The Kashmir Files Reopened and Blown!
Shoma A. Chatterji writes on the recent controversy of the Hindi film, 'The Kashmir Files'
The debate over the very controversial The Kashmir Files by Vivek Agnihotri seems to be coming back with a snowballing impact eight months after the film was released in India, with open support by the Government at the Centre that seems to have its claws forever ready to attack the minority community in India in general and Kashmir in particular ever since the Saffron party came to power. This writer cannot recall a single Indian film across the past 50 years getting such tremendous backing by the government in power to promote and support a fictional feature film made by an Indian filmmaker.
There has been uproar against the public declaration made by noted Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, chairperson of the International Jury at the recently held 53rd International Film Festival of India at Goa on the last day of the festival. He spoke in his own language. When translated, it goes – “I call the film “vulgar” and “propaganda, inappropriate for an artistic competitive section of such a prestigious film festival.” He went on to add, however, “I would like to thank the head of the festival and the director of the programming for the cinematic richness of the programme, for its diversity, for its complexity. It was intense. We saw seven films in the debutant competition, and 15 films in the international competition, the front window of the festival. 14 out of them had cinematic qualities, defaults and evoked vivid discussions." Nadav Lapid said in his speech.
“All of us were disturbed and shocked by the 15th film, The Kashmir Files. That felt like a propaganda, vulgar movie, inappropriate for an artistic competitive section of such a prestigious film festival. I feel totally comfortable openly sharing these feelings here with you at this stage. In the spirit of this festival, we can surely also accept a critical discussion, which is essential for art and life," he concluded.
However, Lapid’s fellow countryman in India, namely, Israel's Consul General to Mumbai Kobbi Shoshani expressed disagreement with his fellow countryman and filmmaker Nadav Lapid who called 'The Kashmir Files' a “propaganda” and “vulgar” film. “I saw The Kashmir Files and met the cast. I have a different opinion than Nadav Lapid. After his speech, I told Nadav my opinion,” the Israeli diplomat said in a tweet. But he also added that he was in no position to ask Lapid to apologise for his negative comments.
One question – why would Kobbi Shoshani “meet the cast?” Does this not mean that a special screening was organized for him after Lavid went public to convince him about the “honesty and integrity” of the film on the one hand and Lapid’s very regressive comments on the other? Whether it was ethical or not for the Chief of the International Jury to make such comments on an Indian film while being an honoured guest of an international film festival is a completely different question. The moot question here is whether his comments about the film being a “propaganda” film that should not have been in competition are being discussed here.
In an angry response to these allegations, Agnihotri said, “If anyone can prove that even a single dialogue or a single incident can be proven as false by anyone, I shall stop making films for good.” Too strong a response one has to agree. But he has been on the defensive, along with his actor Anupam Kher who keeps on riling that he is a Kashmiri Pandit himself and has been victim to the holocaust against Kashmiri Pandits. Kher, by the way, is an established and strong supporter of the ruling party, the BJP and Mithun Chakraborty is an official member of the BJP himself. Pallavi Joshi, the wife of the director who also plays an important role in the film is a supporter of the Saffron party, as is her husband. Kiron Kher, Anupam’s wife, is an official member of the BJP.
The film, written and directed by Vivek Agnihotri, depicts the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from the Valley following the killings of members of the community by Pakistan-backed terrorists.
The critical reception of the film was mixed, with the cinematography and acting thought to be compelling, but the storyline attracting criticism for attempting to recast established history and propagating Islamophobia. Supporters have praised the film for showing what they say is an overlooked aspect of Kashmir's history. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and several BJP ministers have praised the film. Theatres across India witnessed hate speeches against Muslims, including incitement to violence. As of 28 April 2022, the film, which cost approximately ₹15 crore (US$1.9 million) to ₹25 crore (US$3.1 million) to make, had grossed ₹340.92 crore (US$43 million) worldwide, becoming the second highest-grossing Hindi film of 2022. So, this so-called “political commitment” towards the Kashmiri Pandits has wonderful commercial prospects and is in no way either a documentary film or an out-of-the-box off-mainstream film. It is spilling over with lectures specially by the young JNU student though where and when he did his research, the film is completely silent about.
Agnihotri has now come out with the challenge that he has so much of material on the subject that he can make ten films on the same issue. But as of now, he has announced that he will make a sequel tentatively titled The Kashmir Files Unreported. Though Lapid had claimed that his fellow jury members were with him, after this lecture, they have maintained complete silence. Lapid commented that in a dignified and prestigious film festival of this gravity, this film with its clearly propagandist agenda which openly supports the Indian government’s stance on Kashmir smells strongly of fascist motives and should not be in competition with other films.
