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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 April, 2003, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
Kashmir beckons Bollywood

Jill McGivering
BBC correspondent in Srinagar

A team of Bollywood executives is in Indian-administered Kashmir to assess the region's potential as a film location, despite the threat of separatist militancy here.

Actor Benjamin Gilani (right)
Actor Benjamin Gilani (right) - thought twice about coming
The visit has been arranged by Jammu and Kashmir's new chief minister who's keen to woo film makers with special deals designed to tempt them back.

Hopes have been raised by a Bollywood feature film now being shot in Srinagar, one of only a handful filmed here since violence intensified at the end of the 1980s.

It was dizzying to watch. Dozens of technicians were scurrying in all directions, building a track for the camera, erecting giant reflectors on all sides and fixing lights and props.

A man with a pot of blue paint was bent double, making his way stoically along a row of whitewashed stones, painting every third one blue.

To the side, the young male stars, in designer sunglasses, thick make up and mock military uniforms, were gossiping, pausing every few minutes to check their hair in hand-held mirrors.

A stooped man was weaving through them all with trays of milky tea while a boy passed soundlessly behind him, collecting empty glasses from the previous round.

It had all the life and chaos of a typical Bollywood film-set but with one key difference - this film was being shot in a very unusual place.

Anonymous phone calls

Hindi-language film Agnipankh (Wings of Fire) is the brainchild of Sanjiv Puri. He's the scriptwriter, director and acts in it too.

He's also the man responsible for bringing the team of 125 to Srinagar where about 60%of the film will be shot.

Sanjeev Puri
It is only the fear that we fear and I was not prepared to be cowed down by a few people touting guns
Sanjiv Puri
He says his friends and colleagues back in Bombay (Mumbai) told him he was "nuts".

He's received threatening anonymous telephone calls warning him to stay away.

Just before the team flew out, news broke of the killing of 24 Hindu villagers in the Kashmiri village of Nadimarg and some of his colleagues pulled out of the film.

But despite all this, he's convinced he has chosen the right location.

"I have 50 to 70% discount on all hotels I'm staying in which makes it cheap," he told me.

"It's cheaper than going to Switzerland and it's as beautiful, if not more. I think Kashmir is a very, very commercially viable location.

"Ultimately it is only the fear that we fear and I was not prepared to be cowed down by a few people touting guns."

'Wall of fear'

He says part of his motivation is ideological. He speaks of directors and actors as soldiers in their own way, capable of making a contribution in the fight against militancy.

Filming in Srinagar

"There's a wall of fear between Bombay and Kashmir. We've just come to take out the first brick. I believe it will be bulldozed down."

His optimism is music to the ears of many in Indian-administered Kashmir, from the newly-elected Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Saeed to the unemployed and underemployed desperate for outside investment.

Before the late 1980s, when militant-related violence intensified, the Kashmir Valley was a popular scenic backdrop for Bollywood romances, with many a song and dance routine exploiting the beauty of Dal Lake and its distant snow-capped mountains.

Nowadays the industry is too scared to come. In the last decade, only a handful of films have been shot here.

But the chief minister has set his sights on Bollywood, determined to woo them back. It's a key part of his rescue plan for the region's ailing economy.

He recently flew to Bombay for meetings with producers and directors, trying to entice them with incentives.

This week a senior Bollywood delegation is touring locations in the state, guests of the chief minister. They'll discuss concerns and possible sweeteners. All the security surrounding Wings of Fire and its crew, for example, has been provided free of charge.

The very fact that Wings of Fire is being filmed here has raised hopes.

Taxi driver Riaz, 24, has been hired as one of their drivers.

Bollywood shouldn't make itself vulnerable - we're not only talking about lives but a lot of monetary investment as well
Actor Benjamin Gilani
"Normally, I only get one day's work a week," he said. "With them, I've got 28 days straight. So now I'm hoping more film crews might come - and, God willing, that might encourage tourists to come back as well."

It may not be that simple.

Sanjiv Puri has promised to shoot his next two films here as well. But he may struggle to convince others.

The final judge

Actor Benjamin Gilani admitted that he thought twice about coming. Big productions could be an obvious target, he said. No-one should take unnecessary risks just to prove a political point or to be macho.

"Bollywood shouldn't make itself vulnerable," he said. "We're not only talking about lives but a lot of monetary investment as well."

The chief minister's plans show enthusiasm and are ambitious.

But Bollywood will be the final judge of whether his vision of their return to the Valley in significant numbers is realistic or just too far-fetched to prove convincing.

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