The Tragedy of ‘The Kashmir Files’
The recent history of the Kashmir and Kashmiris — Pandits and Muslims — deserves a humane film by an honest and skilled writer-director. This is not that film.
The Kashmir Files
Cast: Anupam Kher, Mithun Chakraborty, Darshan Kumar, Pallavi Joshi, Chinmay Mandelkar, Prakash Belawadi, Puneet Issar, Bhasha Sumbli
Direction: Vivek Agnihotri
On a weekday, at 11 am, the cinema hall was about 70 percent full. There were senior citizens — uncles and aunties, families with kids, husband-wife duos, and gangs of boys who sat watching The Kashmir Files with a haughty manspread.
Written and directed by Vivek Agnihotri, Kashmir Files has its own manspread. Loud, tacky and long, 10 minutes shy of three hours, it held sway over the audience whenever there was blood, violence and deafening jingoism on the screen. Rest of the time people were busy talking on their phones or scrolling through Whatsapp.
I approached The Kashmir Files with some anxiety. I was scared that since his laughably dim-witted Tashkent Files (2018), Agnihotri would have acquired some cinematic skills. I was afraid that The Kashmir Files would be like Aditya Dhar’s Uri — intelligent, slick, well-written, well-made and crackling with brilliant acting. But, despite all the love that has been bestowed upon him in some quarters, Agnihotri remains a writer and director bereft of cinematic prowess.
No one expected Agnihotri to tell the tragic story of Kashmir and Kashmiris with any measure of honesty. But what’s surprising is how little The Kashmir Files is interested in Kashmiri Pandits. The film simply takes a deeply shameful slice of Indian history — about the rise of militancy in Kashmir, the indiscriminate killings and the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits — and weaponizes this tragedy.
Set in 1990, Kashmir, the first sign of discord we encounter in The Kashmir Files is over cricket. An India-Pakistan match is underway when a young boy, Shiva, begins to cheer for Sachin Tendulkar. Big, burly men punch, kick and abuse him.
Elsewhere, Shiva’s grandfather Pushkar (Anupam Kher) is painting his face blue for the rehearsal of a play for Shivratri when someone in his troupe says, “Mahol kharab hai”.
As Shiva and Pushkar head home separately, groups of men in the streets carrying AK-47s are shouting, “Convert, leave or die”.
Soon after they reach home, where Shiva’s father, mother Sharda Pandit (Bhasha Sumbli), and younger brother Krishna have been waiting for them, Farooq Malik Bitta (Chinmay Mandlekar) and his armed men knock on their door. The neighbor squeals on them and Bitta heads straight for the rice drum in which Shiva’s father is hiding. Despite being Pushkar’s former student, he sprays bullets into it. Agnihotri doesn’t think this is gory or tragic enough. So he makes Bitta pick up rice soaked in blood and thrust it in Sharda’s face. If she eats it, she and her family may live.
Some of the best movies in the world are propaganda films. Especially war and spy movies. Where Eagles Dare, Zulu, Bridge on the River Kwai, every James Bond film, Munich, even our own Haqeeqat (1964) and Lagaan (2001). These films have the intelligence and skill to create compelling characters and unforgettable human drama. They are so well made that it’s difficult to see their agenda or pick a fight with them.
The Kashmir Files has a B-grade soul and lust for gore. It has no grace, no aesthetic appeal and no patience for context or complexity. It conjures up a dark period of India history by cherry-picking, pruning and twisting incidents and events to cast a large section of Kashmiris as villains.
This skewed narrative is built on a screenplay that’s constructed like an equilateral triangle. At the top sits the past, and equidistant from it are two discussions that take place in the present.
The past is Kashmir of 1990, and in the present is the house of a former IAS officer Brahma Dutt (Mithun Chakraborty) and his wife Laxmi (Mrinal Kulkarni). Old friends have gathered there — Vishnu, a journalist, Dr Mahesh (Prakash Belawadi) a doctor, and DGP Hari Narain (Puneet Issar) — to meet Krishna (Darshan Kumar), who is to arrive with the ashes of their dear friend, Pushkar.
The college in which Krishna studies, ANU Delhi, is the film’s third set.
