargil, located in an Indian district of Jammu and Kashmir.
(Left) A still from 'Shershah' showing a vehicle being driven by terrorists. (Right) The same numberplate on the care owned by Faraz Ashraf in Baramulla, Kashmir. Photos: Faraz Ashraf
Batra became a national hero after India regained control of Kargil, but the conflict he died in led to increased mistrust between Kashmiris and the Indian government in Delhi, as well as increased Indian military presence in the region.
Ashraf, who has a background in film studies, said that he watched the movie to review it for his publication. His first reaction, he said, was amusement. “But then I got worried,” he added. He said that the “terrorists” depicted in the film drive a car with his exact license plate number, which could potentially make him look like a threat.
“There are many propaganda movies in Bollywood that show Kashmiris collectively as terrorists,” Ashraf, who is taking his case to the high court in the state, told VICE World News. “But this was totally different. My number was portrayed to show a terrorist’s car. ”
In a scene from Shershah, the number plate is clearly visible in a vehicle driven by actors portraying militants. The scene also shows militants stepping out of the same vehicle and firing at Indian soldiers. Ashraf is from Kashmir’s Baramulla district, which often reports clashes between Indian soldiers and insurgents.
Film analysts have often criticised what they see as Bollywood's one-sided depiction of Kashmir, from hypernationalist films such as 'Mission Kashimr' (left) or romanticised ones such as 'Kashmir Ki Kali' (right). Photos: Wikimedia Commons
“I’m a journalist myself, and I travel to other cities for work in my car,” he said. Ashraf added that only the court of law will decide what should be done. “The company should be held responsible,” he said. “With what’s happening in our region, this is highly insensitive.”
His legal petition asks that Dharma Productions not just remove the scene from Shershah, but also be held accountable for putting his life at risk.
“They have not taken my consent to use my registration number,” he said.
Ashraf said that in the past, license plates in films shot in Kashmir have been fictionalised. In Hollywood, special license plates are created to resemble real ones.
Film critics and analysts have long criticized what they see as Bollywood’s one-sided depiction of Kashmir, accusing the industry of fuelling fantasies of Kashmir’s picturesque landscapes, ignoring anxieties on the ground, and connecting Kashmiris with terrorism in hypernationalist films.
The mainstream Hindi film industry, or Bollywood, is valued at at least $1 billion and led the box office markets worldwide in 2020. Shershah, which was released on August 12, is produced by Dharma Productions. The company is estimated to have an annual profit of nearly $67 million. It did not respond to a request for comment.
Jammu and Kashmir, a semi-autonomous state and disputed region between India and Pakistan since 1947, was brought under New Delhi’s control in 2019. Since then, troops have surged, communication blockades and curfews are frequent, and the state is constantly on high-security alert. Troops have been conducting random checks on people and their cars, and this has triggered protests among Kashmiris.
As he waits for legal action, Ashraf remains in fear.
“It’s very irresponsible for such a big media house to have done this,” he said.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.