“If there is Paradise on Earth – oh, it is here!” proclaims the most famous line of classical Indian poetry written about Kashmir.
The references to Paradise are numerous in The Kashmir Files (TKF), the recent blockbuster film of Bollywood director Vivek Agnihotri. Kashmir’s forests, icy lakes and majestic mountains feature prominently in the film alongside the quaint alleys of the state capital, Srinagar.
But looks will not deceive the viewer for more than a few minutes. The film’s two-and-a-half-hour plot is centered around the events of the 1990 ethnic cleansing of indigenous upper-caste Hindus, or Pandits, from this paradise by their erstwhile Kashmiri Muslim neighbors, commonly known as the Pandit Exodus. Islamic radicalization had begun, as fighters returned from the Afghan jihad against the USSR, and the exodus unfolded just one year after the dawn of events commonly known at the time as the Kashmiri uprising of 1989. Thirty-two years and over 50,000 casualties later, the local “stone pelting” culture is now known in common parlance as the Kashmiri intifada.
The film is at times graphically violent and unnerving, even as the drama is gripping and the acting superb.
Regardless of political inclination, no Israeli viewer can escape pondering the comparisons to Israel and the Palestinians. Contemporary Kashmiris regularly envy the global limelight that Palestinians enjoy and they do not. The theme of the terrorists manipulating the press – “presstitutes,” as Hindu nationalist talkbacks call them – into giving them gushing interviews while simultaneously refusing to report on their crimes in real time, gave me an eerie feeling of déjà vu.
The film’s sensation is easy to explain, even to a Westerner, even if the runaway success of this low budget film could not have been predicted even by the directors.
For starters, it challenges the accepted facts and statistics of this dark episode in modern Indian history: the number of Pandits killed was in the thousands, not dozens. The number of internally displaced Pandits leaving Kashmir was roughly 500,000. And for anyone who wants to claim Kashmir as Islamic land, a climactic monologue of the young, embattled Kashmiri protagonist, Krishna Pandit (Darshan Kumar), will remind us of thousands of years of Kashmir’s Hindu history.
Academics immediately hurled charges of historical revisionism, but in a preemptive move the film incorporates as much documentary material as possible, showing real newspaper headlines and televised speeches of the time, at times having characters quote their real-life inspirations. The fact-checkers have found some mistakes, but they seem to be minor.
But that’s just the beginning. The real sensation lies in the narrative, not only of Kashmiri Muslims, but of the leftist academic old elites of Delhi as well.
Although relations with the roughly 15% of Indians who are Muslims are the single biggest political football in contemporary Indian politics, right-wing Indian film directors and actors – and they are a substantial part of the A-list, right alongside the Muslim “Khans of Bollywood” – until now have taken a soft approach to Muslims in their films. Criticism was always subtle, aimed almost allegorically at historical Muslim boogeymen such as the zealous Mughal Sultan, Aurangzeb, or the Afghan raiders of the Battle of Panipat. In modern plots involving themes such as Muslim terrorism, the endnote was always reconciliatory, denying ideological enmity with the Muslims of India, pointing out the role of loyal Muslims in the defense establishment, highlighting Muslims as good neighbors and friends.
But TKF breaks the rules. The Kashmiri Muslims in the film are an armed and bloodthirsty mob, with only one noteworthy exception, raging down the streets of Srinagar yelling “Raliv, galiv, ya chaliv” (“Convert [to Islam], leave or die”), burning down Hindu houses. Their leader, Farooq Malik Bitta (Chinmay Mandlekar), is a calculated artist of terrorism and genocide, bragging in a studio interview of killing a child for his lofty cause of Kashmiri independence.
Another taboo broken is in portraying the Hindu Left. Co-villain in the film is the charismatic Prof. Radhika Menon (Pallavi Joshi, also co-director, and director Agnihotri’s wife), based largely on the real-life character of Prof. Nevidita Menon, a Communist feminist professor at the elite and radical Jawaharlal Nehru University, the “UC Berkeley” of India. In the film she initiates the young innocent orphan Krishna into radical campus politics, convincing him step-by-step to dismiss his Kashmiri Pandit heritage as “privilege,” denounce the crimes of Indian occupation of Kashmir and come full circle to lead campus protests chanting the slogan of “Azaadi” – “Free Kashmir.”
Krishna’s newfound radicalism is shattered when he learns that he was white lied to for 30 years about the deaths of his parents: they were not killed in a car accident, but in the events that unraveled in the ’90s in Kashmir, when he was an infant. He leads a quest to find out the truth, and is torn between his love and loyalty toward his parents he never knew, and his role as contender in the race for the prestigious presidency of the radical student organization, a role traditionally leading into national politics.
As the plot thickens, Menon is painted as a devious traitor to India, a woman so radical she has the phone number of the terrorist leader Bitta in her directory.
The film raises important questions about the ideology of the right wing of India, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who in recent years has decimated the socialist Congress Party, which founded India, in almost every election at both state and national level. The Congress vision of India, dubbed “secularism,” declared that India has no established religion, and all citizens are India’s sons. To sustain this vision the governments of India maintained a policy of appeasement toward Muslims, at times so ridiculously populistic that it found itself more Islam-friendly than Pakistan and Bangladesh on issues like “triple-talaq” oral divorce.
