Once upon a time, writer-director Vivek Agnihotri told us a Hate Story; this week, he has etched yet another. Mounted like a revisionist docudrama, that tracks the tragic exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from their homeland in the 1990s, The Kashmir Files is essentially a battle of narratives, where Agnihotri has determinedly sided with one version of the events. Employing some facts, some half-truths, and plenty of distortions, it propels an alternative view about the Kashmir issue, with the intent to not just provoke... but incite.
The Kashmiri Pandits’ pain is real and should be expressed in popular culture, but it deserved a more nuanced, more objective take rather than the ‘us vs them’ worldview that Agnihotri has propagated over 170 minutes.
The film is based on the testimonies of the people scarred for generations by the insurgency in the State, and presents the tragic exodus as a full-scale genocide, akin to the Holocaust, that was deliberately kept away from the rest of India by the media, the ‘intellectual’ lobby and the government of the day because of their vested interests.
Agnihotri has improved upon the form he adopted in The Tashkent Files where he presented his take on former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death through memories and flashbacks, with the narrative going back and forth in time.
Here, Krishna (Darshan Kumar), a Kashmiri Pandit and student of a premier university, modelled on Jawaharlal Nehru University, has been tutored by his ‘liberal’ teacher Radhika Menon (Pallavi Joshi) into believing that the secessionist movement in Kashmir is akin to India’s Freedom Movement.
When Krishna’s grandfather Pushkar Nath (Anupam Kher) dies, he returns to Kashmir with his ashes and meets four of his grandfather’s friends who reveal the ‘real’ story of Kashmir to Krishna, and of course, the audience. In their narrative, Kashmir was faced with a clash of civilisations, and the Pandits were left to die by the State and the central government to appease one community. The villain of the piece is Bitta, who seems like a combination of real-life Ghulam Mohammad Dar alias Bitta Karate and Yasin Malik, the faces of terror outfit Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front.
Unlike Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s films on the subject, Agnihotri has no time for romance in the Valley. It is more like a rejoinder to Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, as the film tries to suggest that the Kashmiri Muslims deserved to suffer after what they did to the Pandits and other minorities.
A disturbing take, it grips and gripes in turns. The scenes of bloodshed, torture, and otherisation of Pandits have been filmed with brutal intensity. The camerawork captures the dark, brooding shades of the Valley and the performances are compelling.
As the conscience keeper of the film, Kher is at his rhetorical best. Darshan is a revelation and it is good to see the gifted Pallavi back. Mithun Chakraborty, Prakash Belawadi, Puneet Issar, and Atul Shrivastava sound convincing, as friends of Pushkar Nath.
However, the film that accuses the foreign press of milking choreographed unrest and clickbait headlines, gradually falls for the same alleged exploitative methods to reach out to tear ducts and arouse animosity. There is hardly any effort to understand what happens when a majority becomes the minority and vice versa. The voice of the moderate Muslim is conspicuous by its absence. The representation of the educated elite is shallow and towards the end borders on easy character assassination.
Some of the dialogues give hope that Agnihotri will address the complexity of the subject that hasn’t been addressed before, but once he starts peddling an agenda against a religion, The Kashmir Files loses its objective, humanistic gaze.
It does the same selective treatment of the period that it accuses the players in the ‘90s of.
Like most in the era of social media, Agnihotri looks at the past from the prism of today and a lot of dinner table discussions make it to the screenplay. There is no middle ground for him, as he picks and chooses instances from the past to suit his narrative. He talks of Sheikh Abdullah, but doesn’t mention the role played by Raja Hari Singh at the time of the accession of Kashmir to India. He also doesn’t talk about how the rigged ballot gave way to a bullet culture in Kashmir in the late 1980s.
The film underplays the Pakistan-Afghanistan angle and puts the onus for perpetuating the insurgency on the local Muslim. In Agnihotri’s documentation, terror has a religion and it appears every Muslim in Kashmir has been a separatist and keen to convert Hindus to Islam. How the Dogra Kings ruled the State till 1947 is out of the syllabus here.
Of course, religious slogans were raised, and indeed Kashmir Pandits got caught in the crossfire between India and Pakistan, but the history is not as black and white as Agnihotri wants us to believe.
The names of Kashmiri legends and their contribution that Krishna invokes in the climactic speech are very much there in history books and oral tradition. If the makers got to know them during the research for the film, it is not fair to tell the audience that they have not been taught about the mystic Lalleshwari, the journey of Shankaracharya to Kashmir, and the intellectual capital of the State.
Talking selective use of facts, the film directly attacks Farooq Abdullah and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, and indirectly holds Congress responsible for the exodus, but conveniently forgets to tell us that it was the National Front government that was in power in January 1990, when the alleged genocide took place, whose survival depended on the outside support of the Bharatiya Janta Party and the Left parties.
He has also conveniently forgotten the party, whose agenda he is consciously or inadvertently perpetuating, had formed the government with one of the regional parties which the films describe as nationalist in Delhi, communalist in Srinagar.
Curiously, the film talks of justice but doesn’t bring in the role of the judiciary, the legal battle of Pandits, and the fact that the real Bitta spent more than two decades in jail and after being out on bail, is once again behind the bars.
In the bid to distort, even the good old poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz is not spared. Written in 1979, Hum Dekhenge uses the metaphor of traditional Islamic imagery to subvert and challenge Pakistani General Zia Ul Haq’s fundamentalist interpretation of them. When he says “An-al-Haq” (I am truth), he comes close to the Advaita philosophy of Hinduism. The film subtly derides previous Prime Ministers like Atal Bihari Vajpayee for aiming to win the hearts of people. Perhaps, the makers believe in ruling only the landmass.
One fears, in the name of street justice, the clippings of the film will soon end up in social media to fuel further hate against one community.
The Kashmir Files is currently running in theatres