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The reception to ‘Shikara’ exposes the biases of critics

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My mother rarely uses hyperbole to describe films, especially from Bollywood, so I was naturally curious to know why she had described Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Shikara in superlatives on her social media page. Film critics in India had given the film middling reviews, saying it worked as a poignant love story, but did not provide sufficient political context to the long-festering Kashmir conflict. Most of the reviews were very similar in tone and verbiage, which left me wondering if Indian critics are capable of original thinking.

Reviewers in India also seem curiously unaware of the difference between documentaries and works of fiction, albeit inspired by real events, designed for a mass audience. There is a long list of acclaimed romantic films set against tragedies in which the love story is foregrounded, while the historical context is merely scaffolding for the romance.

A gentleman who referred to Shikara as a “masterpiece”, James Cameron, made one such film called Titanic (1997). I do not recall anyone complaining about the lack of historical context when it was released, though it was set against one of the greatest tragedies of the early 20th century. People recognized it for what it was, an escapist tearjerker that turned out to be one of the highest grossing films of all time. Indeed, Cameron could have been an Indian in his previous life, given his penchant for schmaltzy, overlong musical interludes, and tales of doomed yet timeless love.

There have been other films set against political and historical backdrops of major significance, although it was the romance that ultimately drew audiences. Chopra, being the master that he is, avoids the oft-repeated mistake of mixing genres and has thus given us not only an emotional tour-de-force, but a devastating document of one of the worst tragedies of post-1947 India, the expulsion of Kashmiri Hindus from their ancestral homeland.

Chopra also avoids the trap of reducing the Kashmir issue to a Hindu-Muslim binary. A refugee himself, he is only too aware of the convoluted nature of the conflict and the equally horrific trauma inflicted on both communities. He offers a fig leaf as well as a solution to cynics and naysayers. Empathy, he seems to say, is the highest virtue and perhaps the only way Kashmiris can heal. Not through the machinations of vested interests who would exploit the suffering of Kashmiris to play one side against the other, but through mutual empathy and acknowledgement of shared suffering.

Kashmiris have no choice but to find the empathy within themselves, for it is sorely lacking in some sections of the Indian media and online world of professional rabble-rousers. The rabid among the Hindu right went apoplectic on the film’s release, accusing it of “whitewashing genocide” and soft-pedalling the role of Islamists. Some even went so far as to call for the Hindu “traitors” behind the film to be burnt alive.

Conversely, Chopra and the film’s co-writer, Rahul Pandita, were accused by some of typecasting Muslims as villains, thus worsening tensions between the two communities. “The film stands at the danger of feeding into a one-sided perspective in an already polarising time,” wrote Kennith Rosario in The Hindu. “While the film ascribes Muslim militant extremism to personal loss, the moral upper-hand is always with Kashmiri Pandits.” This last charge is made because the male protagonist, Shiv Dhar, advises some Hindu children against chanting communal slogans, saying that a true leader will unite, not divide the country.

Apparently, we Kashmiri Pandits are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. On one hand, Pandits speaking out about their trauma, a necessary therapeutic process, are accused of fuelling tensions. On the other, they are called traitors if they empathize with the plight of Muslims or refuse to tar them all with the same brush.

This critic also seems perturbed at a scene depicting a Muslim squatter usurping the home of the fleeing Pandit protagonist. Scores of Kashmiris can testify to such incidents, including members of my own extended family. How does acknowledging this make the film-maker guilty of bigotry, especially when the other side accuses him of going easy on terrorists? As there seems to be no way to satisfy India’s self-described liberals, Pandits can hardly be blamed for dismissing their opinions.

The vitiated discourse around the film is emblematic of a larger pattern that has been repeated ad nauseam over the years, that of eliding the core issues while paying lip service to human rights. Self-appointed allies of Kashmir with no skin in the game are only making matters worse by forwarding simple binaries while transparently seeking attention (or funds) for their activism.

The chattering classes, including Bollywood’s woke folk who like to pontificate about everything under the sun, have stayed strangely silent about the many burning questions raised by Shikara. Unfortunately for them, silence is not an option anymore because staying silent on Kashmir’s Pandit problem is in itself a political act.

Vikram Zutshi is a cultural critic, author and film-maker

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