Betaab Valley: A Space of Heavenly Bliss in Kashmir
By Arka Chakarborty
Situated somewhere between isolation and interconnectedness, the valley of Kashmir has been the object of romantic imagination for many due to its breathtaking natural beauty and grace. It is known as the ‘Paradise on Earth’ for a reason, after all. There are some places in particular within the larger ambit of the valley which prove the epithet’s worth to the observers as they, through the sheer unearthly splendor that they offer, transport the observers to the gates of heaven. The Betaab valley in Pahalgam is one such place. A cavalcade of lush greens, snow whites, crisp blues and dynamic blue-greens among others, the Betaab valley through its natural beauty and history encapsulates the relative permanence of nature’s wonders to the human eye on the one hand and the transience and dynamism of human history on the other. If these aspects are pondered on even in a cursory manner, it seems as if the Betaab valley exhibits a snapshot of what Kashmir means to India and the world.
The Betaab valley is located at a distance of 15 kilometers from the town of Pahalgam, which is a hub for tourists and pilgrims alike who visit Kashmir. The nearest airport to the valley is in Srinagar, from where one can use the bus service to reach Pahalgam. From Pahalgam, a ride in a private taxi through narrow roads will take one to the entrance of the valley. Upon entering the valley, the narrow road opens up into what can only be described as an island of bright colors and unforgettable sights. Throughout most of the year, the Betaab valley looks like a piece of green paradise, covered as it is by lush meadows. It is surrounded by dense forests of coniferous trees like pine and popler further accentuating the unique grace of the grassy valley. Snowcapped mountains that gleam in the daylight can be seen from anywhere in the valley, as it is surrounded by multiple mountain ranges. The timeless resplendence of the valley is given a sense of dynamism by the greenish-blue water of the Lidder river that cuts across the green fields. Usually visited more regularly by the locals looking to spend a relaxing day with their families, the Betaab valley casts a magnetic spell for tourists due not only to its gorgeous nature, but also its historical association with the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry also known as Bollywood, an association that has been rejuvenated of late. The recent history of the valley, in fact, has been so entangled with Bollywood that its current name is a product of that association. The previous name of this valley was Hagan or Hagoon, reminiscent of a time when its lush greenery was relatively untouched by outside visitors and it was frequented mostly by shepherds with their flocks. When the movie Betaab (1983) was shot here, the world was introduced to the superstars Sunny Deol and Amrita Singh. The super hit movie made the Hagan valley so famous that it came to be known as the Betaab valley and its identity became forever intertwined with India’s film history. Betaab was, however, far from the earliest movie shot in the valley. So many movies have been shot in this heavenly landscape that a news report has called Kashmir Bollywood’s original ‘home.’ Films like Kashmir ki Kali (1964), Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965), Kabhi Kabhi (1976), Silsila (1981), Satte pe Satta (1982) have exposed a subcontinental audience to the charms of Kashmir in the best way possible, with the Hagan (later Betaab) valley seeming like a scene come alive from the pages of a fairy tale. Legendary directors like Shakti Samanta, Suraj Prakash, Yash Chopra and Raj N. Sippy have considered the Betaab valley to be indispensable to the story they wanted to tell. Older generation Bollywood mega starts like Kamal Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, Shakti Kapoor, Hema Malini, Nitu Singh, Ranjeeta Kaur, Jaya Bachchan, Waheeda Rahman and Rekha have graced the big screen with this valley serving as an unbelievable fantastical background. While some of these movies have been critical successes, others have been considered as blockbusters in the box office and still others garnering a cult following over the years. Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965) directed by Suraj Prakash has in fact been one of the first Indian movies to go beyond the subcontinent and obtain a global following. This iconic movie starring Kamal Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor and Nanda was shown every week for two years in Algeria due to popular demand and has spread awareness about the best aspects of the Kashmir valley as far as Algeria and Morocco. Sharmila Tagore, through the film Kashmir ki Kali (1964), became one of the first actors to make her debut in Kashmir and, as has been exhibited above, she would not be the last.
This decades-long love affair with Kashmir in general and the Betaab valley in particular was cut short by the rise of militancy and the disruptions it caused. Hence, Hindi-language filmmakers had to stay away from Kashmir for around thirty years. As peace and prosperity returned to the Vale, however, director Imtiaz Ahmed took the first bold step of shooting parts of his masterpiece Rockstar (2011) in the Betaab valley. As the heart-wrenchingly spectacular movie starring Ranbir Kapoor and Nargis Fakhri (who made her debut in this film) hit the theaters, a new generation of Indian audience was introduced to the unearthly beauty of Kashmir through the Betaab valley, while a new generation of actors and directors returned to Kashmir to revive and celebrate Bollywood’s intimate relationship with the valley. Haider (2014), Highway (2014), Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) and Fitoor (2015) are some of the recent movies that owe much of their success to the awe-inspiring landscape of the Betaab valley. Bajrangi Bhaijaan became one of the highest-grossing Indian movies and Fitoor (2015) can be praised for its effort to loosely adapt the nineteenth century classic novel Great Expectations to an Indian context, with the Betaab valley serving as an apt background for some of the story.
The Betaab valley’s identification with Hindi cinema has made it popular among tourists to the point that the government has turned it into what resembles a park. There is an entry fee to get into the valley. The landscape is dotted with people trying to sell locally made items to tourists as souvenirs. There are a few places to enjoy a light meal or a beverage. One can enjoy horse riding while traversing the valley, enjoying magnificent sights provided by those renting out the horses and ponies. The ‘Bobby Hut’ where the film Bobby was shot is a popular tourist attraction. A tiny island in the middle of the Lidder river is home to scores of willow trees and is marveled at by visitors. Like the Aru valley nearby, the Betaab valley too is a base camp for trekkers. There is also the provision of renting Kashmiri traditional dresses and having oneself photographed while wearing them. Apart from making millions for the Hindi movie tycoons, these are little ways in which the Betaab valley sustains the livelihoods of hundreds of local Kashmiri people.
The Betaab valley, while serving as an inextricable part of the film history of India, goes beyond it. Emerging from a long history of being a grazing zone for peripatetic groups, the valley began its tryst with Bolllywood by doing its part in making movies successful and launching the careers of actors and directors into the stratosphere of fame and fortune, all the while introducing millions to the splendid luminescence of Kashmir’s natural treasure. While militancy led to the valley disappearing from big screens for decades, the past decade has seen it come back into the lives of India’s film buffs with a literal bang. The tourist traffic that the valley receives every year has created a local economy that sustains scores of local families. From beautifying the world of entertainment to becoming the life-giver for many, the Betaab valley has truly come to represent the best of Kashmir.