Bollywood offers a more serene destination for talents from Kashmir
(Left) Aashu Khan, who plays the cajon, with Rafi Khan, a vocalist and guitar player, at their Ghatkopar home. Pic/Sneha Kharabe
In 2013, when 28-year-old Rafi Khan was waiting at the Srinagar International Airport to board a flight to Mumbai, he remembers feeling both excitement and dread. "I couldn't ignore the knot in my tummy, because I was leaving home and travelling thousands of kilometres to a city, where I knew nobody, simply on the assurance of a lady I had met a few days ago," says the vocalist, who hails from Batamaloo, Srinagar.
Khan was no stranger to compliments for his mellifluous voice when he would perform at cafes in the Valley. Patrons - including music producers and filmmakers vacationing in the Valley - would often walk up to him, and suggest he head to Mumbai and make a career in Bollywood. "Nobody offered help or guidance. But, when I met interior designer Rupal Mehta from Ghatkopar, who was in Srinagar for work, there was promise in her voice," he recalls. Two days later, he received a call from Mehta informing him that there was an event in Mumbai where he could perform.
Tassaduq Hussain, a cinematographer, moved to Mumbai from Srinagar in November. Currently, he is assisting ad filmmakers and lives in Lokhandwala
A home in Bollywood
It has been four years since that day at the airport. On Thursday, when we meet Khan at a 3BHK rented apartment in Ghatkopar, which he shares with a Maharashtrian family, he's busy prepping for a gig at a Lower Parel cafe. Twice a week, the vocalist croons Sufi numbers at the venue. "On other days, we're busy travelling to other cities for cultural and corporate events," he says. But, his goal remains Bollywood. "In my family - parents, two brothers and a sister - I am the only one enamoured with Bollywood. I would pick up tunes and strum them on my guitar for hours." His father, a doctor, who also runs a medical store in Srinagar, wasn't in favour and suggested he manage the shop. "He felt a musician had no future in Kashmir, but I couldn't sit at the shop for more than two days," he laughs. Ultimately, they gave in.
Khan moved to his current apartment two years ago. "Till then I was living with Rupal and her family who treated me like one of their own." He now shares the flat and splits the Rs 20,000 rent with Aashu Khan, a fellow Kashmiri musician who plays the cajon, a box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru. "We, along with two other boys, were part of a band back home called Valley Boys. When we would step out of our homes with our guitars in a case, people would think we were carrying guns," he says.
Struggling with biases
Mumbai, with its alluring charm of freedom and seemingly endless employment opportunities, is attracting several young Kashmiris. Umar Wani, from Nishat, Srinagar, who has worked as an actor in television serials like Vivaah and Dharam Patni, was runner up at the 2007 Gladrags Manhunt and Mega Model pageant. He says he gets calls from young men back home every other day wanting to make it in Bollywood. "The problem is people don't know how to go about it. They don't know what kind of homework you need to do to make the cut," says Wani, who made Mumbai his home in 2007. The 30-year-old is also working on making Kashmir's first homegrown commercial film.
"The story is about a young Kashmiri's struggle to make it in the movies. There's so much talent there, but people aren't even aware that acting can be made into a career," he says. Wani, who often shuttles between Srinagar and Mumbai, is gunning only for Bollywood movies now. "With serials, you tend to fall into a pattern in terms of roles and storylines. Movies offer more imaginative roles." He, however, agrees that it's not easy to make it into the movies, despite talent and good looks. Being a Kashmiri Muslim often works against them.
Rafi Khan, recalls how he was selected by the judges at two music reality shows, but was dropped by the channel at the last minute. "It was a strange pattern that I encountered on three occasions. They wouldn't offer any explanation either," he says. He also remembers how difficult it was to rent a house in the city.
Tassaduq Hussain, a cinematographer, says his identity as a Kashmiri, often evokes an amusing mix of reactions. "People are fascinated. But many also treat you like aliens," he laughs. Jokes calling him an aatankwadi are not uncommon. "I brush it off," he says. Currently assisting ad filmmakers with their projects, the Lokhandwala resident, nevertheless loves Mumbai. "Despite the stereotypes, life here is fascinating. You meet all kinds of people, and more often than not, they are nice."
Taking the camera home
Mir Sarwar, who played Munni's father in the 2015 Salman Khan-starrer Bajrangi Bhaijaan, is making efforts, like Wani, to establish a film industry back home. He has made a movie called Kashmir Daily in Koshur and will release the Hindi version in the country later. "When I decided to make a career in Bollywood, I had no mentor to show me the ropes. Bahut joote ghisse hain is chakkar mein," he says.
Till 2014, Sarwar was still living in Pandrethan, Srinagar. "But I would travel to Mumbai for meetings and look tests. I'd stay for a week and return. I finally shifted in 2014," he says. The actor adds that he encourages other filmmakers to work on short films and contributes to their projects without charging a fee in order to encourage filmmaking among residents of the Valley.
"It took us four years to fulfill our dream as it was a completely self- financed project. I am hopeful that after the release of this film, more people will come forward to take the chance that we took."