The tragedy of Kashmir has deep roots. Over the decades of endless cycles of violence, waves of separatism, the infiltration of Pakistan-funded terror outfits, and the simmering discontent amongst the people, scholarly works and journalistic exercises have dug deep in order to excavate and explore. As is always the case with complex histories of places and people, we’ve had accounts depending upon which aspect of the issue they have been interested in.
The last time Bollywood brought up the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley was in the 2020 ‘Shikara’, made by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri’s ‘The Kashmir Files’ expands on that narrative and makes it the sole lens through which he views it. Right from the beginning, we know which side the film’s sympathies lie; as far as ‘The Kashmir Files’ is concerned, it was not an ‘exodus’, it was a ‘genocide’, in which thousands of Kashmiri Hindus were massacred, women were raped, children were shot point blank: even today, those families live like refugees.
The emotional centre of the movie is Pushkar Nath Pandit (Anupam Kher), a teacher who is ousted from his Srinagar home after his son is brutally killed. Thirty years later, his grandson Krishna (Darshan Kumaar) comes back to Srinagar, carrying Pushkar Nath’s ashes, and with the help of his grandfather’s closest friends (Mithun Chakraborty, Puneet Issar, Atul Srivastava) learns lessons which anguish him, and awaken him. He has managed to live, strange though this may sound, not knowing the terrible circumstances under which his grandfather sought to rescue him: even your average student of the red-brick university he attends (JNU, by another name) would have at least a smidgeon of knowledge of the recent history of Kashmir, and how, after Jagmohan, there was an exodus of the Pandits, and how they were trucked to Jammu, to eke out a miserable life in the snake-and-scorpion ridden camps.
The device of an ignorant character is a useful one in a film like this. Krishna has been oblivious to the terrors faced by his family, as he was a babe-in-arms when they fled. Complicit Muslim neighbours who point out hiding places, bearded Islamic terrorists who have tacit links to suspicious universities in Delhi whose ‘Leftist’ professors (Pallavi Joshi) ‘brainwash’ students into rousing slogans of ‘Azaadi’: it’s all here. Atul Kulkarni, who plays a craven TV journalist, is made to say something interesting about how the stone-throwers and the slogan shouters would appear when the international media came looking, and how they would melt away as soon as that posse left town, allowing the gathering to use words like ‘fake media’. But this is not a film interested in nuance: it is a sledgehammer, especially in the way it stages its gory killings and lynchings, which make you shudder and shut your eyes.
There may be other films which would gather other points-of-view; it doesn’t, for example, touch upon how people are still being killed even after the abrogation of Article 370, and what that says about the ‘vaadi’ today. ‘The Kashmir Files’ is not that film, and doesn’t pretend to be. In all of the ghastly excesses it shows (a terrorist forcing a wife to sup on the blood of her husband, a live woman being sawed in half), what emerges is the deep-seated anger of the Kashmiri Pandits: the fires have been banked but the embers are still burning. This is a film which stokes those embers, not examine the way forward — what else are we supposed to think when it closes on the face of a young boy, shot point-blank in the forehead?
With all its propagandist verve, and cementing the current dispensation’s favoured discourse, it does manage to tap into the grief of the displaced Pandits. What stays with us are the flashes of genuine pain that envelopes Pushkar Nath (Anupam Kher in a credible turn, even if some of his portions are overwrought), damaged and suffering from dementia, but who has never forgotten his beloved Habba Kadal. He is never able to go home again.
The Kashmir Files cast: Anupam Kher, Mithun Chakraborty, Puneet Issar, Darshan Kumaar, Pallavi Joshi, Mrinal Kulkarni, Atul Srivastava, Chinmay Mandlekar
The Kashmir Files director: Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri
The Kashmir Files rating: 1.5 stars