The Kashmir Files: This Cathartic Film Is Not Without Its Prejudices

The depiction of violence and suffering is overwhelming and can often prompt the audience to take sides.

10 min read
Hindi Female

Before I say anything about The Kashmir Files, it is essential to put a disclaimer that while this film does talk about some very pertinent facts, for me it is not Vivek Agnihotri, the person.

As a social scientist and a vocal feminist, I am aware of Agnihotri’s sexist and unscientific views. He may have become smarter with time, but the internet is an unforgiving logbook. It is also important to acknowledge that making a film like this when you have a right-wing government at the centre is convenient. But the question that arises is that if it is so convenient, why has nobody made a film that depicts the conflict-induced migration of Kashmiri Pandits? While some people on Twitter have said that it uses real-life trauma to sell a product and a propaganda vehicle, many Kashmiri Pandits found it cathartic because it was for the first time that we could see our food (nadru, dumolu, maunj haakh), our culture, our crewel curtains, our saints such as Gopinath bab, on the big screen.


Why Krishna Pandit's Ignorance Is Unbelievable

One can say that the film is not a cinematic masterpiece. However, the extremely emotional 2 hours and 50 minutes took me back to traumatic stories of the past that I have grown up hearing. And that is why the ignorance of the protagonist, Krishna Pandit, played by Darshan Kumar, was so unbelievable. I am 31 years old, and my mother was pregnant with me during migration, which is how old Krishna is in the film. So, showing his ignorance about his reality is very unrealistic, to say the least. To depict one of us getting swayed by the contemporary ‘narrative’, which seems to be the favourite word of the dialogue writer, feels unjust.

Many real-life stories have been woven together in a single narrative to fit them into a three-hour story. The problem, however, is that while an insider (a Kashmiri Pandit in this case) may know exactly what is being shown, an outsider may not understand how the pogrom against Kashmiri Pandits began. The killings of Sarwanand Koul Premi and his younger son, Virendra Koul, Sarla Bhatt and Nadimarg massacre where 24 Kashmiri Pandits were brutally killed, deserved a nuanced narration. An example is the depiction of Sarwanand Koul Premi’s death.

In 2015, I went to Jammu to collect data for my thesis, wherein I was documenting the experiences of Kashmiri Pandit women with conflict. I was in touch with Mrs Koul, daughter-in-law of Sarwanand Koul Premi, who narrated the incident. The excerpts from that interview still haunt me:

“The militants came to our house at around 9:30 in the night. First, they searched our house. They said that you are related to Jagmohan. You send wireless messages to him. My father-in-law was the principal, Pt. Sarwanand Kaul Premi. They said, why do you apply tyok (tilak) and wear a naryivan (mauli). They had taken their yonyi (janaeu) out. On 1 May, their dead bodies were found hanging on a tree with their limbs broken, hairs uprooted, and portions of their skin slit open and burnt. I was later told that they also had hung letters naming the party that had done it, and there were people from our village who were the co-conspirators. My daughter was a few months old. My father-in-law was certain that nobody would do anything to his family because he taught all the Muslim boys who had picked up guns. We had Quran Sharif and Bhagavad Gita both in our house. He used to read both. When they came to get us, we told them that we have a Quran sharif in our house, please spare us, but they did not listen to us.”

Agnihotri's Penchant For Depicting Violence 

The depiction of violence and suffering is overwhelming and can often prompt the audience to take sides by witnessing appalling atrocities, but then subtlety is not what Agnihotri is going for, neither on his social media nor in his genre of cinema and politics.

The film has been made by a non-Kashmiri Pandit who did not witness this conflict personally, the effect of which is made conspicuous by the lack of nuances. For example, at the very beginning, you see Pushkar Nath wearing a full-face of make-up dressed as Shiva riding his scooter. It is essential to note that Kashmiri Pandits did not have the luxury to dress up the way they wanted to.

There were incidents where Pandit men were burnt on their foreheads and their wrists because they wore their religious identifiers such as tyok on their foreheads and naeryivan on their wrists. So, for Pushkar Nath to wear a painted face, while riding his Bajaj, right in the middle of sloganeering, is unrealistic.

In fact, in the film, Kashmiri women were seen wearing their dejhors (an ornament worn by Kashmiri Hindu married women) and bindi, which wasn’t the case back then. All the Kashmiri Pandit women who lived in Kashmir during peak militancy have invariably talked about how they hid their dejhors, stopped wearing bindis and covered their heads to pass off as Kashmiri Muslim women.


