“Spread my ashes in my lost home in Kashmir,” Anupam Kher, who plays the internally displaced Pushkarnath Pandit, says on his deathbed to his grandson, Krishna, a college student. And thus begins the protagonist’s odyssey into the most vehemently denied truth of independent India.
The door to the Kashmir ‘matrix’ is opened for Krishna by Professor Radhika Menon (played by Pallavi Joshi), a most lethal groomer. She wants Krishna to run for the post of university student association president so that he can support the calls of Kashmiri separatists. Having a Kashmiri Pandit boy speaking about his trip to attend the cremation of his grandfather and, at the same time, being a voice of ‘blameless’ terrorists would be a coup for Menon’s crowd.
The Kashmir 'Matrix'
Pushkarnath had wanted his four old friends to be present at his funeral ceremony. Thirty years after Pushkarnath’s exodus, they reassemble – DGP Hari Narain, Journalist Vishnu Ram and Doctor Mahesh, at Retd. Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir Brahma Dutt’s (played by Mithun Chakraborty) house. Together, they represent the various arms of the Indian state. As their conversation stretches late into the night, Krishna discovers that their role as protectors was limited to serving the ‘blue pill’ (a concept made popular by the 1999 film Matrix; while a red pill symbolises critical thinking, a blue pill allows one to stay content in ignorance) to the Indian inhabitants of the Kashmir ‘matrix’.
Bereft of justice for Kashmiri Pandits’ killings, tormented Pushkarnath’s only protection comes from dementia, which grants him the boon that he is the sole carrier of truth, albeit with the curse that nobody cares for the ravings of a Kashmiri Pandit lunatic. Anupam Kher has given a gripping performance that shows that the actor is at the top of his game.
But revelation comes from Brahma Dutt, who emerges as Morpheus to Krishna, who looks like Neo. It is Brahma who offers the red pill to Krishna in the form of The Kashmir Files. As a shocked Krishna peruses the hidden documents, the truth comes gushing out. He learns a slew of horrifying things – his mother was forced to eat his murdered father’s blood-stained rice, and the terrorist who had denied all culpability had raped and sawed his mother in half, and then killed his brother and 23 Kashmiri Pandits.
The ‘red pill’ is life-altering, and the grand finale shows the son spiritually returning home to Kashmir. If there is one weakness in the movie, it is that this return is preachy and telling, as opposed to organic.
The Story of Haider
All grand evil starts with great conviction. The Kashmir Files will re-ignite the debates that have bedevilled India since its birth. It forces us to question India’s self-destructive relationship with Pakistan, the unstable tolerance between Hindus and Muslims, the failure of the Indian State in protecting and granting justice for the rarest of crimes and the sordid contribution of Indian media towards informed Indian polity.
An earlier movie, Haider, went on to garnish great support from the masses, including from sections of separatists. Haider is a Kashmiri Muslim young man who is also searching for answers for his missing father in the Kashmir matrix. Haider was positioned as an adaptation of Hamlet by the Indian media and the intelligentsia. Its grand finale, unsettlingly, showed a war dance at the holy temple of Martand.
But The Kashmir Files shows that there is no confusion in the minds of the sword-wielding, gun-toting terrorists. There is no Hamlet in Kashmir. The first Haider of Kashmir was the oldest son of Kota Rani and Rinchina, whose was a marriage between a Buddhist convert to Islam and a Hindu. But Haider was killed by Shah Mir when he murdered Kota Rani, and Hindu rule in Kashmir was replaced by Islamic rule. The true story of the real Haider seldom finds mention in the public discourse, as with the other truths of Kashmir.
Based on exhaustive research and direct interviews with victims and their families, The Kashmir Files is a fictive reality at its best. Director Vivek Agnihotri takes no prisoners. His camera does not hide man’s ugliness behind nature’s beauty in Kashmir.
The portrayal of the Dal Lake in a scene is mesmerisingly minimalistic. It takes an extraordinary level of courage to tackle the subject of the Kashmiri Pandit genocide, and Vivek Agnihotri has handled that challenge well, without taking the easy way out.
The Killing of Sharda and the Butchering of Kashmir
For the Kashmiri Pandit community, the movie gives hope for justice. The global Kashmiri Pandit community’s support for the movie over the past two years has found a faithful and honest expression, without any whitewashing.
But ultimately, it is the depiction of their way of life that will hearten the Kashmiri Pandits the most. This way of life is portrayed movingly by Bhasha Sumbli as Krishna’s young mother, Sharda. She is the invisible thread of love that ties everyone in the movie.
As the daughter of her schoolteacher father, the gracious hostess serving Kashmiri Pandit food to his four friends, the mother walking her children to school or protecting them in the harsh refugee tent, or as a woman facing the brainwashed terrorist, Bitta – or the repulsive maulvi who asks her to convert and become his wife – she is the ultimate Maej Mother Kashmir.
Just before the terrorist killed her, Sharda cries to her son, “Run, Shiva, run.” But Shiva is frozen in fear, and they shoot him in cold blood. He becomes one of the 23 other Kashmiri Pandits who were killed ruthlessly. His young eyes are unable to comprehend how his grandfather’s student could commit such horror, how his neighbour could turn a traitor, how his blameless family could become a victim. The entire audience was sobbing as they gazed into Shiva’s unforgettable eyes, played poignantly by a young Kashmiri Muslim boy.
But the Kashmiri Pandits did run – they ran away from an evil so great that would put even the shaitan to shame. The killing of Sharda was symbolic of the butchering of Kashmir and underlines all that the Pandits suffered in their earlier genocides.
The Kashmir Files is a commendable movie because it brings to the fore one of the greatest shames of modern India. In the telling, it strengthens India. For Bollywood, the movie rightly demonstrates that the Indian audience has matured, that they want authenticity and unembellished truth, as opposed to saccharine stories.
(Rakesh Kaul is the author of the bestseller ‘The Last Queen of Kashmir’ first published by Harper Collins, and the critically acclaimed ‘Dawn the Warrior Princess of Kashmir’ published by Penguin India. This is an independent review and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)