Shikara’s Simple Tale Deserves Better Cinematic Treatment
Aye Waadi Shehzaadi Bolo Kaisi Ho
Ik Din Tumse Milne Vapis Aunga...
Kuch Barson Se Toot Gaya Hun Khandit Hun
Waadi Tera Beta Hun Main...Pandit Hun...
O Princess Valley, how are you?
I’ll visit you soon, I promise you.
Broken, a little scattered I am,
Your son still, a Pandit I am.
Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s much awaited Shikara is touted as a love letter from Kashmir, to Kashmir. Unfortunately, Chopra has been able to neither imbue it with feelings the way his protagonist—Dr Shiv Kumar Dhar—does to his letters to the President of the United States, nor has he allowed the narrative to be problematised.
What the film achieves, however, is to tell the tale of the Pandit exodus under duress and despair from Kashmir in a way that it does not become refugee porn.
Why Did Vidhu Vinod Chopra Not Go for the Kill?
The director, despite being personally enmeshed in the subject matter of the film, eschews the temptation to make the narrative melodramatic. Chopra’s family was one amongst thousands leaving the Kashmir valley after Islamists began to target the Pandit community. His leading lady is also named after his mother, Shanti, to whom the film is also dedicated.
Chopra’s restraint is commendable on one hand and somewhat unnecessary on the other. The Pandit exodus is one of the most grimy stains on the fabric of India’s history. While his decision to deal with it in an almost clinical manner is impressive and allows the viewer to hope for a certain degree of reconciliation or even closure, he carries on wearing a surgeon’s apron at the cost of cinematic effect.
Yes, Chopra did not want to sensationalise the issue of Pandit exodus, thanks to its potential of being appropriated by extraneous players. But why would he not unleash the filmmaker in him, ruthlessly, on the story? The story moves along without any dramatic tension or surprises.
Shikara Has Flat Characters But Competent Actors
What is almost unforgivable is that Shikara does not give us characters before the exodus story. Who are Shiv Kumar Dhar and Shanti Sapru, after all? What were their growing up years like? What inspires Shiv’s poetry and Shanti’s cooking? Who all were there in Lateef Lone’s family apart from his father? Where were the Kashmiri women that could once have been Shanti’s friends and neighbours?
Shikara’s characters are what E M Forster called ‘flat characters’—characters that do not evolve. The actors, inarguably, have delivered neat performances but they could have accomplished a lot more. Sadia and Aadil Khan have conveyed the pain and loss of the protagonists competently in their debut outing. Khan’s expressive eyes are going to be his biggest asset in future endeavours.
Scenes that Shine in Shikara
Since the narrative moves chronologically after the first few minutes, there are no moments of reflection or dramatic irony. However, certain scenes stand out for their subtlety and finesse. Shanti cooks roghan josh twice in the film: first in her beautiful Srinagar house and later in the “eight by eight” quarter in a refugee colony in Jammu. While the pot in the first instance is full of meat, their later poverty is indicated by much diminished proportion of meat in this prized Kashmiri delicacy. (Minor quibble, the serving pots of the kind Shanti uses in Srinagar were not found in the Indian markets in the 1990s.)
Another poignant scene involves a motherless infant calf, who’s forced to be left behind by a fleeing Pandit family. The abandoned calf forces one to examine whether those who fled to save their lives were indeed better off in exile. Some Pandit families, after all, chose to stay behind and continue to live in different parts of the Kashmir valley. Perhaps, we would never resolve this issue.
How a people in exile clutch to their identity and culture, and bemoan its almost inevitable petering away is encapsulated in the Jammu wedding scene.
Pandit Exodus Story Deserves Better Treatment
When it comes to cinema, not even the strongest story can survive a shoddy treatment. Here, the story of Shiv and Shanti is largely known to the audience: violence, exodus, and nostalgia. Chopra’s reluctance turn it into a cinematic experience to reckon with is almost puzzling. Stories of conflict and personal loss provide enough opportunities to develop a nuanced screenplay. And nuance goes beyond contrived scenes about beloved coats or playing Benazir Bhutto’s communal speeches on television.
The soundtrack is also unsatisfactory. It is even jarring at times. Irshad Kamil’s lyrics game is not his best save the poem Waadi Shehzadee.
Shikara has already courted controversy for the trailer was seen as timid on one hand and dishonest on the other. Objections from both the sides are seeped in politics of the 1990s and the current climate. Shikara disappoints because Chopra made an artistic choice, of choosing restraint over licence, and did not execute it well.