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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 12, New Delhi, March 7, 2020

Kashmir: Home and Longing

Monday 9 March 2020

by Swati Sehgal

The row around promotions and screenings of the recently released film, Shikara: The Untold Story of Kashmiri Pandits, speaks volumes about the social role of this creative medium. It is a strange dichotomy how a film functions as a medium both to bring to the fore and obliterate issues from the public domain. This latest work by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, released on February 7th, 2020 treads this treacherous path with the claim of narrating the story of a genocide that has not received due attention. Etching out history onscreen through the travails of Shiv and Shanti, played by Aadil Khan and Sadia, it is the poignant lament of a community forced to leave home to save their lives.

It is certainly commendable that Chopra makes a foray into a subject that could have been easily unidimensional and chest-thumping tragic-drama. Instead the film broaches the issue with careful consideration, yet tending towards frugality in informing the viewer about its complexity. It is significant that the narrative does not veer towards demonising a community, with oft repeated references stating that a few nefarious elements have been instrumental in generating fear. It is understandable that the film belongs to the realm of the mainstream culture, yet it could have dwelled upon and not give a tangential treatment to the eruption of this problem. There are moments in the movie that illustrate the radicalisation of the youth and the politicisation of hatred, but it rushes the audience to the personal ordeal of the couple at the threshold of marital life.

It is also noteworthy how the story is bringing into focus the geographical and cultural space of Kashmir. In the film, Shiv recalls how he met Shanti at the set of a film being shot in Kashmir in 1987, aptly titled ‘Love in Kashmir’. It is a beautiful narrative device to contrast the scenic locale with the morose and unidentifiable streets, ravaged by bullets and curfew. The reference to a film being shot within another obliquely hints at the nostalgic engagement with the place as an idyllic and beloved location for Bollywood for countless films. A significant gesture is that repetitively through songs, musical instruments, food, rituals etc. several cultural referents are evoked. The movie depicts Kashmir’s transformation from a secular and composite society to a polarised, contested and massively militarised location. The angst of this change in Chopra’s narrative is foregrounded in other contemporary films as well—Haider (2014), Mission Kashmir (2000) to name a few.

The idea of home as a space of constancy and safety is constantly echoed and contrasted with displaced existence in the movie. The quint-essentially romantic engagement with construction of a new house in the earlier part of the film, followed by living in makeshift and pucca tents of refugee camps, and the final settlement in a quarter is a significant unifying element of the narrative. House is like a character in itself. It is repeatedly revisited as Lateef and Khurshid Lone, the male protagonist’s friends and his father, bring stones for the construction of the former’s house; Shanti paints the name Shikara on the letter box; the milkman asks Shanti to use thicker wooden shafts as ultimately the house was intended to be taken over by his Muslim employer; the camera pans to reveal how dozens of families lived in a limited space; and finally the sense of respite expressed at being able to get a quarter, a place of one’s own.

The film is a telling reminder that fiction of its form has a function that is undeniably social. With Chopra and Rahul Pandita as two amongst the three writers of the film, the affinity between the point of view presented in Pandita’s The Moon has Blood Clots is undeniable. The personal experience of being evicted also informs Chopra’s style of storytelling, voicing out the burden of a torturous existence and the apathy of the state. The film hints at the latter in terms of a few representatives, from administration and army, choosing to refrain from stand taken by then or later governments. It is also intriguing that the protagonist Shiv, chooses to write to the American Presidents innumerable letters about how the guns made by them have been a cause of their misery. Perhaps it signals that faith in the state to work for their welfare was exhausted.

Further the depiction of loss is inter-generational and has transformed the expectations and aspirations of not only the victims from the community but even those who have been misguidedly usurped by the hate-mongers. Lateef, a friend of Shiv, played by Faisal Simon, is a budding cricketer, playing Ranji, turns into an extremist after his father is killed in a political strife. Shiv, a professor, devotes his life to teaching children at the camp and later at Kashmir. The most stark reminder of this blighted exodus are two children, one at the camp who grows up to be a doctor and offers free medical services for Shanti and the other at Kashmir, who wishes to see a Kashmiri Pandit, as if a rare specimen.

The film shows that such violence has continued to fester and has destroyed lives. Travails of Kashmiri Pandit refugees has not been a theme that has garnered attention of writers or filmmakers much. Accounts hitherto written have been dismissed as one-sided portrayals, making this film important to initiate a dialogue about the plight of this community. It is essential that the potential of filmmaking as a mechanism to generate nuanced historical awareness about such concerns is acknow-ledged. With the potential of the medium far-reaching and expansive, especially in the Indian socio-political context, such stories need to be told with a humane viewpoint.

The author is a Research Scholar (Ph.D), Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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