'Good' Kashmiri Women' Versus 'Bad' JNU Women

The film falls prey to the tropes of female representation in cinema, specifically in Bollywood films. The women in these films are clustered into a finite number of gendered, patriarchal tropes.

The belief of Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist, of women in cinema being the bearer of meaning and not the maker of meaning can be seen in the way women in the film are placed. There are four key female characters in the film; Radhika Menon, played by Pallavi Joshi; Sharda Pandit, played by Bhasha Sumbly; Laxmi Dutt, played by Mrinal Kulkarni and a university student played by Vrinda Kher.

Unfortunately, all these characters fall prey to the trope of either a good or a bad woman. The character of Radhika Menon is developed in such a way that it invokes instant hatred for her. The character, broadly based on the author Arundhati Roy, can be conceptualised as overlapping traits of nationalism and hegemonic masculinity co-constructed through their overlapping ‘othering’ processes. And if Radhika Menon is a bad woman, there has to be a chastised good woman with no agency of her own, which is embodied in the character of Sharda Pandit.

In the film, Sharda is seen doing gendered roles, either serving tea, cooking, or caring for children, and when not attending to her reproductive role, she can be seen as a victim.

As for Laxmi Dutt’s character, her role has no impact on the storyline, and she is often seen standing in the background with no lines and an empathetic face.


How Agnihotri's Tropes Silence Women's Voices

The issue with these tropes in the film is that it takes away from the struggles of Kashmiri Pandit women and further silences their voices. There were gendered nuances that needed to be presented delicately, such as terrorists saying they wanted to do nikah with Kashmiri Pandit women. This concept of nikah is painted with a contemporary understanding of love jihad which wasn’t the case in the early 1990s; the terrorist didn’t want a marriage contract with Pandit women which was socially sanctioned but wanted to sexually assault their bodies to dishonour their family and community.

Whether it was the gendered sloganeering such as “aesyi banaavaev Paekistan, Battav rostuyi Battinyan saan” (we will make Pakistan, with Kashmiri Pandit women sans Kashmiri Pandit men), or incidents like the rape of the staff nurse at Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, Ms Sarla Bhatt (the name of the rape victim has been public since the 1990s), women’s bodies had essentially become the sites of violence.

The other detail that the film misses is how Kashmiri Pandit women recall these incidents. One of my mother’s colleagues, Ms Sidha, in her interview for my research, recalled an incident:

“We heard people screaming and shouting slogans outside our house. My maasi (aunt) was at our house with my four sisters and me. Right outside our house, a large mob shouted slogans - Pakistan zindabad, hum kya chahte azaadi. We were petrified. Our aunt locked us in a storeroom and left a naked live electrical wire of the heater and asked one of us to hold the wire and others to hold on to her and electrocute ourselves to death, in case the mob was to breach into our house. We were kept in that storeroom the entire night, and we were prepared to electrocute ourselves. Any knock would lead us to contemplate if we should touch the wire, and that is how we spent the entire night. I can never get this incident out of my head.”

Agnihotri's Anti-JNU Psyche at Full Play 

Meanwhile, the villainisation of liberal arts campuses arises out of Agnihotri’s prejudice. I say that because I went to a similar institution myself. I studied at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, wrote my dissertation on the experiences of Kashmiri Pandit women with conflict, and, just like Krishna Pandit, contested the student union presidential elections.

For the uninitiated, a student union has very limited powers in the university campus. So, to depict college elections being fought on the Kashmir issue is far-fetched. When I contested for elections at TISS, the problems that different candidates talked about were scholarships for students from SC, ST, OBC backgrounds, inter-hostel mobility to that girls and boys could mingle freely, increase in the frequency of non-vegetarian food being served in the dining hall, etc.

So, Agnihotri’s depiction can also reiterate the hate amongst viewers towards college students (following JNU sedition row), the majority of whom are still figuring out their politics.

University-level politics are a microcosm of electoral politics in the country and is the starting point for 20-year-olds to understand how democratic processes work. Many great leaders on both sides of the government started their political journeys on such campuses, so giving college politics a bad name disrespects a learning legacy.

At TISS, after the release of Vishal Bhardwajs Haider, my pro-azaadi research guide (whose Facebook profile picture was an imaginary passport of Kashmir) organised a talk, ‘Deliberating Kashmir: Beyond AFSPA and Chutzpa’. The event was shut down by our director at the time, Dr S Parasuraman, who said that the group wasn’t given official permission to organise the event. But the group went ahead and organised it anyway. He was called a fascist and a Sanghi. I witnessed that. So, for a film to claim that university campuses are a breeding ground for pro-azaadi politics and sleeper cells is doing injustice to these institutes of eminence and their alumni like myself.

