It was in the year 1989 when the Kashmir valley first witnessed an armed insurgency. The incident saw cinemas pulling down shutters and effectively banishing Bollywood from the valley. Most Kashmiris watched films using pirated CDs and DVDs, and the 70mm larger-than-life dream remained out of reach for them for decades. 

In 2016, a teenage Kashmiri girl named Zaira Wasim, made her Bollywood debut in the Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal. The movie is about the Phogat sisters of Haryana who made a name for themselves in the world of wrestling. And the role of one of these sisters was played by Zaira—who later became known as the “heroine” from Kashmir. 

Hailing from the Downtown area of Srinagar, Zaira gained instant fame for two reasons: one, her natural acting skills; and two, her Kashmiri background. She was a Kashmiri working in mainstream Bollywood, something that had probably never happened before.

Many proud Kashmiris would travel far from the valley, even as far as Delhi, just to watch her film in a cinema. She soon became a celebrity in Kashmir. People would talk about her from the streets to schools, discuss her character in Dangal, and muse about how lucky she was.

In 2017, she bagged another movie, Secret Superstar, in which she played a schoolgirl who aspires to become a singer, but faces opposition from her father. The movie was critically acclaimed and was appreciated by viewers across the country. Zaira also won a National Award for Dangal and a Filmfare Award for Secret Superstar.

But soon, she got entangled in controversies. In 2016, a photo of Zaira wearing trimmed hair surfaced on social media, and it received flak for being “un-Islamic”.

In 2017, owing to some comment she’d made on social media, Zaira was again targeted and trolled. She had to apologise publicly through a micro-blogging site. Following this incident, she also met Mehbooba Mufti, the then chief minister of the state.

Zaira’s life took another significant turn last week, when she abruptly decided to bid the Hindi film industry adieu. “This field indeed brought a lot of love, support, and applause my way, but what it also did was to lead me to a path of ignorance, as I silently and unconsciously transitioned out of imaan [faith],” Zaira wrote in a lengthy Facebook post.

Her announcement drew mixed responses on social media. While some appreciated her decision by saying that she has the right to choose the life she wants, many disagreed with the young actor’s choice.

Khawar Jamsheed, Kashmir’s only line producer who handles all major Bollywood shoots in Kashmir, and has been associated with Rockstar and Jab Tak Hain Jaan, said, “It’s her personal choice, whether she wants to pursue an acting career or quit. But she could have thought it over as it was acting which gave her name and fame… She rose to popularity by doing just two films. She took up acting as a career. She could have discussed the decision before making such a big announcement.”

However, Khawar believes that her decision will not dissuade the young Kashmiris who are waiting for an opportunity to get into Bollywood. He added, “Being a girl in Kashmir and taking up Bollywood as a career is a difficult task. But for men, it’s fine. No one will dare to ask them anything and they will be praised for their performance.”

According to Nusrat Parveen, the first Kashmiri Muslim woman to win the Mrs India International title, Zaira’s decision should be respected. “Look, it’s her personal decision and no one wants to destroy his or her career. As far as Zaira is concerned, she is mature enough and knows what’s good for her,” said Parveen.

Muzamil Bhat, an upcoming model from the Budgam district commented that Zaira’s departure from Bollywood will not in any way create much of a difference in the lives of Kashmiris who wish to make it big in the entertainment business. “We must know how to maintain a balance between our religion and career. Both are different and hold value in their respective ways, and one should know how to do justice to them together,” he noted.

If she sticks to her retirement plan, The Sky is Pink will become Zaira’s last film. Directed by Shonali Bose, the film is based on the life of a19-year-old author and motivational speaker, Aisha Chaudhary, who was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and passed away in 2015.

The biopic also stars Priyanka Chopra and Farhan Akhtar, and is slated for an October release. Zaira plays the lead in the film, but has opted out of all promotional work following her announcement to quit Bollywood.

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