While it is rightly felt by some that ‘Shikara’ did not do justice to the theme of Kashmiri Hindu plight, it is also true that soft-pedalling an issue as gory as this is a good way to begin a long-overdue conversation.
For those who have no idea of what actually happened in Kashmir in the 1990s, this romanticised portrayal is a well-crafted, low-intensity introductory shocker.
However, the ‘Bollywoodised’ nature of the portrayal is to be expected.
I have not watched Shikara. Nor do I plan to. My choice has nothing to do with my opinion of the producer, director, scriptwriter, or the raging debates around the movie online.
It has everything to do with the fact that I don’t have the stomach for sad stories, especially ones that are based on real traumatic events. However, I have followed the debate online with some interest, and here is my take.
For those who are not familiar with the debate, let me begin with a synopsis. Shikara touches upon the story of the Kashmiri Hindu exodus, which is a shameful blot on the collective conscience of India.
It is perhaps the only time in history that a people have had to live as refugees in their own land.
For years, the Kashmiri Hindus were invisible. The stories of their genocide were ignored, downplayed or simply brushed off as exaggerations. Their story only became mainstream after debates began around abrogation of Article 370, and the country finally started to discuss their grave injustice.
Article 370 was scrapped in August 2019, and it nullified the provisions of autonomy granted to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, and granted equal rights to all stakeholders.
This move gave hope to the long-suffering Kashmir Hindus that they could finally start the process of returning back to their homes.
In this backdrop, filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra teamed up with writer Rahul Pandita to make a movie on Kashmiri Hindus. They marketed it as the “Untold Story of Kashmiri Pandits”. As you can imagine, this tagline raised great expectations within the community that their story would finally be told.
However, post release, it is clear that the film did not live up to everyone’s expectations, and there seem to be three groups of people with divergent views.
The first group comprises of those who felt that the storyline sidetracked the genocide in favour of a love story. This group includes many Kashmiri Hindus like activist Suhil Pandit who wrote, “It has secularized Hindu Genocide in Kashmir and romanticized it for mega bucks it will make. Our homes and murders are a mere prop in this story. Massacres, rapes and vandalized temples must have been too gory to qualify foe even a prop, in a love story.”
A Kashmiri Hindu woman in the audience had a meltdown after the screening. She tearfully disowned the movie, saying it did not show the reality of Kashmiri Hindu genocide.
The second group of people, which also includes some Kashmiri Hindus, watched the movie and had a different take. Although they also agreed that the depiction of Jihadi violence had been toned down, they felt it was a somber, sensitive, and well made movie overall. They came back moved.
There is a third group of people who have strong opinions on the movie, but have not actually seen it. Many of them are vocal on social media. They seem to have jumped on an outrage bandwagon without applying much thought.
So which group is right, and where does the truth lie? To answer this question, we need to separate the emotion from logic. Let us look at the emotional angle first.
The filmmakers sold the story as a true representation of genocide and raised expectations. It is only later that they changed the movie tag line to “A Timeless Love Story in the Worst of Times”, which is more honest. Thus, it is natural for people who have been repeatedly let down for 30 years, to feel betrayed.
It is also natural for a myriad of emotions to emerge. When people face trauma, and old wounds are raked up on celluloid, it causes great agony. It is unreasonable to expect logic at times of such grave emotional distress. The callous words of the director did not help matters or soothe the hurt. It merely damaged the credibility and intent of the movie.
However, if we look at the issue logically, we will see that there are many nuances, which are lost in the heat of the moment. First, let us start by asking ourselves a basic question: When has anyone ever told someone else’s story? Why should Bollywood tell the Kashmiri Hindu story at all? The role of filmmakers is to sell films, and make money.
They seek commercial success, and most are not interested in a larger cause or charity. This movie was not funded by the larger Kashmiri Hindu community, or by the government. Nor did it claim be a documentary. So the first problem was clearly one of expectations (and perhaps some misrepresentation).
As lawyer Kartikeya Tanna wrote, “The day we realize that a filmmaker has the sole prerogative to tell a story as s/he deems fit, that day we’ll mature as an audience. No one forces us to pin hopes on a commercial filmmaker releasing his product on a wide platform to tell our story. We pin ourselves.”
Second, the comparison of Shikara to finely tuned holocaust movies is senseless. Bollywood’s approach to movies is very different, and that’s unlikely to change overnight. Moreover, the story of holocaust was never forgotten, denied or suppressed for so long. It was a continuous tale, kept alive through the years, with all available resources. In contrast, the story of Kashmiri Hindus was sought to be erased out of our memory. We have a thirty-year gap to bridge, and that can only happen gradually.
Thirdly, the story of Kashmir is very painful. Many who watched Shikara, especially non-Kashmiris, came back shaken. It packed a punch. Anything more would have perhaps been too much for first timers to handle.
Some tales need to be absorbed in small doses. The full gore can be saved for later re-telling. The ones who lived through the ordeal know the story already. For the rest, it has to be palatable or they will run away from the horror. In the process, the wider objective of outreach will be lost.
Moreover, I believe the larger story has been told even though the enormity has been toned down. This has made it appropriate for young children to watch. Our younger generation is clueless about this painful period and they need to be sensitized in an appropriate manner. In that aspect, the film has possibly done a fairly decent job.
If you think about it, a love story is a time tested, soft approach, to handle difficult subjects. The same strategy has been used in The Forgotten Army, which is about the role of the Indian National Army. That too was a dramatized love story, which used liberal cinematic license.
But it left the seed of an alternative narrative, and opened an avenue for further conversations. As commentator Sunanda Vashishta said, “Remember Shikara has opened the floodgates. Many more stories need to be told, many more stories will be told. Let the conversation begin.” That is a mature response.
Perhaps, it is now time for everyone to take a step back and breathe. Outrage is cheap and easy. Twitter and social media activism takes very little effort. If you really feel for a cause, go beyond two-minute click baits, and put your money where your mouth is. Write your own stories. Fund your own movies and plays.
Social media activist Suhas Amble summed it up when he said, “People must tell their own stories. Else, someone else will sell, not tell, their stories.
We need to stop behaving like this is the last time a story of Kashmiri Hindu genocides will be told. We have to acknowledge that a forbidden doorway has finally been forced open. This is just the beginning, not the end.