Kashmiri Filmmaker Danish Renzu: ‘People Are Naturally Born Artists Here’
In just over five years, films such as Suraj Sharma starrer ‘The Illegal’ have shone the light on identity and struggle
When Danish Renzu offers a long sigh before talking about his upcoming projects, the Srinagar-bred film director and writer is perhaps giving a telling sign that he’s slowed down for the first time in a while. “I started in and around 2015. That’s five years. Pretty short time,” Renzu says.
It was only in 2017 that the electrical engineering grad-turned-filmmaker released his first feature film, Half Widow, detailing a Kashmiri-specific story about a woman searching for her husband in the valley’s painful history of disappeared peoples with the backdrop of the 1999 Kargil War. Released on Amazon Prime early this year, Renzu had already released his second feature film called The Illegal, starring Suraj Sharma (The Life of Pi). Winning a jury award at Mumbai International Film Festival 2019, the plot is explained as a realistic story of “a young film school student from middle class India who’s forced to drop out to support his family while staying in the United States.”
While Renzu comes from a place of some privilege that allowed him to give up a job with an American multinational in order to pursue films, Sharma essays a role that is a more relatable identity. The Illegal also stars Indian artful actors such as Adil Hussain and Shweta Tripathi and is slated to release on OTT platforms in January. “We were supposed to release this film in April, in the U.S., like a small theatrical premiere followed by digital. Then COVID happened, and everything got on hold,” Renzu says.
With two indie films, the filmmaker is now on to focusing on telling Kashmiri stories and that’s not just because he’s back in Srinagar from L.A. since July. With his production company Renzu Films, he’s shot music videos for Kashmiri musician Irfaan Bukhari’s “Raah Bakshtam” and Pakistani artist Ali Sethi’s “Pehla Qadam (Tum Hee Bataao)” in recent months. But what Renzu is really waiting for is to get back to work on three of his upcoming projects – Pashmeena, The Golden Hour and Songs of Paradise.
If you haven’t heard about any of these yet, it’s best to keep your eyes peeled because Pashmeena is Renzu’s first Hindi big-banner Bollywood film in a sense. After creating an Urdu feature film (Half Widow) and an English one (The Illegal), the filmmaker considers Pashmeena a Kashmiri film because it deals with stories in Kashmir, starring the likes of Dulquer Salmaan, Farida Jalal, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, amongst others. Plus, there’s music by Amit Trivedi and lyrics by Gulzar, adding to the inevitable potential. Currently in pre-production, some filming did begin in Kashmir but that’s all Renzu shares at the moment. He adds, “We do have a big star cast, and a lot of actors are not willing to shoot right now because of the pandemic, so we’re just trying to convince them.”
Watch the trailer for ‘Half Widow’ below.
As someone who’s previously turned to crowdfunding for films, Renzu admits that Kashmiri subjects are not easy to sell, but he’s clearly making progress. He says about his previous experiences, still swearing by the independent route, “I think fortunately if you have the right people, if you have a good film, things do work out. It just takes longer than a regular commercial film.”
While the American Dream was within his sights until a few years ago, the realization dawned on the filmmaker that he wanted to tell Kashmiri stories. Renzu is well aware of the precedents set in the space as well. “I watched this film called Valley of Saints  by this American-Kashmiri [Musa Syeed]. I loved the film and I was like, ‘Wow, shot in Kashmir, by an American!’ Then I came to know about this film Harud  which was done years ago and even though the film was really slow-paced, it was a beautiful attempt, done in Kashmir by Aamir Bashir, it was really well done.”
Inspired by this, when he started off shooting short films in Kashmir, Renzu decided to build his own line production crew, putting interested minds and hands into directing, writing and cinematography workshops in his hometown. He says, “There is no industry here, but there’s so much potential.” Granted, the struggle for any semblance of stability and lesser conflict in the valley is often disrupted, but Renzu points out that Kashmir still receives tourism. Or at least did, pre-pandemic and before Jammu & Kashmir’s autonomy via Article 370 was revoked by the Indian government in August last year. Nevertheless, he vouches for the creative streak in his fellow artists and how Kashmir can become “a hub of filmmaking.” He says with a laugh, “All the Kashmiris want to be an actor or a singer. It’s such a common thing now. If you got to cafes here, singers, artists of all types are there… People are really naturally born artists here.”
Considering the Covid-19 pandemic is a little less severe where he is, shooting continues with his local crew. As for the feature films in the pipeline, he’s confident of it all eventually finding its way. Renzu says, “In this business, you can’t say, ‘Yeh nahi chalega, woh nahi chalega.’ As long as you do good work, hard work… it works out. For every independent filmmaker, I always advise the people who ask me, ‘How should we go about it?’ I say go make a film, later it will work out.”
Watch a teaser for ‘The Illegal’ below.