In 1991, movie halls were forcibly shut down in Srinagar and violence raged in the Valley. Meanwhile, several families hunkered down in front of their television sets for a Srinagar-set serial on the hanji community, as Kashmir’s traditional boating community is known.
The fame of Gul Gulshan Gulfam, broadcast over 45 episodes on Doordarshan, spread far beyond the borders of the Dal lake. The series was written by Pran Kishore, the eminent writer and dramatist with the novel Sheen Ta Vatapod, numerous plays, documentaries and TV serials, including Junoon, Ghuttan and Saye Deodar Ke, to his credit. Gul Gulshan Gulfam depicted the family drama surrounding Dal lake houseboat owner Malla Khaliq (Parikshit Sahni), his wife Aziz Dyad (Radha Seth), their three sons and daughter, and the three titular houseboats owned by them.
The catchy bilingual title song, with the opening lyrics “Muskurati subah ki aur gungunati sham ki, yeh kahani gul ki hai gulshan ki hai gulfaam ki” (A cheerful morning and bustling evening, this is the story of Gul, Gulshan and Gulfam) is still remembered by viewers of a certain vintage. The houseboats featured in the series continue to be photographed by tourists enchanted by the singular examination of an iconic aspect of Kashmiri life.
Written by Farooq Nazki and composed by Krishan Langoo, the title song was accompanied by a santoor and visuals of the Dal lake. “In Kashmir, it was something new, in two languages,” Nakzi said. “India was hooked to Urdu, Kashmir was hooked to Kashmiri.”
Kishore, who is 92, initially set out to write a novel about the hanji community, which was later converted into a television show. The novel that came after the serial, also titled Gul Gulshan Gulfam, has now been translated by Shafi Shauq and published by HarperCollins India.
“The outline of this new novel occurred to me in the late 1940s when I rented a small boat at the rate of one rupee per day from the quay of my native place, Chinkral Mohalla, in the city of Srinagar,” Kishore writes in the afterword of Gul Gulshan Gulfam. “Taking my childhood friends along, I roved through the Maer Canal of the old city and reached Gagribal in the Dal Lake. It was during this journey that the Dal formed an indelible imprint on my mind, and I took an interest in the dwellers of the Dal. Then, when I reached the college, my brother’s business with the tourists strengthened my relation with the houseboat owners in the lake and this interaction continued for years to come.”
Produced by Cinevistaas, the Mumbai company run by Sunil Mehta and Prem Krishen Malhotra, and directed by Ved Rahi, the TV series was initially shot in 1989 in and around the Dal Lake. “The main character is a living legend who is sticking to this profession,” Kishore told Scroll.in. “He takes this profession as a lifestyle from the prophet Noah. The boatmen too believe that they are Noah’s descendants.”
An important window into the hanji world was provided by the respected houseboat owner, Haji Abdul Samad Kotroo, who supplied many of the anecdotes that wove themselves into the series. These included accounts of struggles to keep the boats afloat when the water levels rose, duck shootings and livelihood struggles.
The serial was the first attempt to depict Kashmiri life in authentic detail, which accounts for its lasting fame. “That is why it was very well accepted within the country and beyond the shores of India,” Kishore said.
Gul Gulshan Gulfam was broadcast in cable networks in Europe and the United States of America, besides being popular in other countries. “Plagiarised copies of Gul Gulshan Gulfam were sold through Dubai and almost every Pakistani household had a plagiarised copy of the tapes,” he said.
Strenuous efforts were made to ensure a believable portrayal of the hanji way. Local actors, including Vinay Raina, Ravi Khemu, Jyoti Khemu, Bharati Zaroo and Anjana Bhave, helped the Mumbai cast members with their body language and taught them how to extract their hands from a pheran and smoke a hookah. Sahni had been a regular visitor to Srinagar, where they had a house, and understood the Kashmiri language and ethos very well, Kishore said.
For Vinay Raina, who played the role of Noor Mohammad, Malla Khaliq’s obedient eldest son, the serial cleared some misconceptions about the hanjis. “I had lived in houseboats for a few days but I knew nothing about their life,” Raina said. “I thought it was a luxurious life, but behind the houseboat is a simple doonga (a small houseboat) where the owners live. Luxury houseboats were maintained only for the guests. It was a hard life.”
