It has been 30 years since 4 lakh Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave their centuries old place of habitat, in the wake of armed Islamic insurgency, to live a miserable life in torn tents and ramshackle rooms, away from their homes in the pristine beautiful valley of Kashmir. The tragedy of the victims of the biggest migration in India since independence got further aggravated when no mainstream political party and no human rights or social organization took any notice of their sufferings. Even Bollywood, which has made at least 5 films with the backdrop of 2002 Gujarat Riots, that lasted only for 3 days, including ‘Kai Po Che’, ‘Firaaq’, ‘Parzania’, ‘Raees’ and ‘Chand Bujh Gaya’, just ignored them.
After 30 years someone in the Indian film industry declared that he would make a film based on the genocide of Kashmiri Pandits. It so happens that the filmmaker, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, himself is a sufferer of the forced migration and his mother Shanti Devi, to whom the film is dedicated and after whom the lead character in the film is named, died in exile in Mumbai in 2007. Rahul Pandita, the co author of the film, is also a sufferer as he had to leave the valley as a 14 year old and live in shabby shanties in Jammu along with his sister and parents. His much acclaimed book ‘Our Moon has Blood Clots’ is a faithful narrative incorporating the exile and the sufferings of Kashmiri Pandits.
All these factors put together gave hope to the Kashmiri Pandit community that their story will finally be told. The repeated statements by Vidhu Vinod Chopra during press interviews and on the social media further strengthened the expectation that he would be truthful in his film. In one of the interviews he said “It’s a tribute to the Pandit community, to us, to our mothers. Nobody listened to us for 30 years. Our story was hidden for the past 30 years. This is not a movie but a movement and the movement is that entire India should see our story now.”
‘Shikara’, sadly betrays all these expectations and hopes of Kashmiri Pandit community living in forced exile in their own country. It is not a film about their plight. Instead, it is a regular Bollywood potboiler in which the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits only serves as a backdrop. Almost the only scenes that relate to the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in the film are the ones that have already been highlighted in the two trailers of the film. Nothing more.
‘Shikara’ is essentially a love story between Shanti, a nurse, and Shiv Kumar Dhar, a teacher, told in the backdrop of armed insurgency in Kashmir and the resultant forced exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. The film begins with the two of them travelling to Agra, ostensibly at the invitation of the President of United States of America, to whom Shiv Kumar Dhar has been regularly writing letters. Sitting in the Presidential Suite of a five star hotel in Agra, the film goes into a flashback, which begins by showcasing the beautiful life in the pristine Kashmir Valley.
Soon, the situation changes and in the election related violence, father of Latif, Shiv Kumar’s childhood friend, is killed by police. Latif joins militancy to avenge his father’s killing. The entire valley becomes a hotbed of militancy and Kashmiri Pandits are forced to flee the valley. Life in the Refugee camps in Muthi in Jammu too is not easy. Shiv Kumar begins teaching students living in the refugee camps. In the last scene of the film Shiv Kumar Dhar returns to Kashmir with the ashes of his wife and decides to teach Muslim children in his ancestral village.
The argument forwarded in the film to shift the entire blame of terrorism in the Valley on the USA is fake. The laboured attempt made to do a balancing act does not do credit to anyone involved in making of the film. In his letters written by Shiv Kumar Dhar to successive Presidents of the USA, he blames USA for all the troubles in Kashmir. The weapons supplied by USA in Afghanistan for their war against the USSR, have been used to kill innocents in Kashmir, he writes. Young Kashmiri Pandit boys in the camp are shown as shouting ‘Mandir wahin banaayainge’ slogans. The film also surmises that the basic reason for turmoil in Kashmir was the denial of political space to the opposition, which is too simplistic and untrue. The film ends on a note that appears altruistic, hence unrealistic. Although it goes to the credit of the film that it shuns hatred even in the wake of extreme provocation, its failure at not calling a spade a spade is a dishonest attempt at practicing sham secularism.
There are a few moving sequences in the film. One of these is a young calf being unloaded and left behind at Patni Top by a family, which has carried it with them up to that point, when they are told that there will not be enough space in Jammu for their own family and that they will not be able to take care of the calf. Another scene that touches one’s heart is the wailing of an old man (played by veteran Kashmiri actor Bansi Mattoo, who passed away recently) imploring passersby to take him back to his home in Kashmir. The contrast between the wedding festivities in Kashmir, with soothing live Kashmiri music, and the one in Jammu, with Punjabi songs playing on loudspeakers, is stark and real. A few incidents like distribution of tomatoes in a migrant camp in Jammu and an apple tree in the garden of protagonist’s house in Srinagar have been taken from Rahul Pandita’s book. But these fail to make any impact because of being brutally massacred at the editing table. If only the director would have cut a few of the 7 songs in the film, taking up 24 minutes of screen time, such sequences could have been taken to logical conclusion as narrated in the book.
The lead actors Sadia in the role of Shanti and Aadil Khan as Shiv Kumar Dhar have done justice to their respective characters as a beautiful couple, head over heels in love with each other. Other actors, including many from Jammu and Kashmir, have also given a good account of themselves. However, the problem with the film is that not a single character has been allowed to grow organically. For instance, we never know why the lead couple is childless even after 30 years of marriage? Character development, the backbone of any good script, is conspicuous by its absence in this film. All characters look like cardboard cutouts. The lead characters, even after living in miserable conditions in refugee camps for 30 long years, refuse to show any perceptible sign of aging. The only characters in the film who look quite genuine and authentic are the 4000 Kashmiri Pandit refugees, who form the crowds in the refugee camps in Jammu.
The background music has been composed by AR Rahman and Qutub-e-Kirpa, while the songs have been composed by Abhay Rustam Sopori and Sandesh Shandilya. The Chhakari song ‘Shukrana Gul Khiley’, composed by Abhay Rustam Sopori, written by Bashir Arif and sung by Munir Meer, and the strains of Santoor in the background, have a soothing feel and help in creating the right atmosphere in the film. The compositions by Sandesh Shandilya are melodious.
The lyrics by Irshad Kamil are evocative particularly the following poem:
“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?
One day, I’ll return to visit you,
Broken, a little scattered I am,
Your son still, a Pandit I am.)
The cinematography by Rangarajan Ramabadran is impeccable. He showcases Kashmir in all its beautiful hues and also highlights the dark imagery of the troubled times with dexterity and finesse. He lends a painter’s touch to his camerawork.
In conclusion it must be said that Vidhu Vinod Chopra is no David Lean and ‘Shikara’ is not a ‘Dr. Zhivago’, which too was a story of love in the times of turmoil. He is also not a Roman Polanski and this film is not ‘The Pianist’. Steven Spielberg made ‘Shindler’s List’ nearly half a century after the holocaust. We may have to wait for a few decades more for our own Spielberg to tell the tragic tale of Kashmiri Pandits in the manner in which it deserves to be told.
While concluding the Review of ‘Mission Kashmir’, the earlier film made by Vidhu Vinod Chopra in the backdrop of Kashmir, this reviewer had written “The film has all the ingredients of a successful Bollywood thriller and if the crowds in the auditorium and their response is any indication, it is going to be the first big hit of Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Hopefully, he will hit the big league after this film, another successful man who would owe his success to the turmoil in Kashmir, while the hapless people of Kashmir living in exile await the ultimate Mission Kashmir that will relieve them of their miseries”. (Daily Excelsior dated October 28, 2000). It is sad to note that Vidhu Vinod Chopra has failed them yet again.