On the very first day of the release of The Kashmir Files, Houston-based political commentator and columnist Sunanda Vashisht caught a show at a local theatre. What she saw on-screen was not new to her, but the story was a revelation for many in the hall.
Unlike in India, film screenings in the United States do not have an interval. Sunanda could hear murmurs of disbelief, shock, and a few sobs in between. By the end of the three hours, when the credits began to roll, a pall of silence descended on the hall. People were too shocked to react.
The director of the film, Vivek Agnihotri, and the producer, Pallavi Joshi, have been heaped with applause for bringing the truth of Kashmir out in a way that’s never been seen before. The Kashmir Files has succeeded beyond even their expectations and, as Agnihotri puts it, the film now belongs to the people.
“As a filmmaker, you generally try to impress people with the cinematography, music, sets, and a lot of other tools. But somewhere around 2010, I decided to make films to impress myself. It was not to show off my skills, but to take people to the scene of a story. I had seen the film industry by then and felt I wanted to tell a story that had some value,” Agnihotri says.
The film industry took a while to respond to the stupendous performance of The Kashmir Files at the box office, though, over the weeks, many have lauded its success. Filmmaker Ram Gopal called it a game-changer in Bollywood. Mumbai-based film trade analyst Atul Mohan is relieved and happy with the state of the box office after a dry spell of two years.
“Starting with Suryavanshi, Spiderman, and the surprise hit Pushpa (which did a business of Rs 105 crore in Hindi alone), theatres are seeing the return of movie-goers. Exhibitors are heaving a sigh of relief after a long time,” says Mohan, editor of the Complete Cinema magazine.
The success of The Kashmir Files is an interesting case study, according to Mohan. Trade circles had a feeling it would do better than Agnihotri’s previous outing, The Tashkent Files (2019), which started with low numbers but went on to get more shows, finally running for over eight weeks.
“Theatres were more generous to The Kashmir Files for that reason, and on the first day, it had over 500 screens. With the film getting critical acclaim, it ended up earning more than Rs 250 crore. At one point, it seemed it would even beat the record of Aamir Khan’s Dangal (2016), and had it sustained the flow for a few more days, it would have.
“A major turning point was the endorsement from the Prime Minister. The mood of the nation favoured it,” says Mohan, who feels that the public mood today favours films that speak about the nation and the issues that concern it.
“But it is not just about making a film around patriotism. The final product has to be engaging. The Kashmir Files did that — it made us think, cry, and feel helpless. Vivek Agnihotri also successfully got conversations going around it. It is difficult for an independent filmmaker to witness this kind of humongous success, but Vivek has been around for many years, so he also knows the medium. The film had great artists and the whole project was put together well. The Kashmir Files could be an exception, but it is not a fluke, as some might want to believe.”
The Trauma That Was Invisible
The Kashmir Files tells the horrors of a genocide that seemed to have gone unnoticed over the years. Sunanda’s family had to flee the valley in August 1990. By then, most of the families had already left. She dismisses the notion of Kashmiri pandits finally speaking up. “We were always speaking, but were never heard. There is a difference. When the genocide happened, there was no satellite TV or internet. Madhu Trehan’s Newstrack and the Associated Press documented some horrors of that time. Otherwise, we do not have much visual footage of our lives in the refugee camps,” says Sunanda.
Video journalism outside the ambit of Doordarshan was in its early days. Started in 1989, Newstrack was a video magazine that only reached homes with a VCR, but after the release of The Kashmir Files, the visuals of the camp and the interview of Bitta Karate done by Manoj Raghuvanshi have been widely shared on social media. The national press was largely silent at the time, and so the pandits took it upon themselves to document the horrors of those years.
“Once they found a footing, the Kashmiri Hindus began raising their voice by bringing out books published from the basement of their homes, magazines, and newspapers. Every city where people from our community found refuge, we began organising Kashmiri pandit sabhas. Mainstream media covered Kashmir only from the point of view of the Indo-Pak conflict or the geopolitics of it; the genocide of Hindus was never mentioned with it. It’s almost as if we were invisible to the world. But our materials, published in exile, documented all that we faced,” says Sunanda.
