Lampoon Elements

Kashmir’s leading satirist prepares for his return to the stage

Nazir Josh (left) as Jumeh German at a shoot of the series of the same name. COURTESY NAZIR JOSH
01 October, 2013

NAZIR JOSH SAT BEHIND a large wooden table in the corner of a recording studio in Rajbagh, Srinagar. Scribbling absentmindedly on a piece of paper, he seemed unaffected by the bustle surrounding him. “We had minor issues regarding the rehearsals a few weeks ago,” he said. “But they have been resolved and now we are busy recording.”

Primarily a television actor, Josh had visited the studio in the third week of August to record the soundtrack that would play over the performance of a Kashmiri-language opera that he has written and will direct. It is a tale about the character of Bahaar (‘spring’) defeating his arch nemesis Chilai Kalaan (a phrase that refers to a 40-day period of extreme cold during the long Kashmir winter) in order to win over the woman he loves. “The main themes of the opera are love and death, which are represented by spring and winter respectively,” Josh said. He quoted a few lines from his script to me: “Bi chas khand haar pemitch, pather tultam/Sitaras taar pemitch pather tultam” (I lie fallen and scattered, pick me up/The tunes of my sitar have fallen, pick them up).

The opera is an atypically emotional affair for Josh, who garnered acclaim through comedy, and whom audiences recognise more easily when he is making goofy faces and spouting lines in peculiar, high-pitched voices. Through his comedy—both on the stage and screen—Josh has over the decades vented public bitterness through characters and stories that mock state repression in Kashmir, finding humour in an otherwise bleak situation.

Josh’s career began in 1973, when he joined the Badgam National Theatre. That year, the group entered a theatre competition in an arts festival held in Srinagar’s famous Shalimar garden, and won a prize for a play written by Josh. After working in theatre for several years, Josh landed a role in a television serial, Hazaar Dastaan, about a tyrant king and his corrupt minister, who exploited Kashmir to enrich themselves. Josh’s character, Ahad Raaz, was widely believed to be a caricature of Farooq Abdullah, which contributed to the show’s popularity with the Kashmiri public.

Josh often draws inspiration for his satire from his life in Kashmir. He recounted how, almost four decades ago, he met an old man who claimed to have fought against Germany in World War II. The man came to be ironically christened “German”. In 1989, Josh, by then a successful television actor, paid dark tribute to the man through the role of Jumeh German in a series of the same name. “I was always fascinated by the stories of German, and when I proposed him as the main character of the TV series, my director loved the idea,” Josh said. Directed by Bashir Badgami, the show aired for a total of 25 episodes, and featured a grizzled war veteran, who, fed up with corruption, turns vigilante against those he considers offenders. German’s methods of punishment were comic but brutal, and included throwing fire-pots at people, and rubbing plants that cause itching over their skin. The show found popularity across age groups, and Josh became even more of a household name in the state.

“Kashmiri comedy has a completely unique nature,” he said. “Ours is a society which has witnessed terrible times, from the foreign rulers, to the Dogra Mahrajas and so on. That’s why you will find deep social and political resonance in almost every joke which is cracked in Kashmir.”

Another of Josh’s chosen weapons of satire is rap—he broke into a song during one of our conversations, delivering rapid-fire lyrics attacking the large amounts of money people spend on marriages in Kashmir in order to assert their social standing. “I used to see a lot of African-American rap artists perform,” he said. “That’s when I got the idea of using the same style of narration to talk about contemporary issues in Kashmir.” He added with a smile, “I think I was the first person to rap in Kashmir.”

Josh struck a more serious note when I asked him why he had chosen the theme of peace and war for his opera, which marks his return to the stage after many years of television. The impulse, he explained, came from news of strife and violence, not just in Kashmir, but in every part of the world. “Death has prevailed all across the globe, be it Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said. “There is no peace. There is only a harsh winter which surrounds us.”