Shooting was challenging since the 16mm format film cameras that were being used did not provide for on-site previews. “We would shoot for a day and sent the rolls by air to Bombay, where they would review and say if it was okay,” Raina said. Fortunately, they never had to redo a scene.
There were graver challenges posed by separatists – they demanded to see the script, even though they did not object to the shoot. Shooting took place over two schedules, interrupted by the onset of militancy, and wound up in Srinagar in February 1990, days before Lassa Koul, director of the local Doordarshan station, was killed by separatists who had directed him to stop the broadcast of Indian television programmes.
Sometimes, getting to the shoot involved risks. On one of the days, the cast set out for the location, unaware that a shutdown had been declared. “When the crew van reached Tankipora in Srinagar to pick up Bharati Zaroo, stones were hurled at us from all sides,” Raina said. “Zaroo could not come down and we turned back to Habba Kadal bridge. On the bridge, boys with flames came running towards us. The driver turned around again.”
The next day, a letter arrived, demanding an explanation for scheduling a shoot during a shutdown.
The shooting shifted to Film City in Mumbai, where houseboats and shikaras were recreated at the shooting complex’s tiny lake. “There were times when we would reach the ends of the water while shooting,” Raina said. “There was also a shoot of the TV series Chanakya across from us. Their 40-50 horses would come to the lake to drink water and we would scream, don’t drink too much, don’t dry up our lake.”
Shredded thermocol stood in for snow, but depicting the winter by wearing woolen coats was excruciating in the Mumbai heat. “The sweat was dripping from our caps,” Raina recalled. “It was torture.”
Traces of the TV show survive in Srinagar in the form of the memories of locals who witnessed and participated in the production. The three houseboats used for the shoot are still bobbing on the Dal lake, and are now managed by Ghulam Hassan.
A teenager at the time, Hassan featured in a sequence in which he delivers a consignment of shawls to Ghulam Qadir, Malla Khaliq’s youngest son. Residents of the lake “impatiently waited for the weekly telecast”, Hassan said. “If there was a power cut, we would go to other areas where the power supply was still running,” he added.
Hassan used to own photographs of the shoot, but he discarded them out of fear. The scripts left behind by the actors have been preserved.
Gul Gulshan Gulfam was “90% as per our lifestyle”, Hassan asserted. A bond of friendship developed between the locals and the crew. Hassan remembers Sahni as a “man with a steel body” who would persuade him to have a friendly fistfight every day. “Hassi mazaak chalu rehta tha,” he said. The jokes flew thick and fast.
The series connected the Valley to the Kashmiri Pandits who had been driven out of their homes in the early ’90s, said Vinayak Razdan, who runs the culture blog SearchKashmir.org. Razdan remembers watching the serial on a rooftop storeroom in Jammu, which was their temporary home at the time. “We had brought our 14-inch black and white TV along, and we used to look forward to watching the serial,” Razdan said. “I guess it was painful for the grownups, but to me it was like having a great adventurous summer vacation. It was like a cool breeze in the summers of Jammu. Most Pandits of that generation could relate to the serial. It provided the cushioning, a reminder that Kashmiri Muslims were also suffering.”
Even though houseboats and shikaras are emblematic of the Valley, “it is equally true that in the social structure of Kashmir, the people who lived on them were mostly looked down upon,” Razdan pointed out. “As the conflict raged, again the story of Kashmir was being told via houseboats.”
Although the events of the ’90s disrupted the shooting schedule, the serial and Kishore’s novel have been kept largely free of commentary on the separatist movement that continues to rage in the Valley. “Political situations have their ups and downs and are transitory, while literature is not,” Kishore said. “Literature is everlasting, for posterity. I have never indulged in propaganda for one agency or the other.”
However, the novel isn’t without its politics undertones, Shafi Shauq says in his translator’s note. “The characters and events are set against the socio-cultural background that emerged in Srinagar because of an absence of dependable and self-sustaining economy and its parallel dependence on tourism,” Shauq writes. “It is a culture that has been absorbed by residents who have witnessed unparalleled catastrophes and political upheavals… The nucleus of this bargain-centric culture is the Dal Lake and its environs, including the Jhelum and the Mughal Gardens, where the story takes place. The picturesque Dal Lake, with its age-old lake culture – which is not just part of the setting for the novel but also assumes characteristics of its own – seems to be somnolently waiting for the good days to return. The houseboats of Malla Khaliq – Gul, Gulshan and Gulfam stare out emptily over the insulating Zabarwan cliffs.”