And then, the internet happened, with which the Hindus in exile found a new voice for themselves. “The younger generation began sharing their stories through blogs. The website "http://ikashmir.net/" put together the names of people who had fallen to the bullets of the jihadis. Stories that were until then restricted to the affected families now spread to a wider circle. That is how we all got to know the stories of people like Girija Tickoo and Sarla Bhatt. Rahul Pandita’s book Our Moon Has Blood Clots began as a blog. It came upon us to keep these records in the absence of government records,” says Sunanda.
Some change happened after 2014. Sunanda feels very disillusioned with the depiction of the Kashmir story in Hindi cinema. “Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992) came two years after the exodus, but it still made no mention of the pandits. Despite there having been filmmakers of Kashmiri origin, no movie spoke about the bloodbath faced by the Hindus of the valley. When Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider came out, I wrote a stinging review of the movie because it seemed from the movie as though Hindus never lived in Kashmir. There was a Kashmir beyond the snow and rivers of Kashmir ki kali with its dark underbelly. Nobody knew it.”
For The Love Of Kashmir
For a long time, Kashmir occupied a pride of place among Mumbai’s filmmakers. The lakes, gardens, and hills of the valley were synonymous with love in full bloom. With the popularity of Eastman Color in the 1960s, moviemaking in colour became a bigger possibility and filmmakers made a beeline for Kashmir to fetch the elixir of love.
It was a fantasyland where the everydayness of mundane existence was left behind and life was a never-ending holiday. Most of these hits were romcoms (romantic comedies) with some of the greatest music of that era. From Junglee (1961) and Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965) to Aarzoo (1965) and Kabhi Kabhie (1976), the valley was symbolic of love as pristine as the snow-capped Himalayas.
Things changed in the 1980s when terrorists took over the valley. Even then, popular entertainment failed to address the elephant in the room. Doordarshan’s series Gul Gulshan Gulfam (1987) was set in the valley and did not speak a single word about the wildfire of militancy that was engulfing the state from all sides, despite having been directed by Ved Rahi, who was from Jammu. The team even had to wrap up its shoot after 15 episodes and return to Bombay (now Mumbai), despite having got its script approved by the local authorities.
Though Roja was set partly in Kashmir, the film shoot took place in Himachal Pradesh and Coonoor due to security issues. Even when films were made on terrorism in Kashmir, nobody bothered to present the story of the pandits, who were victims of it. The Kashmir Files, in that sense, has worked outside the usual template of storytelling.
Education Or Escapism?
Working outside the established template of the film industry can be beyond challenging in Mumbai. Agnihotri cut down the frills around a film and kept it straightforward.
Scarcity often has been the mother of invention. In the late 1940s, in the aftermath of the war, European cinema rose to global prominence with straightforward storytelling. The Italian new wave that later inspired filmmakers across the world was a result of scarcity in some sense. The filmmakers decided to tell stories with non-stars and established cinema as a director’s medium.
“I have learnt a lot from European cinema and a powerful subject does not need frills. Somewhere we bought (into) this myth that cinema is for escapism. But, even in India, filmmakers like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt addressed the real problems of the time, though they structured it in their own style. Even in the 1970s, when the escapist films of Manmohan Desai were highly popular, there was a Kaala Pathar (1979) of Yash Chopra, which reflected the times we were in. There was the cinema of Hrishikesh Mukherjee. The parallel cinema movement was going strong and there was also Shashi Kapoor doing a lot of experiments with cinema. Somewhere in the 1990s, we decided to make films for the NRIs (non-resident Indians) and then cinema just became the right packaging of stars, songs, and locations,” says Agnihotri.
“But change is happening now. What we call alternative cinema today will become mainstream in another five years,” he says.
But escapist cinema also speaks a lot about the times. “In many ways, it makes you wonder why people needed that level of escapism. What was happening in the lives of the common man that they sought to escape into a cinema hall is worth examining,” says Sunanda.
Quite often, when a film succeeds, many imitations follow to repeat the formula. Some comparisons are also being made of The Kashmir Files with the surprise hit Jai Santoshi Maa, which was released alongside Sholay in 1975 and became an unexpected blockbuster. But none of the mythologicals made after that did well.
