In the winter of 2018, Tariq Ahmad Mir, a 40-year-old actor with dwarfism from Bumtham, Mir Bazar village in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, went viral on the internet. His resemblance to Peter Dinklage, whose popularity saw a tremendous surge after the series Game of Thrones, caught director Imtiaz Ali’s eye and he uploaded a photo with Mir on instagram. (Ali was in Pahalgam for a film festival when he met Mir and the snowy setting invited comments like “The winter is coming, and he is still in the North.'') Additionally, CNN carried a piece too: “Tariq Mir, Jammu and Kashmir’s Tyrion Lannister look alike, dreams of Bollywood stardom”. Mir was soon approached by a casting director to work in the Hindi film industry and in April 2019, the actor was on his way to this “Bollywood stardom”. He had a guest appearance in Salman Khan’s film Bharat (2019). Mir was in a song and dance sequence that emphasised his resemblance to Tyrion Lannister. Khan remembered Mir by name, which Mir still speaks of with a note of reverent glee. Another opportunity came in Marjawan (2019) by director Milap Zaveri. Mir felt like he was on the cusp of something.
On August 5, 2019, the government announced the abrogation of Article 370. A lockdown and curfew followed in Kashmir. The communication blockade would continue for months (it was officially lifted in February 2021), restricting and scrutinising the mobility of the residents in the Valley. For Mir, work opportunities dried up not only in Mumbai, but also from local tourism in Kashmir. He could only rely on the provisions store that he ran in his village as his primary source of subsistence.
As an actor with dwarfism, Mir stands out in a crowd, but his experiences are not out of the ordinary among fellow actors in Kashmir. Zameer Ashai is a veteran actor and a household name in Kashmir. He started his career in 1976 with a stage play — ‘Khamosh Adalat Jari Hein’ by Kavi Ratan Sharma. He’s been seen in films like Laila Majnu (2018) by Sajid Ali and Shikara (2020) by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. While the lockdown exacerbated the situation, Ashai pointed to the lack of institutional support as a major obstacle for those hoping to be professional actors. The local Doordarshan stopped in-house production of serials a decade ago, which Ashai says hit actors hard. “Whenever we approach the channel, they say they have no funds available for serials and plays,” he said. “I also raised these issues in a meeting with the CEO (chief executive officer) of Prasar Bharati in New Delhi, but nothing was done.”
The situation is dire, say actors from Kashmir, and the financial instability takes a toll on many of their personal lives, as well as physical and mental health. There are appeals on social media in the region for financial assistance for local actors, especially those who have fallen ill and need urgent funds to support their treatment. Many are unable to provide for their families, pay school fees. Institutional support is rare for actors, but while established film industries in cities like Mumbai or Hyderabad have some unions that can look out for industry members, the Kashmiri actors have no such recourse.
Hassan Javaid, 47, from the Natipora area of Srinagar, has been an actor and theatre artist for close to three decades now. He began as the host of a sports program on the local Doordarshan. After the conflict in Kashmir escalated in the early Nineties, Javaid found some work in Urdu and Kashmiri language Doordarshan dramas, and would pursue minor roles in the serials. These paid in the range of Rs. 500 - Rs. 1000. “It was difficult to find regular work those days and the local actors had to go outside the valley to shoot them as the situation in the valley was not conducive for shooting,” Javaid said.
Javaid’s resume is impressive. He is the founder of a private production company that made serials for Doordarshan, some of which have aired both in Srinagar and Delhi. He has acted in around 100 local language drama series and is also the recipient of several awards from a state cultural academy. You would have seen him playing an Indian intelligence agent in Romeo Akbar Walter (2019). The title is supposed to make you think of the Research and Analysis Wing, which goes by the acronym RAW), starring John Abraham and Jackie Shroff. According to Javaid, there are around 400 actors in Jammu and Kashmir who are struggling to find regular work.
“We worked through difficult times in the Nineties as the situation worsened, but we didn’t give up on acting work and took up government jobs like other actors did,” he said. At this stage in their career, those in their 40s or 50s can’t afford to change careers, though that’s what many find themselves compelled to do. There are also allegations from actors, producers, directors and technicians that Doordarshan owes them payment amounting to approximately Rs. 23 crores for past work.
Ashai worries that the new film policy announced by the governing administration in 2021 will benefit, through concessions and subsidies, only filmmakers and producers who are coming to Kashmir for shoots, rather than encouraging local talent. “We have been requesting the Lieutenant Governor’s administration that there should also be some regional film policy for Kashmir to encourage and give work to local artists,” said Ashai. “The film industry people coming from outside are most welcome, but there should be some policy for us as well so that the local film industry also thrives.” The 2021 policy does not offer any specific help to local actors in the region. “The fact is that no government has had any policy for our fraternity here. The talk of new film policy just seems like a mere political project,” he said.
If recent Hindi film song sequences shot in Kashmir suggest the troubled region has been restored to ‘normalcy’, in reality, the only normal that does seem to be in place is that of Kashmiri actors struggling to remain in the profession. Yet, even as they turn to supplement their incomes through other means, many remain committed to their art. Javaid, for instance, said he would rather earn a meagre Rs. 500 rupees from a street play than do anything else. Sometimes, when there is no work, he literally goes from door to door offering to do performances for organisations ranging from government offices to local schools and colleges. “We are actors for life,” he said and then, harking back to the English saying that the legendary Raj Kapoor popularised amongst Hindi film audiences, Javaid added, “the show must go on.”