“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out,” says Martin Scorsese. But what is left out of the frame is equally crucial. The frames and dialogues are certainly the key elements of the film, but the implications and nuances arising out of the film are pertinent as well. The long-awaited and much-talked-about film, purportedly on the issue of the displaced Kashmiri Pandits, Shikara – directed and produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, and written by Chopra, Abhijat Joshi and Rahul Pandita – makes you question what is left out of the frame and more importantly, why.
Thirty years since the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits, Chopra, a Kashmiri Hindu himself, has attempted to highlight the issue of Pandits through the love story of Shiv Kumar Dhar and Shanti Sapru, played by debutants – Aadil Khan and Sadia.
The romance of protagonists is interwoven with the turbulence and trepidation in Kashmir, coupled with deprivation in Jammu.
However, Shiv and Shanti’s romance doesn’t effectively bring forth what happened to Kashmir’s ethnic Hindu community – first, during the onset of insurgency and terrorism in Kashmir, and subsequently, during refuge in squalid camps which were set up in Jammu.
‘Untold Story’ of Kashmiri Pandits Falls Flat
Chopra has chosen to focus on the personal relations and camaraderie between Pandits and Muslims over the politics, and he has every right to do so as a filmmaker. But any account of Kashmir – be it on paper or screen – can’t be bereft of the politics. If you got the political and historical context incorrect, then it is all muddled up.
The premise of the film, which claims to be the ‘untold story’ of Kashmiri Pandits, falls flat because of its flawed plot.
Firstly, the elections are shown as the trigger to the insurgency and ethnic cleansing of Pandits in Kashmir, while the fact of the matter is that it was Islamism and jihad which led to the forced expulsion of Pandits. The rigging of elections may have pushed some Muslims to cross the border and undertake arms-training in Pakistan, but it was hatred against Hindus, who didn’t shy away from their faith as well as nationality, which made them the targets of Islamists.
Attempts to ‘Gloss Over’ a Crucial Fact
Secondly, it is insinuated that a Kashmiri Muslim went to Pakistan and picked up the gun because his father was killed by Indian security forces while holding an election rally. That may be someone’s personal reason to take revenge. But why is this revenge on the Kashmiri Pandits?
Again, this doesn’t hold true when we talk about the targeted killings of Pandits and points to the anti-Pandit sentiment as earlier mentioned.
Thirdly, the arrival of guns in Kashmir is emphatically blamed on the United States of America in the context of the Soviet-Afghan war. The film shows old footage of the then Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto exhorting Muslims to take part in jihad in Kashmir for ‘Azaadi’. However, it misses the point that many Kashmiri Muslims, backed by Pakistan, actively participated in bloodshed and violence in Kashmir. Is it an attempt to gloss over a crucial fact? There are very controlled mentions/representations of the same in the film – local boys crossing over to Pakistan, and a few killings in the shadows.
‘Shikara’ Fails to Depict WHY Friends Turned Into Foes
Essentially, Shikara depicts that friends turned foes with the changing milieu in Kashmir. But why did the environment in the Valley became ghastly? The film lacks in spelling out why friends became foes – why Muslims targeted Pandits and why they forced the Pandits to leave Kashmir.
If the idea behind this film – as often talked by the filmmaker – is to spread love and overcome hatred, the foundation of the same must be based on truth and acknowledgement. Otherwise, it will be a cosmetic cover to a long simmering and jarring pot – the sorry state of affairs as we have witnessed in Kashmir.
The film rightly captures the refugee camps which were set up in Jammu for the displaced Pandits, but it misses on betrayal, emptiness, and the suffering of human relationships in grimy and inhumane tents in which Pandits lived for years.
Additionally, there is a farcical reference to the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi movement’ – Pandit kids shown as shouting ‘Hum mandir wahin banayenge’ in a camp, and Shiv scolding the kids by saying ‘Leader todta nahin, jodta hai.’
Shikara does touch on aspects surrounding Pandits – but in bits and pieces. For instance, the wedding scene looks authentic, embedded with the folk Kashmiri song, the milkman forewarning Shanti that Pandits would have to leave Kashmir, a Kashmiri Muslim visiting a camp to meet Shiv for buying his house in Kashmir, or an official in Jammu angrily remarking on the ‘boldness’ of the Pandits, while Shiv and Shanti register in a camp. However, this doesn’t stitch together a narrative that creates an impact which would dent your mind and make you reflect on the tragedy of the Pandit exodus.
‘Shikara’: More a Timeless Love Story Set In the Worst of Times
Aadil Khan and Sadia have played the Pandit couple warmly, and the chemistry between the two looks easy. However, the other characters in the film fail to impress. The film is shot neatly, but the dialogues lack the Kashmiri touch. The background score and music are fine with lyrical songs, including melodious Kashmiri songs. The costume doesn’t depict the essence of Kashmir – barring the dangling dejhor worn by Shanti.
Shikara is the story of a couple in love, who happens to be Kashmiri Pandit. It is more “a timeless love story in the worst of times” rather than “the untold story of Kashmiri Pandits” – the change of tagline reflected in the newspaper advertisement on the day of the release, previously from pre-release film poster. The film is certainly not jingoistic, given the subject, which is commendable, but it is highly moderated in portraying the details clearly on the silver screen, which is puzzling. The truth must be told in entirety, howsoever painful and bitter it may be.
(Varad Sharma is a writer and political commentator. He is the co-editor of book on Kashmir’s ethnic minority community titled A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits, published by Bloomsbury India. He tweets @VaradSharma. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)