Weathering all-round criticism and discouragement, Sheikh Neelofar, 27, has become the first Kashmiri woman actor to have performed in an international film, Valley of Saints, and has managed to stand out as one of the best actors the Valley has seen in recent years.
Born in a middle-class family, Neelofar began her acting career in 2000 when she was studying in the fifth standard.
In school, she was famous for taking part in Rouf (a traditional Kashmiri dance) drama and stood out for melodious voice.
In 2000, Neelofer was busy playing with her friends in school when a team of Doordarshan Urdu in Srinagar visited the school in search of a young actor for a TV serial ‘Mapping Kashmiriyat’.
The team was headed by Maharaj Krishna Raina, popularly known as M. K. Raina, one of India's best-known theatre actors and directors.
Along with many other students, little Neelofar auditioned for the serial and was selected. Raina was impressed with her performance and asked her to join the sets as soon as possible.
“I was happy after getting selected, but my next challenge was to convince my family, which was next to impossible,” said Neelofar.
Once home, in Aloocha Bagh, an area of Jammu and Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar, Neelofar decided to talk to her mother Sheikh Misra, 47, who was busy in kitchen. She hugged her mother from behind and said “bea gayas darmahas kheatre select” (I got selected to perform in a drama). But her mother flatly refused permission, saying it would be a “social stigma” as they were living in a predominantly Muslim society.
After pleading with her mother for a week, Neelofar finally got her permission. Due to her pink cheeks, she was named Pinky in the serial. For next two years, she was the lead actor in the serial.
Soon she became popular as Pinky in her locality. However, there were many who were critical of Neelofar for being an actor. But, she left all her worries and critics aside, with her mother, Misra, emerging as her main support.
“I was young, and people kept taunting me. My mother stood by me all the time,” said Neelofar with smile on her face.
People around her didn’t leave a single stone unturned to discourage her. But, an undeterred Neelofar had faith in herself and in the artist in her and continued performing.
In 2003, her talent brought her another offer. This time it was harder to convince her family, as due to continuous discouragement from others, it became tougher for Neelofar to convince her mother.
Eventually, her passion and dedication to acting melted Misra’s heart and she allowed Neelofar to continue acting. In the Dayariyan serial, Neelofar again played the lead role. Realistic acting and dialogue delivery made her famous and everyone in DD became her fan.
She continued to act in Dayariyan for a year. In the same year, an employee at DD asked her to join classes to learn Hafiz Nagma (a Kashmir Sufi dance) at the Directorate of Information, Kashmir.
“People who were teaching there were impressed by my performance and asked me to teach other students,” she said.
For the next three years, Neelofar taught students Hafiz Nagma, and continued to participate in many stage and theatre programmes.
In 2006, Neelofar decided to enhance her skills. She attended multiple workshops in the National School of Drama in New Delhi. During these years, she continued to get roles as a lead actor. In 2006 and 2007, she received offers for many serials, such as Aalam Kariyaad Azad Azad, Meiale Kheaish Waatei Zaroor.
With back-to-back performances, Neelofar decided to take a break from acting and spend some time with her family. Besides her mother, her small family has a sister and her father, Sheikh Abdul Hamid, 50, who is a painter by profession.
In 2009, Neelofar’s sister, Dilafrooz, now 31, got married. The family’s responsibility fell on Neelofar.
Then, in 2010, a big opportunity knocked at her door.
It was an offer by international independent filmmaker, Musa Syeed, for movie called, Valley of Saints.
Musa Syeed, a Kashmiri-origin filmmaker, became the first Muslim to write a Yiddish movie, Menashe. Syeed, 32, co-wrote Joshua Z Weinstein’s Menashe along with Alex Lipschultz and Weinstein.
Menashe, which recently held its international premiere in Berlin, is a film in Yiddish, a language used by Jews in central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.
Syeed, a prominent Kashmiri-origin US filmmaker and writer, has made politically acclaimed films, such as, The Big House (Al Bayt Al Kabeer), Bronx Princess, A Son’s Sacrifice. Valley of Saints is one among them.
Born in Indiana, the US, Syeed lives in New York, while his father Sayyid Mohammed Syeed, a former National Director for the Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances for the Islamic Society of North America, and mother live in Washington D.C. Hailing from North Kashmir’s Sopore township, Syeed’s parents settled in the US in the 1980s.
This was Neelofar’s first chance to play a role of lead actor in an international movie. She accepted the offer and that decision changed her life.
Valley of Saints was shot in Kashmir and won the World Cinema Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and the Special Jury Prize at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2012.
The film was one of the biggest achievements for Musa and his team and, of course, for Neelofar. The same year, she headed the audition team in Kashmir for the Hindi flick, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, by Yash Raj Films.
In 2013, she got an offer from a local director, Dilnawaz Muntazir, for the movie Partav. This film was based on the education system of Kashmir. In all these years, Neelofar faced heavy criticism from friends and family, but continued undaunted.
Fortunately, Neelofar received offers for movies which were based on real stories. In 2014, came another offer for fim, Half-Widow, based on Kashmiri women whose husbands were abducted by the government forces and never came back.
However, she was forced to take a break in 2015 when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I spent all my money, sold my house to pay for surgeries and therapies. By the grace of god and my hard work, I supported my mother in her fight with cancer,” said Neelofar with tears in her eyes.
Without an abode and having the responsibility of an ailing mother, Neelofar worked hard and made enough money again and purchased a new house at Baghat-e-Kanipora, an area in Budgam district. It took her mother almost three years to recover.
At present, Neelofar is playing a lead role in another film, Songs of Paradise.
“I don’t follow any actress, I want to be myself, I have seen ups and down in my life, I have met people who discouraged me, but I kept myself focused on my one aim in life,” said Neelofar, her face emitting a passion for acting.