“It does not work that way. This (The Kashmir Files) was not successful just because it was a movie on the plight of the pandits. Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Shikara (2020), a film set in the backdrop of the pandit exodus, flopped. J P Dutta’s Border (1997) worked, but LOC Kargil (2003) didn’t. Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) did well, but the films that came after it didn’t. To work at the box office, it has to be an engaging film. Formulas don’t work just like that,” says Mohan.
Film business loves formulas nevertheless and many titles have already been registered along the lines of The Kashmir Files. “Some titles like Gujarat Files, Kerala Story, Punjab Files, and Mirpur Files have been registered,” he says.
Sunanda feels that the larger question was whether anyone would watch a movie that told the story of Kashmir from the Hindu point of view. “Cinema is a commercial art and somebody has to put in money. I feel, had the same movie been made in 2008, people might not have watched it in such large numbers. For that matter, it might not have even got past the censors.”
Art As A Response To Trauma
Holocaust films have been an important genre in the West, with some of the great classics having told the horrors faced by Jews in Europe. Interestingly, even as the war was raging, the concentration camps and killings found mention in several works, such as Night Train to Munich (1940), The Mortal Storm (1940), The Seventh Cross (1944), and The Stranger (released after the war). But, compared to that, it took us three decades to describe the horrors of the genocide in a movie.
Even our response to partition came pretty late. While B R Films’ Dharmaputra (1961) had the partition in the backdrop of a love story, the first serious enquiry into the impact of the partition came only with M S Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (1974).
“In the US, people make films on subjects even as they are unfolding. The problem with Bollywood is that they assume the audience has no brains and dumb down the process. That does not help in telling an honest story. It is not easy. Every single aspect associated with The Kashmir Files has been difficult. Each day was a new struggle. The four years we made the film were very difficult for us,” says Agnihotri.
A question arises as to how we as a nation did not even react to something so big, let alone solving the issue. “I say this with sincerity and responsibility, that the judiciary is responsible. In the US, the common man has faith in the Constitution. Justice is done quickly. Here we don’t care about law and order. If I die in a riot, my children will not get justice. If someone takes over my home, I will die fighting, but not get justice. It is easy to cheat and get away,” says Agnihotri.
The Kashmir Files team recorded interviews of over 700 people and pored through 15,000 pages of documents during their research for the film. Needless to say, a lot still remains unsaid. “I was not able to dwell much upon the politics of the time, in Kashmir and the rest of India. The topic of women in Kashmir still remains to be told. We will bring out something with our materials in the time to come, either a web series or a documentary. We haven’t decided,” says Agnihotri.
To think of it, this was the seventh exodus of the pandits from the valley in the last seven centuries. “It approximately translates to every third-generation pandit having witnessed an exodus. It’s not there in the NCERT books perhaps, but it is a recorded fact of history. You cannot look at what happened in 1989-90 in isolation. I was there when it happened and nobody can today tell me this nonsense that the governor Jagmohan asked us to go. We were forced to flee by the terrorists.
"Nobody who carried out the genocide has been punished till date. The perpetrators are not just those two people recorded on camera. For healing to start, justice should be done. There is pain and humiliation that is still unaddressed, which is why the pandit community has so much transgenerational trauma,” says Sunanda, who also testified at a US Congressional hearing on human rights organised by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Washington.
“My mother picked up five saris along when we fled from our home, but forgot to pick blouses in the melee. For a long time, I saw her in just one blouse. Our parents’ generation got sandwiched in between two generations that needed care — their parents, who were senior citizens and kids like us, had to be fed and educated. They were too busy trying to find places to live and gather food to eat.”
Mainstream media often added insult to this injury. “In one of their year-end issues, a popular English news website, Tehelka, interviewed prominent people to know what books they enjoyed reading that year and one of them was Yasin Malik! Can you imagine the humiliation we felt seeing him give intellectual advice on national media year after year?”
Agnihotri says one cannot be proud of one’s history until they know it. “Catharsis can happen only after you know it. A filmmaker cannot apply the balm. Society has to collectively apply a balm on the wounds and I am positive about our society. The healing will happen.”
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