It’s been a day-and-a-half since the curtain fell on the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) that was held in Goa. This year’s edition has earned itself the dubious distinction of starting more trending topics on Twitter than any of its fifty-two predecessors. Jury head and Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, in his closing speech, said that they (the jury) were all “disturbed and shocked” to see “a propaganda, vulgar movie” like The Kashmir Files in the competitive section of such a prestigious film festival. First-world-freedom-of-speech privilege much? His speech also started an online riot between liberals revelling in their ‘I told you so’ smugness and rabid right-wingers whose favourite film of the year was suddenly under attack.
Even though we’ve been repeatedly told that there aren’t two Indias (and if you’re a comedian who believes so, your rightful place is slightly west of Punjab), the chasm between the two hasn’t ever been more apparent than it was on social media on Tuesday.
Those defending the film compared it to films like Schindler’s List and The Pianist. Thankfully, the comparisons that were being drawn were not on filmmaking prowess because even the biggest of Vivek Agnihotri fans would agree that his talents, if any, probably lie in other areas. Most of the comparisons revolved around stories of genocide and the retelling of history. After all, how could Lapid being Jewish himself, not understand what it’s like to be at the receiving end of crimes that point at ethnic cleansing?
And speaking of the holocaust, it’s an event that’s been recorded and written about in great detail by countless historians on both sides of that war. It’s also a well-known and accepted fact that over 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. We unfortunately have forsaken our historians for a gentleman called Vivek Agnihotri who has also been recording and writing about what happened to the pandits of Kashmir. Most of what he writes is on Twitter though, has no verifiable sources, and is amplified to millions via WhatsApp. If our economy has now gone digital for the past 6 years, why can’t history be digital too, eh?
In one such historic tweet earlier this year, the director and self-styled historian announced that the American state of Rhode Island "has officially recognised Kashmir Genocide due to a very small film."
Agnihotri was lauded by his followers for bringing this tragedy to the notice of the world or at least the 1,098,163 people who reside in the state of Rhode Island, USA. It’s a different matter that Brian Patrick Kennedy, the State Representative who signed the citation was quick to point out that it was just a citation, something they “provide to people for a special event of life”, in this case the event being the film’s premiere. Kennedy also added, “We give them to Boy Scouts who achieve the rank of Eagle Scout.”
In another historic tweet, Agnihotri claimed that 4,000 Kashmiri pandits have been killed since the days of militancy in the valley. An RTI filed with the J&K police clarifies that 89 Kashmiri pandits and 1635 others have been killed since the advent of militancy in the Kashmir valley in 1990.
Well, it might not be 6 million but who’s to say what qualifies as a genocide and what doesn’t? After all, to the families who lost dear members, every life is precious. So, why then the selective outrage about 89 people? Did those 1635 others not have families? Don’t their deaths deserve a place in these ‘files’ too? The Kashmir Files cherry-picks its victims and builds a narrative that is designed to fan the flames of communalism and the anti-Islam feeling that’s swept the country over the past decade. It’s playing to the gallery at best but in reality, is a cleverly crafted piece of propaganda that furthers the divisive political agenda of the ruling dispensation.
It's clever because it’s presented as a piece of fiction, with the opening credits clearly saying that it “does not claim accurateness or factuality of historic events”. Now armed with the license to lie, the film decides to only pick facts that are convenient to its narrative and uses those as the foundation of its story.
The universe that’s been created uses facts, everything from the food to stuff that was on the news in the 1990s. The killing of Kashmiri pandits is a fact. The exodus of Kashmiri pandits from the valley is also a fact.
To make the film seem more authentic, the film references certain high-profile killings like the 1990 execution of BK Ganjoo, a telecommunications engineer and Kashmiri Pandit who was brutally killed by terrorists. Agnihotri then adds a layer of what can only be called myth making by adding twists of his own.
The film shows Ganjoo’s wife being force fed rice soaked in her husband’s blood, a scene that’s designed to outrage and spark blood lust. Strangely enough, this is an incident that Ganjoo’s brother said he had never heard about before and that his sister-in-law had never mentioned.
As far as comparisons with holocaust films go, The Kashmir Files is hugely different in one aspect and that’s the portrayal of how the common man reacted to the violence being meted out to his neighbours. There are countless films that show the brutality of the Nazis, but almost every one of these films also has stories of survival enabled by common German citizens. If Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds starts with a 20-minute scene of a German man risking it all to save his Jewish neighbours, Schindler’s List is a 3-hour tale of a German industrialist trying to save his Jewish employees. In Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, young Jojo sees his mother’s lifeless body hanging in the town square, a common punishment for German citizens who were found harbouring Jews.
Agnihotri, on the other hand, decides to paint a picture in black and white, where every Muslim is complicit and every Hindu is a victim. There’s a scene showing Kashmiri Hindu women being denied food and rations by their Muslim neighbours, something that works to push the genocide narrative but has since been rubbished by countless Kashmiri Pandits who abandoned their homes. If there’s one common thread that unites the stories of people who left Kashmir in the 1990s, it’s that their neighbours were sad to see them go. Thousands of Kashmiri Hindus talk wistfully about the land they were forced to evacuate, but rarely does one come across them bad mouthing their neighbours.
The upper echelons of Hollywood are Jewish dominated and yet films like Schindler’s List stick to demonizing Nazis, not all Germans. If you’re wondering why, it’s probably because real filmmakers understand that real life is never black and white.
They also understand that a film based on history is only believable when it presents all sides of a story and avoids broad strokes to simplify a narrative. Propaganda peddlers though, just look at selling a version that will make their masters happy and fatten their bank accounts.
(This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)