The new OLX India ad filmed in Kashmir is projecting much more the famed beauty of Valley previously exploited in many “Incredible India” ads and films. Apart from showing the usual stereotypes of Kashmir and Kashmiris as projected in many previous ads and films — bearded, skull capped, Pheran-clad Kashmiri — the new ad appears to normalise the relationship between the military and the Kashmiri natives who are shown as good old “friends” helping each other in tough times.
In the past, many Bollywood films have used Kashmir as a backdrop to enhance the appeal of their song and dance numbers, in between panning out to show some snow capped mountains, gushing streams, houseboats, and flowers and gardens. The idea being to enhance the beautiful background, which serves their purpose, acting a backdrop of their actors, while diminishing the stories of people, which doesn’t serve any purpose for their films. The story of people, at best, remained absent from the screens filled with this sanitised, beautiful landscape, or lingered at the insignificant margins. And if the people of Kashmir did show up on the screens, their stories were either distorted, or they were simply used as props to complete the frame, their lives inconsequential to the plot.
The OLX ad is departure in that sense as it focuses on the military-people relationship in Kashmir, putting the mountains and the landscape in the background. But the ad will find least appreciation in Kashmir as the ad makers appear to have a flawed, simplistic idea of military-civilian relationship in Kashmir which is evident from the ad. The reality, however, is much more complex to be compressed into a minute long ad. When the connection between the army and the inhabitants is shown without its political context and, instead, the troubled relationship sugarcoated with the supposed ‘friendship’ between the army officer and the civilian in Kashmir, it conveys a wrong message to the Indian audience: that the military and the civilian population in Kashmir have a history of friendly relations, and lived in peace, like good old friendly neighbors. It only strengthens their stereotypes about Kashmir and the presence of their soldiers in Kashmir. For Kashmiris, however, the ad is nothing more than mere propaganda masquerading as a feel-good ad which is trying hard to sell an unlikely friendship between the military and the civilian population in Kashmir far removed from its political context.
The polite, submissive Kashmiri subject shown in this ad – Pheran clad Bashir spotting a trimmed beard – runs all the way to the barbed wired army camp, the friendly army officer stepping out and expressing joy after seeing his daughter’s photograph on the upgraded mobile phone arranged by Bashir. And then they hug each other, as if all is well in Kashmir now, and all disputes and differences can melt with a mere hug, notwithstanding the military camps in place, unmoved. If only hugs would resolve all political disputes!
The reality is otherwise and discomforting in a heavily militarised Kashmir. The military camps spread across Kashmir are protected 24/7, the nozzle of the gun pointing out from peepholes of sandbag bunkers installed in and around the military camps, the intense searchlights beaming out at night to spot any suspicious activity around these camps, the military sharpshooters keeping a ready finger on trigger for any suspicious activity.
The ad appears to be successful in comforting its target audience and their idea of Kashmir – that our soldiers are always friendly with Kashmiris, that they can do no wrong in Kashmir; that they only mean to be friendly with Kashmiris, who in turn can’t wait to run freely into army camps and hug the army men. The idea of Kashmir and Kashmiris in such ads is shown as subservient to the idea of India and Indian soldiers in Kashmir.
For the Kashmiris, the ad is bound to be seen as yet another ad that cleverly manipulates the ground realities in Kashmir for the comfort of Indian audience which is far removed from the realities and consequences of deep militarisation on ground. Only the military forces in Kashmir, indefinitely stationed against the wishes of Kashmiris, will have no issues with this ad.
The fact is that the military camps in Kashmir remain, as they have always been, a no-go zone, as structures that redraw a landscape of fear across Kashmir, concretising suspicion, hostility and danger – an undeniable reality of perpetual militarisation and state control of civilian spaces which remains beyond the powers of any regional political dispensation ruling the state.