Kashmir Files straddles fact and fiction to present a polarising narrative

Kashmiri Files takes an expansive swipe at all the pet peeves of the Sangh Parivar-led BJP government, including the stirring ‘Azadi’ slogan and the revolutionary song ‘Hum Dekhenge’

The Kashmir Files purports to examine the fate of the Kashmiri Pandit community and their ‘suffering’ at the hands of ‘terrorists’ in 1989-1990

The narrative of conflicts festering for decades, like in Kashmir, are inherently vulnerable to  distortion by interest groups. They get sucked into the whirlpool of history with truth, falsehoods and the grey areas entangled so densely they end up throwing coloured versions of the conflict for everyone to create and share. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one, the other is Kashmir.

The recently-released flick Kashmir Files dives into the seven-decade-old conflict to come up with its own version that has had the country talking for the last few days.  If videos shared on social media of hateful slogan-shouting in some movie halls are anything to go by, the polarising tale could end up hurting the already beleaguered minorities.

Kashmir Files is not like any other commercial film. In a lengthy disclaimer at the start of the movie, the operational part of it is that it is a story “inspired” by true events. Now, what this means is open to interpretation.

If the filmmakers are questioned about the authenticity of data and incidents presented in the 170-minute assay, they could turn around and reply it is not a documentary to faithfully stick to facts. If the film is dismissed as a work of fiction, they could say it is a true depiction of what happened. In short, it straddles fact and fiction and uses both conveniently to suit its overarching polarising narrative.

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It purports to examine the fate of the Kashmiri Pandit community and their “suffering” at the hands of “terrorists” in 1989-1990, all the while alleging that the government did nothing to intervene, with the media too ignoring the developments.

As the film meanders for three hours, an underlying motif quickly emerges – that of the Hindu as victim and the Muslim as the oppressor. The Hindu represented by the Pandits and the oppressor represented by Kashmiri Muslim terrorists. Just in case the audience does not know who a terrorist is,  what they stand for and how a terrorist can be, the film presents their most monstrous face with a Sten gun in hand even as the Pandit stands quivering in fright waiting with eyes closed for the bullet to enter the forehead.

India’s censors who in recent times have exercised their scissors fairly ruthlessly  seem to have forgotten to snip certain scenes which violently assault the viewer’s sensibilities. Not much of a surprise as Kashmir Files fits neatly into the dominant narrative building up since the advent of the BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014.

While focused on the filmmaker’s perception of the situation that existed in 1989 that led to the migration of Pandit families,  Kashmir Files takes an expansive swipe at all the pet peeves of the Sangh Parivar-led BJP government. The stirring slogan “Azadi”  (freedom) which galvanised secular sections across the country, much to the chagrin of the conservative Hindutva sections, comes in for a severe drubbing. The filmmakers have gone far out of their way trying to discredit the slogan, equating it to the sloganeering of the Kashmiri terrorists.

And the revolutionary song Hum Dekhenge by legendary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz is projected as the signature tune of secular activists in the film, who are projected as those sympathetic to the Kashmiri terrorists and are anti-Hindu in outlook. During the anti-CAA agitation, it may be recalled this song played a major role in inspiring the protests and kept it going. That it comes for “special treatment” is an indication of how much it must have irritated today’s ruling elite, which backed the Citizenship Amendment Act.

If the villain of the piece is the Kashmiri terrorist, in Delhi the bigger villain is the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).  Again in case the viewer does not get it,  Pushkar, the perpetually suffering character, played by Anupam Kher refers to it as “ANU”. The prima donna who epitomises a leftist professor, Radhika Menon (played by Pallavi Joshi) is shown to be brainwashing the protagonist-student Krishna (played by Darshan Kumar), a Pandit orphaned by murderous Muslim terrorists.

Krishna is modelled somewhat on the firebrand JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar (note the synonymity in the name too). There seems almost a wistful longing among the flick’s creators for Kanhaiya to have belonged to the right, but no luck – at least so far.

The proverbial whipping boy, the media,  takes a royal beating in the Kashmir Files. For a government whose prime minister has not held a single open and free press conference since coming to power in 2014,  the disdain for the media is all too obvious by now. The film goes out of its way to show a Kashmiri Hindu journalist, Vishnu Ram (played by Atul Srivastava), as a spineless, helpless reporter who does not report what is happening to the Pandits.

In one scene, the reporter is even shown reporting false news. A friend, Mahesh, a doctor (acted by Prakash Belawadi) calls him a b@#$%$d, in a nutshell describing the overall relationship between the current government and the media. An argument ensues and both end up physically attacking each other.

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The western media too is not spared. The much-renowned New York Times and Washington Post are singled out for (allegedly) backing terrorists. The reason: according to an official (played by Mithun Chakraborty),  they refuse to describe the terrorists as terrorists, instead preferring to call them rebels. “How can  they call the Hizbul Mujahidin and Lashkar-e-Taiba ‘rebels’ when the same media calls the al-Qaeda and Islamic State as terrorists,”  questions the official.

The thrust of the film is that the media in the 1990s did not report the  “exodus” of Pandits from the valley, they hid the events and preferred to keep it that way. This has been the position of the Sangh Parivar for the last three decades and, as part of the overall Hindu victimhood narrative, appears to have paid rich political dividends.

But, as irony would have it, the filmmakers have no choice but to turn to the very same media for help when the protagonist Krishna refuses to believe the “real story” behind his parents’ deaths. The files open and what does one see? A neatly categorised list of stories that have been published in various newspapers on the events of 1989-90.

If the media was sleeping then where did these reports come from? And doesn’t it disprove the Hindutva proponents’ claim that the media did nothing? As the writer Aldous Huxley said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” And, not for nothing did the respected freedom fighter Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya popularise the coinage “Satyameva Jayate” (Truth Always Wins).

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