Every decade of my life till now (Yes I started with “Only 90s kids will get this”) has had an iconic Kashmir film. Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992), first in his Indian conflict trilogy, is set in ‘Srinagar, Kashmir’ about a Savitri’s mission to bring back her Satyavan; Vidhu Chopra’s Mission Kashmir (2000) a better version of Diljale (1996); Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014) the final chapter in his trilogy of Shakespearean inspirations, this one taking on Hamlet.
Each of these films is considered a career highlight of the respective director and have sparked debate about Kashmir’s place in the Indian nation-state project, as also the state of the project. Considering the ascendant Hindutva movement, it is only appropriate that Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files (2022) has knocked on (and some would argue knocked down) the doors of this hallowed genre.
TKF has a protagonist, Krishna Pandit (Darshan Kumar) but his main role is that of an audience stand-in. The film’s real lodestar is the “files”, the line-up of tragic figures, some meet violent and immediate end while others with deeper and slower erasures. They are stories one has heard whispered over the years like the fates of BK Ganjoo, Girija Tickoo and Jammu refugee camps; the brutalities of Bitta Karate and Yasin Malik, the gaslighting efforts of Arundhati Roy and Barkha Dutt. The film dares us to reflect upon these historical brutalities and continuing injustices wrought upon the Kashmiri Hindu community.
The film juggles between the fateful winter of 1990 and a post Article 370 abrogated Kashmir to show how things have changed & some remained the same. Brahma Dutt (Mithun Chakraborty) a retired IAS officer hosts a dinner party for his old friends Hari (Puneet Issar) a retired IPS officer, Vishnu (Atul Srivastava), a retired journo & Mahesh (Prakash Belawadi), doctor and our protagonist, Krishna a student in ANU (a fictionalized version of Mordor :).
The parties have arrived because of business about the recently deceased Pushkar Nath Pandit (Anupam Kher), Krishna’s grandfather and old pal of the retired folks. As the night progresses many a truths and guilt are exchanged in remembrance of their dear friend, who died recently but stopped living a long time ago.
The film’s opening sequence features children playing cricket in curfew with a live commentary from an India / Pakistan match. It is very efficient in transporting the audience into the fraught times. Its efficiency is reminiscent of the opening sequence in the directors earlier venture, Buddha in a Traffic Jam. This is a time in Kashmir before AFSPA, a time when “Azadi” seemed within grasp and believing in any god other than Allah, be it Mahadev or Tendulkar, was met with flurry of fists or bullets raining down.
The not so effective part of the film is when it leaves Kashmir for Delhi and follows a student president election (ughh) where our protagonist, Krishna is leading a “Tukde Tukde” party’s campaign, guided by Radhika Menon (Pallavi Joshi), a stand-in for Ms. Roy and others from the ‘Jholawala & disheveled look’ clique. It is mentioned that many around them have a sedition case against them. We all know who they are, what is less obvious is their incremental value to the drive the narrative forward.
The vibrant and soulful Kashmiri Hindu culture, its native tongue, foods, folksongs, lullabies and Bhakti is both showcased and adapted. The Mahashivratri preparations go on as they ignore the fires lit outside right till they engulf Lord Shiv’s poster or the Kashmiri hymn as the Hindus flee their homeland sound like a solemn promise to return or the requiem of a grandma in refugee camps for the unfulfilled promise of return for the generation that fled or the Kashmiri Hindu who doesn’t know Nadru Yakhni (Lotus Stem in Kashmiri Curry, I am sure some will consider even this subtle BJP agenda, lol). Also never far away is Faiz’s “Hum Dekhenge” which is given a new angle with a turn of phrase, “Ab woh dekho jo kabhi dekha nahin”.
It is supremely ironic the that principle criticism of TKF from the expected quarters have been that it has no value other than as a propaganda piece for the ruling political party, BJP. What purpose was served by the myriad films labelled by some as anti-Hindu/ Hindutva/ India films like Final Solution (2003), Firaaq (2008), Mulk (2018), Haider (2014)? They were made by people with very strong views; views which they then sharpened into a story (some with stronger foundation of facts / reality than others), stories which some agreed & others opposed as biased or atleast not properly contextualized.
The fact is we have had movies like Black Friday (2004) and the climax scene of Shaurya (2008) (the latter is a phenomenon with no parallel) which had incisive and bold opinions about political Islam and more specifically its realities in the sub-continent. The pitch has become rather shrill here for the simple reason that the film is even more affective and it does not toe the line on “misguided” youth and the good Muslim tropes, like the others did. On an unrelated note, I have always found it silly that, people who after having been born into a religion and willing to put their lives on the line for a belief would be considered less knowledgeable and hence misguided, by some secularist / atheist who has never even bother to read a synopsis of the book which inspired these beliefs.
Anupam Kher as Pushkar Nath Pandit is exemplary, a man who has suffered a million deaths, his most sacred beliefs shattered; his life’s work, his ancestral home and homeland stolen and its history brought to a sudden and ill-fated halt. Also commendable is Chinmay Mandlekar as Bitta Malik, quiet and menacing presence in his earlier terrorist phase and silver tongued snake charmer in his later politician phase.
The tragedy is shadowed by its ghost throughout the film, while scenes like feeding bloodlaced rice to the murdered person’s wife shocks and paralyses, later the lack of rice in refugee camps comes to haunt. I kept remembering a line from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), about a faulty detective who has an outsized impression of himself, “All border towns bring the worst in a country”. What does a country do when all towns have their own border enclaves? These are the ghosts we are left with as we leave, when the horror on screen comes to a close.
To conclude, this film is the Handpump moment in Gadar (2001). The shock of being checkmated at their own game will wear off and some Ashraf Ali will scream “Tum logon ko sanp sung gaya hain kya” but never forget there are many more shocks till we get this train to the Bharat of our dreams. Om Namah Shivay!!