SRINAGAR, India (AFP) — Indian Kashmir is hoping a successful local remake of an epic Bollywood blockbuster will herald the return to the scenic but troubled Himalayan region of legions of film crews.
Film making used to be a big money earner for Kashmir, which boasts flowering valleys and snowcapped mountains -- the perfect backdrop for countless romantic or action-packed escapist song-and-dance dramas.
After Islamic rebels began fighting New Delhi's rule in 1989, directors started using other scenic spots in India and even as far afield as Switzerland.
Now, a low-budget remake of the 1975 hit "Sholay," shot in the Kashmiri language and a huge hit locally, has raised hopes that India's prolific film industry could come back.
"This film will go a long way in sending out a message that Kashmir is as safe as any other part of India," said senior state government culture and tourism official Sarmad Hafiz.
"We will try to send copies of this movie ("New Sholay") to leading movie makers to drive home our point," he said.
A return by filmmakers to Kashmir would boost the local economy, which has been drained by years of revolt, officials say. They're also hoping it could lure back tourists by reminding them of the charms of the region known as the "Switzerland of the East".
Bollywood churns out an average of more than two films a day and its production budgets are fast expanding with its latest lavish epic, "Jodhaa Akbar," about the love between a Muslim emperor and his Hindu wife played by Bollywood's most glamorous star Aishwarya Rai, costing 10 million dollars.
The Kashmiri version of "Sholay" is a frame-by-frame copy of the original, with dialogue and songs translated into Kashmiri. It was shot for a meagre 250,000 rupees (6,250 dollars) -- cheap even by Indian standards.
The original film, about two criminals who help a policeman take revenge on a notorious gangster who crippled him, was dubbed the first "curry" western and propelled Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan to movie legend status.
The new film, which uses local actors, has drawn rave reviews in entertainment-starved Kashmir, where militant fundamentalists closed down cinemas after declaring them "anti-Islamic".
All cinemas but one remain shut for fear of militant attacks, but the movie has been a watch-at-home hit.
"CDs of the film are selling like hot cakes. It's been a dream opening," said producer Raja Akbar.
Director Hameed Khan, 32, also plays the role of Jai, one of the criminals made famous by Bachchan, and has become something of a local celebrity.
"No one believes it's a low-budget film," said Khan.
With levels of violence down sharply in Kashmir following the start of a peace process between India and Pakistan in 2004, the "New Sholay" filmmakers said they had not received any threats from militants.
"We have had no problems, no threats or intimidation," said Khan, adding people used to flood to the sets to watch the production process.
"I think it is safe for anyone to come and shoot (films) in Kashmir."
Since 2004, just four Hindi movies have been shot, either in part or completely, in Kashmir, along with five others by India's regional-language film industries.
Crucially, militants have made no attempts to disrupt the productions.
Last year Hafiz and other tourism officials visited Mumbai, India's entertainment capital, to invite filmmakers to return to their favourite sites.
"We promised them easy access to locations and armed escorts," said Hafiz, adding he was optimistic filmmakers would start returning in "good numbers".
With the success of "New Sholay," the government is also facing calls to establish a proper film industry replete with studios in Kashmir, where the stunning mountain landscape lends itself to the frothy romances so loved by Indian filmgoers.
At the centre of the Kashmir valley is Dal Lake, dotted with colourful hand carved houseboats. Around it are the Mughal emperors' visions of paradise: 17th century gardens featuring terraced lawns laid out in formal quadrangles with cascading fountains and paint-box flowerbeds.
"The government should establish a small film industry so that we can start making our own films," said Ayash Arif, the region's leading TV serial producer and also filmmaker.
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