This appeasement was one among many other factors, most notably, rampant corruption, that brought down Congress and eventually led to the dramatic rise of Modi. His BJP scoffs at secularists and proclaims belief in Hindutva, a Hindu religious nationalism that views India as home to any group that sees India as “Punyabhumi aur Janmabhumi” – “Holyland and Motherland.” This includes Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc., but not Muslims and Christians, whose holy lands are in the Middle East.
What does director Vivek Agnihotri, the new poster child of the Hindu Right, want from the Muslims? Who exactly are his enemies, and what does victory look like? Are his vociferous critics at all close to the facts when they call him a dangerous Islamophobe? Is the “justice” called for in the film a code word for revenge?
I SPOKE to lead actress and co-director, Pallavi Joshi, from her home in Mumbai. She is articulate and passionate about her film, and yet remarkably calm and uncombative. Her husband has a few million followers across social media and seems to enjoy Twitter battles, but she has no accounts and bemoans them as poisoning relationships and public discourse. She says she is interested in truth.
Why did you decide to make a film on this topic?
In 2018, Vivek was working in America and was introduced to a doctor, who is a Kashmiri Pandit, who wanted him to make a documentary about the plight of the community. Vivek actually discouraged him and told him that it’s a 30-year-old story no one wants to hear, and so many films have been made about Kashmir already.
But on the flight home Vivek read some material he had downloaded, and upon arriving home he told me that our next film is going to be about Kashmir. We called back the Kashmiri doctor and listened to his stories. I felt his stories were so unbelievable. If this really happened, surely we would have heard of it, right?
We researched and found out there had been a cover-up. The government, media, academics had all colluded to appease “minorities,” meaning no minority other than one minority whose votes they needed. The Pandits were only 2% of the Kashmiri population, so they were not a vote bank.
We interviewed 700 survivors in long format, and I was chilled to the bones by what I heard. I felt guilt that during the events we had been sitting pretty and enjoying life. I felt our government had betrayed us.
Vivek and I were always proud of our country, our heritage and culture. We embrace globalism, but we want to stand as Indian individuals, too. I don’t understand why patriotism is a dirty word in Western cinema. The love between a mother and child is fine to show on camera, but the moment you mention love for your country, it’s considered a political statement, not emotions. Krishna’s speech highlights the greatness of Kashmir, and that is why it is a part of India.
Your detractors will say that your ideology is motivated not by love, but by hate and a thirst for revenge. Who are your enemies?
The first charge the naysayers level against us is Islamophobia and spreading communal divisiveness. Dr. Farooq Abdullah, ex-chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, demanded to ban the film because it is fiction. Who in his right mind could kill a man and make his wife eat rice soaked in his blood?
He denies the facts?
Yes. We met that man’s family. His daughter wrote us a letter saying that her family never speaks of her father, because it was so horrible. Her mother became an emotional wreck ever since. But we have shown his sacrifice. He was a communications engineer who refused to evacuate, because without him army communications would have collapsed. She thanked us dearly that now her family is healing for the first time and can openly celebrate her father’s life and sacrifice. What should Dr. Abdullah say to her other than adding insult to injury?
I am just telling people to see the film. We never used the word “Muslims” nor “Pakistan”; we spoke about terrorists. We have never said every Muslim is a terrorist, nor is this an exclusively Indian problem. The terrorists killed moderate Muslims, too.
Any Israeli watching your films couldn’t stop himself from comparing the Kashmiri terrorists to the Palestinians. The scene in which Hindus are denied hospital care reminded me of Red Crescent ambulances in the territories that refuse to treat Jews. Were you thinking about such comparisons?
No. Our focus was the human tragedies. It was not a political film, even though it became one. Referencing the Palestinian would have only branded us further.
Do you have a particular interest in Israel?
Yes. I like that you make no bones about calling yourself a Jewish country. India is “secular,” not Hindu. As a child I also read Exodus by Leon Uris, a book that inspired so many here.
What is the justice you demand?
Thirty-two years ago people were thrown out of their homes in the Kashmir Valley and can’t return. If 5,000 people were killed and not a single police report filed, is this justice? Nobody punished, nobody tried in court for any crime. The Pandits don’t chant slogans “Kill so and so.” They want the terrorists brought to justice. They will have a lawyer and a fair trial.
In the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, only one terrorist, Ajmal Kasab, was caught alive. Even as a Pakistani national, he defended himself in court for almost four years before he was hanged. In 1993 a series of 12 bomb blasts went off within five minutes in Mumbai. The underworld figure Yakub Memon was arrested, but his death sentence was only handed out 20 years later by the Supreme Court after countless petitions. We are proud of our justice system.
What do you think motivates Prof. Radhika Menon?
The radical professors support the Naxalite terrorists, too, and get paid well for it with Red money. Go see their houses. They have built a false narrative about India and repeat it until they themselves believe it. They know that for their efforts they will get to write for The New York Times, and Time magazine will call them the world’s best writers. What more can they ask for? They seek self-validation from the West.
What is your vision of India?
I want to see an India that is diverse, because that is our beauty. I want all Indians to be proud of our country, regardless of their politics. I want dialogue. I have received positive feedback about the film even from Pakistanis.
Finally, I want to apologize to the Israeli public. I used to read about the Holocaust, and it was just stories and statistics. In Marathi there is a saying “You can’t know the importance of a place until you visit it.” Until I made the interviews with survivors for Kashmir Files, I could never have imagined living through their pain, seeing the wounds in their hearts.
Through the pain of the Pandits, I think I understand your pain better. ❖
The Kashmir Files is available on Zee TV and ZEE5 App.
The writer is currently pursuing Indian studies and Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.