‘The Valley is left with just one faith. A Beautiful garden needs many flowers’

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Sanjay Suri will soon be playing a reformed militant. He talks to E Nina Rothe about his complex feelings while shooting in Kashmir

Swathe of memories Suri has returned to Kashmir for his film
Swathe of memories Suri has returned to Kashmir for his film
Photo: Raj Suri

Sanjay Suri is the rare actor unafraid to take on unconventional roles. Whether he’s playing the HIV positive protagonist in My Brothel Nikhil or a shopowner during the Gujarat riots in Firaaq, he always pushes his creative boundaries. Unlike insider Hindi film heroes, he hasn’t had an obliging father to set him on his way. His father was shot dead by militants in Kashmir. Which makes his latest choice portraying a reformed militant in Piyush Jha’s Sikandar, to be released on August 21, especially poignant. Here, he talks about his forthcoming projects and about his return to the Valley that was once home.

What did you notice as the most dramatic change in the Valley? And what had remained the same?
Visually, Kashmir looked like a beautiful widow who had lost her colour, vibrancy and smile, and had an expression of irreversible loss. So much has happened there in the last 20 years that every structure has a story to tell. Twenty years is a long time. After the mass migration of Hindus in the early 1990s, the Valley was left with just one culture and faith. To me, a beautiful garden needs to have all kinds of flowers and not just one kind. That is one change which is so evident and sad. To me, nothing is the same.

What was it like to return to Kashmir after so many years of turmoil?
I am at a loss for words when I have to answer this question. A feeling that I may not be able to express and articulate. But I shall try my best to put forward my innermost thoughts. It was like going back home without a place to stay!

I was visiting “home” after 18 long years. I wonder why I still call it “my home”. Maybe because no other place could give me that feeling of belonging, that identification after having been called a migrant somewhere, a north Indian in another place, sometimes even a refugee in my own country. But that still does not answer my question of why the Valley feels like home. Is it home or is it just memories of home, my childhood, my family, my orchids, my lakes, my rivers, my playground, my chinars, my autumn and spring?

I don’t know if I was happy to go back after 18 years or not. Maybe I should have let it remain in my memories, a lost chapter in our lives. Or was I scared that I might not like it now because everything is in the past? The associations are in my mind and all those people don’t live there anymore. It’s not the same. That playground had no players I knew.

Maybe a catharsis was waiting to happen, but is it that simple?

I believe and know that nature moves ahead and one should not look back, but then that “back” is where our identity comes from. The past is important because it has prepared you for the future. And visiting that past is like trying to find your footprints in the cold, breezy desert sand.

I was hoping I would find my way back only to return stronger and happier, but it’s not that simple.

Why did your family leave the state?
One unfortunate morning in 1990, my father was shot dead by terrorists at our home in Srinagar. His only fault? That he was a Hindu living in Kashmir, as many generations of our family had done before him. We had to leave lock, stock and barrel. Between that year and 1991, Kashmir witnessed ethnic cleansing and we had to leave the Valley.

During your journey back, did you get to spend time in your actual birthplace, Srinagar?
Initially I was reluctant, but then I did go to my house in Srinagar. It was very difficult as all the memories came back. Another family lives there now and they were sensitive enough to let me absorb and spend some moments there. I went to see my school, my playgrounds, a local club, my favourite ice cream parlour and my farm. Some old waiters at the club recognised me in a second. They hugged me and started howling because earlier they hadn’t even got the opportunity to mourn my father’s death. I drove around the city and tried to show my wife my childhood.

‘Too much was bottled up inside me. There were moments when I would want to catch the next flight out, but my roots pulled me back’

What were some of your more positive impressions while you were there?
I hope I am right in saying that people seemed fed up with this prolonged violence and terrorism. Civilians who once supported the separatist organisations seem to have realised that it was a huge mistake and that all they have got in return is misery. While the world was progressing, Kashmir was burning. The education system, civic facilities, infrastructure, economy, human life — everything has suffered. Finally, it seems they have woken up. At least, I hope so!

Were there times when it felt impossibly hard to even be in Kashmir?
Yes, many times a day. Too much was bottled up inside me and sometimes escapism seemed to be the best thing. There were moments when I would want to catch the next flight out and leave it all behind, but then my roots would keep pulling me back.

A lost era cannot be brought back and a new Kashmir cannot be beautiful without all kinds of flowers and cultures.

The answers lie far from our grasp. But what do you think is a solution for the troubles of the state?
Like you say, there are no simple answers. But I do feel an adequate government and a strong political will is the need of the hour. Also, involving people from the regions of Jammu and Ladakh is key in deciding the fate of the state as they are often left out.

What is tougher, the daily hardships of Kashmir or the cutthroat dealings of the Hindi film industry?
(Laughs) At least in the film industry one knows who the competition is or who you are fighting against. In Kashmir one never knew the enemy, who could be living next to you.

While filming, what were you reading and listening to?
To be honest, I was just absorbing the experience of being there and remembering my childhood. So there was no time to read or listen to anything. In fact, I was inspired to write but couldn’t do that either.

You have always chosen unconventional roles in your career and your role in this film is no exception. Without giving away the plot, what drew you to this character?
Ironically, when I left Kashmir I hated politicians, and now as a professional actor I am playing one. A story like Sikandar could be set in any area which has been facing conflict for years. I have never played a character like this before. Mukhtaar is charismatic, charming and shrewd. A reformed militant leader – this gives him many layers. I enjoyed this part of the character.

What are your forthcoming projects?
Besides Sikandar, I have done a supernatural thriller called Flat. Then there is Alibaug, a drama, and As the River Flows, a thriller. We are also currently shooting for I Am, a series of five short films directed by Onir and produced by him and me. All these projects are very diverse in content and genre.