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Danish Rinzu’s Biopic on Kashmir’s legendary singer Raj Begum is ready

Ahmed Ali Fayyaz

Excel Entertainment, the renowned Indian studio founded by Ritesh Sidhwani and Farhan Akhtar, is making a biopic of Kashmir’s pioneer woman singer Raj Begum. The film titled Songs of Paradise is about Begum’s life, her singing, and her struggle in the mid-20th century in a male-dominated Kashmir

Saba Azad is playing the young Kashmiri singer. Sources said the film is in the post-production stage and is likely to be premiered later in 2024.

Songs of Paradise is directed by Srinagar-based Danish Renzu and is jointly produced by Sidhwani, Akhtar, Renzu, Kassim Jagmagia and Kashmiri entrepreneur Shafat Qazi.

The film unfolds the poignant tale of the first female singer at Radio Kashmir Srinagar (Now AIR, Srinagar) set against the backdrop of a paradise marred by strife. Inspired by the music and resilience of the legendary Raj Begum, the narrative delves into a period when there was little concept of rights and women making choices on careers, etc. in the valley.

Raj Begum

It weaves a narrative that celebrates those who defied the social norms and opened doors for female artists.

Saba Azad, known for her role in Rocket Boys, takes cent stage in this musical drama, portraying the lead character with grace and depth. The ensemble cast includes Soni Razdan, playing the elder Raj Begum, Zain Khan Durrani, Taaruk Raina, Sheebha Chaddha, Shishir Sharma, and Lillette Dubey.

Together, they bring to life the struggles and triumphs of a bygone era, showcasing the resilience of individuals who defied societal norms.

“Every actor needs to see your performance in this one,” Bollywood heartthrob Hrithik Roshan responded to a social media post by Saba Azad last week. “Heart-wrenching. One of the best I have ever seen. EVER!”

Ritesh Sidhwani and Farhan Akhtar expressed their pride in bringing Songs of Paradise to audiences, emphasizing their commitment to storytelling that transcends boundaries. As the film nears completion, the duo aims to deliver a narrative that resonates, inspires, and celebrates the human spirit.

Zoon Begum singing on stage

With his studies and training in filmmaking at the University of California, Los Angeles, director Renzu adds a personal touch to the project. With the advantage of his two directorial debuts on Kashmir’s traumatised life, Renzu brings his unique perspective to showcase the Valley’s forgotten poetry and music.

While one of Renzu’s films won two awards at the New Jersey International Festival, “The Illegal” featured Suraj Sharma as a film -school student from India who is forced to drop out to support his family while staying in the US as an undocumented worker.

In the 2012 Hollywood blockbuster Life of Pi, Suraj Sharma as Piscine Molitor played 16-year-old Pi Patel while Irrfan Khan played his adult role. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four.

With Excel Entertainment on board as producers, Renzu said he feels honoured to be part of this project which has luminaries like Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani. He says he dreams of showcasing Kashmir’s rich music on the big screen, using Begum’s story as a prop to pay tribute to the pioneer Kashmiri woman singer for her struggles and triumphs and bringing about the change.

Songs of Paradise is a touching journey through Kashmir’s cultural tapestry, where the melodies of the past resonate with the present. As the film’s release approaches, it stands as a testament to the enduring power of storytelling and the transformative impact of art on society.

“I think it’s really important to tell human stories from conflict regions, to speak of triumphs and joys, to celebrate culture and art. It’s easy to paint a place in strife with broad strokes, view it as a homogenised, faceless mass, it’s dehumanizing, somewhere within that the individual disappears and with it reliability and empathy,” actor-musician Saba Azad was quoted saying in Variety magazine.

“Raj Begum is one of the unsung heroes of the region and I hope the film helps her story travel”, says Saba who was a natural choice for playing Begum’s young. Born as Saba Singh Grewal to a Punjabi father and a Kashmiri mother, she is the niece of the theatre giant Safdar Hashmi.

Kashmir had a rich tradition of Hafiz Nagma in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, no woman performers ventured into the patriarchal domain of music till Maharaja Hari Singh established Radio Kashmir’s first station at Jammu in 1948. Soon, the first democratic ruler Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah set up Radio Kashmir’s makeshift station at Polo View in the Srinagar civil lines.

Raj Begum

Two young women, Raj Begum and Naseem Akhtar, almost simultaneously broke the glass ceiling with their Kashmiri solos and duets. Neither of them had formal training in singing or a deep knowledge of the valley’s typical percussive instruments.

Begum was discovered and introduced to Radio Kashmir, which later became AIR, Srinagar, by Ghulam Qadir Langoo.

A shoemaker by profession, Langoo was a solo singer of the Shaheed Gunj area who would ensemble his folk numbers with the tunes of his Saran, a form ofn Sarangi. “He would say with pride that his family was the Maharaja’s neighbour because he lived in the small mohalla adjacent to the Royal Palace built on the bank of the river Jhelum across the Badshah Bridge. He claimed that his family even sang for the Maharaja”, writes Pran Kishore, the legendary drama producer, and playwright, in his memoirs: Radio Kashmir And My Days in Broadcasting.

Langoo, with the then head of Radio Kashmir’s Music Section, Mohan Lal Aima, mentored and refined Begum and Akhtar—and later the iconic Zoon Begum—into the gems of Kashmiri music. Begum even excelled in the Persian couplets of Maqbool Shah Kralwari’s Gulrez which left many masters and maestros surprised. Her solos like Ghulam Nabi Gauhar’s “kyah kyah wanaiaey dousttse…”broke all records of popularity.

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Raj Begum was conferred with Padma Shri in 2002. She died in Srinagar in 2016 at the age of 86 years.

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