In Dutt’s home the conversation is about how the state, centre, bureaucracy, police force failed Kashmiri Pandits, while at ANU, Prof. Radhika Menon (Pallavi Joshi) talks about how, since the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, Muslims have been killed by the security forces, that 7,000 of them are missing, unaccounted for.
At Dutt’s home there is solemnity and rage over how life once was, and how quickly it was thrown asunder by Muslims. In ANU, Prof Menon encourages “aazadi” ke naare as she tells Krishna and other students that Kashmir awaits the promised plebiscite.
One conversation is made out to be the honest truth and the other is rubbished as falsehood being perpetuated by deshdrohis.
Krishna grew up with his grandfather Pushkar at various refugee camps, and yet the film shows him as being confused about what happened to Kashmiri Pandits. That’s because Krishna is us — India’s brainwashed, misguided citizens who need to be told what is the truth and whom to blame.
The Kashmir Files‘ agenda is all too apparent. Agnihotri puts orange tilak on the forehead of every Kashmiri Pandit, gives most of them names of Hindu gods and goddesses, but lines the eyes of the rest with dark kajal, gives them an automatic rifle or malevolence, and stamps them all as the enemy.
The film even drags the Nadimarg massacre of 24 Kashmiri pandits in 2003 to 1990, to bolster its case. This leap from 1990 to 2003 ignores several incidents before and in between, including what’s regarded as the beginning of militancy in Kashmir like the assassination of National Conference’s Mohd Yousuf Halwai in 1989, because he refused to obey the militant’s diktat and switch off the lights at his house a day before, on August 15.
The film paints a picture of the exclusively Hindu Kashmir of long ago as the jannat where Rishi Kashyap once lived, Panchtantra was written. It doesn’t mention that Muslims have been living in Kashmir since the 13th and 14th century. Or that Zain-ul-Abidin, often called the Bod Shah (Great King), had banned cow slaughter. Or that during the Dogra rule in Kashmir, Muslims were prohibited from issuing Friday azan and the fine for killing a Muslim was less than the fine for killing a Hindu.
But so keen is the film to please that when it shows a dinner table full of delicious Kashmiri Pandit food, it serves up only vegetarian dishes despite Pandits’ great love for meat and fish.
The Kashmir Files is also quite foolish. It repeatedly calls all journalists — desi and foreign — bikau, forgetting that it derives its title from the file of newspaper clippings that Brahma Dutt has painstakingly put together and holds as proof of what happened in 1990.
The film has a few brief moments that hold, and these are powered by the performances of Anupam Kher and Bhasha Sumbli who plays Sharda.
But the star of the show is Pallavi Joshi whose Prof. Menon plays a very special role in peddling half-truths and trivializing the suffering of Kashmiri Muslims since 1990. She is the amalgamation of all secular liberals who speak up against what is happening right now in Kashmir.
Joshi is a very fine actress and she plays her part with the malice with which her character has been written.
Her eyes are lined with dark kajal, she wears silver jewelry, dark lipstick and is shot in very tight close-ups. The camera focuses on her big, shining eyes and ashen, moving lips. After she is dismembered and dehumanized by the camera, whatever she says can be easily dismissed or trivialized.
But Prof. Menon is never allowed to speak the whole truth. All she ends up saying is that Kashmiris have no Internet. Compared to the suffering of Kashmiri Pandits, Ms Menon’s plea for WiFi feels obscene.
The Kashmir Files is a creature born out of the divisive ecosystem in Bollywood in recent years. In the run up to the last general elections, Uri and The Accidental Prime Minister were released on the same day in January 2019, few months before the general election. The Tashkent Files was released a day after the election. The Kashmir Files was announced a few weeks after Article 370 was abrogated.
The Kashmir Files has not been made to seek reconciliation. It doesn’t want an apology from the state, from every politician, bureaucrat and cop under whose watch Kashmiri Pandits were rendered homeless. Nor does it demand just compensation from the government.
The Kashmir Files’ appeal is neither cinematic nor historical. It will probably make a lot of money, but it’ll be forgotten soon.
The tragedy of Kashmir and Kashmiris — Pandits and Muslims — deserves a better, more humane film by an honest and skilled writer-director.