As far as the Kashmir academia being one-sided is concerned, it is accurate. Any academician who attempts to write about Kashmiri Pandits has to do so in such a way that the person is neither tagged as a right-wing Sanghi nor Islamophobic.


Are Kashmiri Pandits an Excuse to Attack Muslims?

The issue with making a film based on actual events of the past is that the events are often seen in the light of what is happening in the ‘now’. People calling this film a propaganda film are looking at it as if a Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) woman being attacked back in the 1990s is a justification for gendered attacks on Muslim women in the present times.

Be it Kashmiri Pandit women in the 1990s or Muslim women in this day and time, both kinds of attacks are gendered, and in both cases, women feel that they somehow have to hide their religious identifiers so as not to be attacked by the mob.

If the ones calling this film propaganda think this to be one of the key takeaways from the film, they are grossly disrespecting the intelligence of the Indian audience.

One of the other reasons for snubbing this film has been the villainisation of Muslims and Islam. While the film does stick to the Muslim villain caricature wherein the Muslim character is seen as a barbarian, the character of Farooq Ahmed Dar is based on terrorists Bitta Karate and Yasin Malik. Both Bitta and Malik have confessed to killing at least 20 Kashmiri Pandits and four unarmed Indian Air Force men in the 1990s respectively, and have now become separatist ‘leaders’. This is not a figment of imagination.

The way Islamophobic attacks on innocent Muslims, Sikhs, and other brown people in the post 9/11 world is a reality, Islamic radicalisation is also real. To invalidate the experiences of its victims in fear of propagating hate towards the Muslim community at large is similar to invalidating the experiences of other victims of hate crimes.


 But Some Questions Aren't for Pandits to Answer

When a Kashmiri Pandit migrant talks about Kashmir, the onus of talking about Kashmiri Muslims and their experiences is not on them. If I am talking about the experiences of my community, I am not automatically invalidating the other community’s experiences of being in a conflict zone after we left. Questions like, ‘Why are their children picking up guns in Kashmir?’, ‘Why are they pelting stones at the Indian army?’, ‘Why is there no internet in Kashmir?’, and so on, are not for Kashmiri Pandits to answer.

During the mid/late 80s, a miniseries, Tamas (darkness), aired on television, which realistically depicted the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. While one of my research participants said that witnessing the conflict deterred her from conceiving the second time, like Deepa Sahi’s character Karmo in the series, another participant, 62-year-old Mrs Bhan, said:

“We lived in Badshah Nagar in Kashmir. We were the only family in our locality that had a telephone in our home. I would call my Muslim neighbours every time there would be a call for them. Around that time, when militancy was at its peak, I went to the same Muslim neighbours and asked them if we could stay with them. They said, ‘No, please don’t stay here, there is another Pandit house, stay with them.’ My husband said, ‘Do we now have to go from one house to another to ask for help, what's the point of living like that?’. We were in exactly the same situation as they had shown in Tamas.”

Not the Best Film, But One of the Few Made

The sudden and smooth transition of Krishna from a dafli-carrying azaadi activist to becoming the son of the soil makes you wonder why the onus of telling about this part of Kashmir story is on a Kashmiri Pandit who has already lived and survived that trauma. Why is the onus of defending a film that shows their plight truthfully on Kashmiri Pandits?

Imagine victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre having to justify their victimhood. The worst part of this conundrum is not just what happened in the past, but the silence that one gets from the media, academia and Twitter intellectuals even when Kashmiri Pandits are murdered in broad daylight in this day and time. The recent one was the killing of the pharmacist Makhan Lal Bindroo in 2021.

Why do I have to narrate my story with so many responsibilities? Is my trauma not ‘good’ enough that it needs so many disclaimers and justifications? Or, is there a template of perfect victimhood where I don’t fit properly?

You may disagree with Agnihotri's politics. You may not even like his craft. But if there has ever been a need to separate the art from the artist, it should be done for this film. It is important to watch The Kashmir Files, only because unlike the many Bhagat Singh films, this is one of the very few iterations of Kashmiri Pandits’ experiences so far. But hopefully, it won’t be the last.

(Sumati is an incoming PhD student at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Studies. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  The Kashmir Files 

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