In an article entitled 'The dangerous ‘truth’ of The Kashmir Files' posted in 'Al Jazeera,' (13th April 2022) Sanjay Kak who is a Kashmiri Pandit himself and has made Jashn-e-Azaadi a documentary film on the subject, faced severe obstacles during screening in several cities. Kak insists, “A few days after The Kashmir Files was released, it received an unusual stamp of approval. “All of you should watch it,” India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a meeting of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) parliamentary group. “The film has shown the truth which has been suppressed for years. The truth prevailed in Kashmir Files,” Modi said. This resounding endorsement of the film’s claim to the truth, as well as the suggestion that this truth had been suppressed in the past, was an early marker of the political capital that was being invested in the film.”
“As a documentary filmmaker and writer whose work has centered on Kashmir for almost two decades, I have always been confounded by the facts – or the lack of them – of the departure of the community in 1990. My community, I should say, for, I am a Kashmiri Pandit. There is little clarity about even the most elementary things,” he added.
He tried to put the record straight, he went on to add, “We can say that from the middle of 1989 onwards, Kashmir witnessed the targeted killings of several significant figures of its Hindu minority, leading to widespread panic and insecurity. In these same months, many Muslims were also assassinated in Kashmir – political workers, policemen, and government officials. All this was part of the wider political upsurge of this period, presaging events that were to soon upturn the established order of things. We also know that early in 1990 some Kashmiri Pandit families began to flee in fear. Their leaving was probably intended as a temporary move though it was to prove tragically permanent for most.”
Kak details that in the decade that followed, Kashmir continued to be wracked by mass protests as well as a full-blown armed uprising that aimed at nothing less than freedom from India. The brutal counterinsurgency that followed was to overwhelm life for all those who lived in Kashmir, and the violence and continuing fear led to steady departures of its Pandit minority, and also of a significant number of Muslims. We know that the final waves of Kashmiri Pandit departures followed two horrific massacres – of 23 civilians at Wandhama in 1998 and of 24 men, women and children at Nadimarg in 2003.
Despite all this, at least 4,000 Kashmiri Pandits never left their homes. They have continued to live in Kashmir, not in secure ghettos, but scattered across the valley. Living in what often feels like a war zone, without extended networks of family and community, their lives are not easy. But nor is life easy for their Muslim neighbours, with whom they live in what has come to be recognized as one of the most militarised zones in the world.
In The Kashmir Files, Kak details that “the expulsion of the Kashmiri Pandits was dated to one day (January 19, 1990), accompanied by an insistence that their exodus was the consequence of widespread killings, the looting and burning of Pandit homes and temples, and a high incidence of sexual violence against Pandit women. The community was victims of a genocide, the argument went, and this was framed as part of the larger threat to Hindu civilisation that only the BJP and its cohort could counter."
How many Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the conflict? asks Kak. In conversations around The Kashmir Files, the figure has hovered around 4,000, although the most recent figures provided by the region’s police department put it at 89. Earlier official estimates had said 270, while Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, a Kashmir-based citizens group, had arrived at a figure of about 700. When did they leave? And that most vexed of all: what were the circumstances that made people leave? None of these can be answered with any degree of certainty.
His last word, The Kashmir Files is not about setting straight a historical record of Kashmir in the 1990s, or creating an environment that might ease the return home of a community in exile. Its narrative is instead powered by a visceral demonisation of the Kashmiri Muslim, one that renders reconciliation ever more difficult.
There are scenes of extreme violence that can never be substantiated by fact and this is a fictional film, in no way can it claim to be a documentary. Then, why is the BJP government bending backwards to promote it in ways unimaginable for the government of the world’s largest democracy where the PM spends a large part of his administrative duties in broadcasting his 'Man Ki Baat'?
At least six BJP-ruled states have announced to make The Kashmir Files, a film depicting the exodus of the Pandit community from the Valley in the early 90s, tax-free on the fourth day of its release. Urging “everyone to watch the movie”, Chief Ministers of some states even accompanied their family members or colleagues to theatres. In Madhya Pradesh, policemen were given special leave to watch the film. In Karnataka BJP MLA Basanagouda Patil Yatnal announced he will fund one show per day for a week “so that people can watch it free of cost”. Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai had exempted the film from being taxed.
Source: This write-up is deeply indebted to Sanjay Kak’s wonderful essay mentioned in the piece which is an eye-opener to the story behind the “authenticity” of The Kashmir Files story.
Has the individual's freedom of expression disappeared from the face of the earth? Why, otherwise, did Nadov Lapid, the Israeli filmmaker who roundly criticised The Kashmir Files and also went against the selection of the film among the list of 15 entries in the International Competition apologise after returning to his country? He had refused to apologise earlier but probably there was pressure on him after he returns to his homeland Israel, which forced him to complain within 24 hours after his speech. He had said, "in nations where the power of expressing the truth is increasing, someone must raise his voice." His apology, when translate, goes like this: "I had no intention to hurt or injure anyone. If anyone has been hurt by my comments, I apologise."
About the author: Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is an Indian film scholar based in Kolkata.