‘The Kashmir Files’ opens up wounds that never healed
What is it about Vivek Agnihotri's The Kashmir Files that has turned the film into a movement? New shows are being added to the schedules of every movie theatre in India. Every show is going houseful.
Towards the end of Vivek Agnihotri’s holocaustic drama I heard a woman’s sob in the pin drop silence of the jampacked auditorium. That’s when I knew that Vivek Agnihotri had hit home. While it is astonishing to see his brutal survival drama grow into a major box office draw while the big glossy Radhe Shyam released side-by-side sinks with every show, it is not really a stupefying mystery as to why Agnihotri’s savage indictment of the whitewashing of the Hindu genocide in Kashmir in 1990 has struck such a deep chord among the audience.
The Kashmir Files hits home. It in an angry indignant film, sometimes choking on its own bile while going that extra mile to target the vile, at other times failing to differentiate historical fact from the dramatic interpretation of it (more about that later). It’s impossible to tell what Agnihotri is angrier about: the actual genocide (genocide, not exodus, we are told repeatedly) or the whitewashing-subversion of it by the architects of Indian history.
Why is it that so much literature is available on the Jew holocaust and not the Kashmiri Pandits’ genocide? Director Vivek Agnihotri loves a solid conspiracy theory. He sank his teeth in one earlier in The Taskent Files, purporting to solve the mystery of the sudden death of Lal Bahadur Shastri during a visit to Taskent. That film was the sleeper hit of 2019. To call The Kashmir Files a sleeper hit would be inappropriate, politically and otherwise. The growing impact of the film indicates a movement rather than a freak occurrence. The narrative moving back and forth in a heaving lurching motion leaves us ‘see’ sick.
Besides this film is too much of a wakeup call to be a ‘sleeper’ or otherwise. Agnihotri spares us none of the brutality that the Pandits faced as they were told to vacate their homes overnight. Convert, Die or Leave became the slogan for the pandemic pre-planned pogrom. What the militants’ massacre aimed at was no less than a cultural cleansing. Another slogan, heard repeatedly in the deafeningly defiant drama is, ‘Without Hindu Men, With Hindu Women’ which sorrily meant that the bestial jihadis wanted to kill the males and impregnate the women. It’s a vile deplorable thought, which any rational mind would reject. Agnihotri recreates the sheer madness and monstrosity of that period, not letting go of a single opportunity to use the sledgehammer effect. In one early sequence a little girl hands over a rose to an Indian army officer who, seconds later is ambushed and gunned down by bike-ridden assassins. Yes, the shock value is much valued here. So, I quickly take you to the climactic butchery where 21 Pandits are shot at point-blank in the centre of their foreheads one after another.
But my question to Agnihotri is: why the numbers? Why is the narrative so taken up with how many were massacred? If you repudiate the statistics, put out by the Government on how few were killed, then your ‘authentic’ numbers too are open to debate. The Kashmir Files would have worked better if it had steered away from inducing horror and disgust through numbers. The idea that the film puts forward—of an entire creed being annihilated by fundamentalists—is so crushing in its implications that numbers cease to matter. What really counts is the impressive credibility Agnihotri brings to the polemical drama. There are long passages of history-deconstructing conversations on the genocide among four old friends played by Mithun Chakraborty, Prakash Belawadi, Puneet Issar and Atul Shrivastava, the last-named latter embodying the ‘press-titute’ line of thought so popular among a section of the Indian right-wingers who conveniently pin the blame for historical disinformation on the media.
These closed-door conversations confer an aura of a chamber-piece on Agnihotri’s conversational Kashmiri carpe-diem. It’s only when the narrative steps out into the action that we feel the full impact of the seething rage that runs through the narrative’s vital organs. Anupam Kher, dramatically effective as a senile Kashmiri pandit who dies fighting for his people’s right to return home, has a very moving moment when he sits nibbling on a biscuit outside his tent at a refugee camp while in the distance, we hear the voice of an old woman singing a Kashmiri song about homesickness wish there were more such reined-in moments of anguish.
Pallavi Joshi as a rabblerousing academic inciting notions of azaadi in her brainwashed students is deliciously ambivalent. But it is Darshan Kumar as a young impressionable third-generation Kashmiri pandit who steals the show. His pitch-perfect monologue on the illustrious history of Kashmiri pundits at the JNU, sorry, MNU, will be recalled by history. I am not too sure how history will judge The Kashmir Files. It will depend on who is in power on judgement day.
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