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The Kashmir Files: Art, Propaganda and the Dilemma of ‘What Sells’

From 'Uri' to 'The Kashmir Files', India is living in an era of 'approved' art.

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
The Kashmir Files: Art, Propaganda and the Dilemma of ‘What Sells’
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“Art is something subversive,” Picasso had said once. “If art is ever given the keys to the city, it will be because it’s been so watered down, rendered so impotent, that it’s not worth fighting for.”

Picasso couldn’t have foreseen what would happen to India decades later. But clearly, he did know what happens to an artist if he chooses to become one with the state: “Of course, the state has the right to chase him [the poet] away – from its point of view – and if he is really an artist, it is in his nature not to want to be admitted, because if he is admitted, it can only mean he is doing something which is understood, approved, and therefore, old hat – worthless.”

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India's New Wave of ‘Approved’ Art

India’s ongoing tryst with hypernationalism under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has managed to achieve just this – the BJP’s is an era of ‘approved’ art.

In 2018, the BJP said on Twitter about Mangesh Hadawale’s Chalo Jeete Hain, “Chalo Jeete Hain’ is a short film that compels you to think who do you live for? It presents an inspiring story of young Naru, destined to serve the nation. Guess who." The movie is said to be based on the early years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Aditya Dhar’s Uri: The Surgical Strike chronicled the Indian military’s much-celebrated operation against terrorist launchpads across the LoC in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The then-Union Finance Minister, Piyush Goyal, heaped praises on the film in the Lok Sabha. “Recently watched Uri – such fun, such passion it exudes,” he said to an audience of elated parliamentarians thumping their desks in unison.

In the latest offering, Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files, a depiction of the violent Kashmiri Pandit exodus from the Valley, has taken the country by storm – public endorsements for the film come not just from ministers, but from the Prime Minister himself.

It’s a different matter that Lt Gen (retired) DS Hooda, who was the chief of the Northern Command of the Army in September 2016 during the Uri surgical strike, had remarked that the strikes were politicised and overhyped in India. As for The Kashmir Files, the movie quickly became an excuse for chanting Goli maaro’ (shoot them) in packed theatres, a vile slogan against Muslims popularised during the 2020 Delhi riots.

On the contrary, Mohalla Assi, which showed Varanasi’s religious tourism in a bad light, was delayed for three years before it made it to the screens. After all, Varanasi is where PM Modi won his Lok Sabha election from. A few BJP politicians called for a ban on the film ‘Kedarnath’ and accused it of promoting ‘love jihad’.

India's Commercial Cinema Has Dangerous Parallels with Nazi German Cinema

The subversion of art under the state and its metamorphosis into propaganda is a skill as old as time. But it’s the Germans who were its undisputed champions. Viet Harlan’s Jud Süss, one of the most famous Nazi propaganda films and which is restricted today, tells the story of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, a renowned historical figure who is shown in the movie as a scheming, conniving Jew. Jud Süss was seen by millions of Germans when it was released and is one of the most anti-Semitic films ever made. It was often screened for SS soldiers and concentration camp guards to hammer the idea of the ‘Final Solution’ home.

The poster of Viet Harlan’s Jud Süss.

The Nazis were also adept in using propaganda art posters. A poster from those years shows a young boy with Aryan features looking up to an imposing figure of Adolf Hitler. The title said, “Youth serve the future – all ten-year-olds should go to the Hitler Youth”, thus calling upon young boys to join the youth organisation and serve the leader.

Another poster in a children’s book, Der Giftpilz (The Poisonous Mushroom), shows a boy pointing towards a nose drawn on a chalkboard. It is captioned, “The Jewish nose has a crooked tip. It looks like a six.”

In present-day India, a recent cartoon showed a few Muslim men being hung from a single rope. The caricature came after the Ahmedabad court’s verdict in the 2008 Ahmedabad blasts case.

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In a Capitalist World, Whose Story Is It, Anyway?

What becomes of a populace when its art and artists start kowtowing to the state, especially in a country like India? The greatest danger of commercial films like The Kashmir Files is that for millions who until now knew little about the Kashmiri Pandit exodus, the film, with all its distortions, becomes their first introduction to the ‘absolute’ truth. And in the absence of dissent and counterview, it's this singular truth that will prevail for years.

In a way then, India’s biggest strength – its rich diversity – is also its deepest fault line. In a country with a million histories, who gets to tell a story? Every community has borne historical trauma in some form or the other. While Kashmiri Pandits can find solace in the fact that their story is finally being told through The Kashmir Files under a favourable regime, can an artist today speak for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots, the 2020 Delhi riots, the enduring pain of the numerous families in Kashmir who lost their kin to violence and unrest, or the victims of decades of conflict in the Northeast?

In an already divided state like ours, the job of an artist and her critics, then, is to question not the victims’ trauma, but the intent of those who are telling their tale and of those who are ‘allowing’ it to be told.

Mumbai's Mill Culture that Unified the Working Class

Mumbai’s history presents an interesting example. Until the 1960s, Mumbai’s textile mills were an important economic and social force with a strong union culture that transcended religious and cultural divides. It is what gave erstwhile ‘Bombay’ its rich and vibrant working-class unity. When the mills started declining and thousands of workers were rendered jobless, these working-class bonds withered, giving way to communal tensions. It is in this climate that political cartoons and posters attacking ‘outsiders’ and ‘non-Maharashtrians’ flourished, and which spoke of the ‘Marathi manush’ (the Marathi citizen) and his struggle.

The communal riots of Bhiwandi in 1984 were only a precursor to the 1992-93 riots in Mumbai. But while the struggle of the ‘Marathi Manush’ received public attention and sympathy, the city’s Muslim communities – who were gradually ghettoised and sidelined – never got to tell their story.

The Fate of Art Under Capitalism

A critique of art under capitalism becomes important here. Can budding and mid-level artists who make meagre incomes afford to sacrifice livelihood at the altar of idealism, that too in a regime that’s bent on crushing dissent and dissenters?

If the idea is to sell and make a profit, the question of ‘who will buy?’ cannot be ignored. On the silver screen, movies about the Indian army and biopics of national figures have broken all records, in line with the prevailing public and political mood.

If the trauma of Kashmiri Pandits, the bravado of surgical strikes, and the childhood of Naru can be turned into Rs 100-crore profitable commodities, what’s stopping producers from selling these stories to the masses under a patron state? What’s stopping young and budding screenwriters from imitating such plotlines for their one shot to fame? And what’s stopping the state from using art as propaganda? It’s a win-win, after all.

There is a reason why ‘commercial cinema’ is called so. Several tweets surfaced on social media post the release of The Kashmir Files that reveal Vivek Agnihotri’s once-sympathetic views towards Muslims. The film's lead actor, Anupam Kher, too, had a more balanced outlook in 2010 on the Kashmiri Pandit exodus in contrast to his film’s aggressive stance today: “My heart bleeds for Kashmir. Politics and terrorism has turned heaven into a hell for its people. Both... Hindus and Muslims” (sic), he had said on Twitter.

Clearly, far from intent or ideology, it’s opportunity and consumerism that are bound to drive most commercial artists today.

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'What Sells' Shouldn't Be the Question, But it Is

While constitutionally, the onus lies on the state to allow dissent and free expression, perhaps established artists who are well past financial precarity should also be expected – in an ideal world – to defend their craft against distortion and propaganda and support young and mid-level artists in retaining their individual voice. But ours is not an ideal world, and it’s simple supply-and-demand that rules the box office, like any other industry.

American author Ursula Le Guin had once said, “Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words … the name of our beautiful reward is not profit, it is freedom.”

When ‘what sells’ becomes an artist’s only question, art ceases to be art. And though many can be blamed for its death, it's society that is left carrying the weight of it.

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